Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Patron Saint for 2014!

I tend to ridicule the whole "word for the year" scenario. After all, who knows what the year will bring? I think I know where we will be living in May, but that's just an educated guess. And that's assuming that nothing catastrophic happens between now and then.

Some people might get pleasure from looking back over the year and coming up with a word to sum it all up. I've got 2 words for this year:

Never Again.

So no, I won't assume that this year will be "Peace," because God's little joke would be to saddle me with an apartment upstairs full of partying college students. No jinxes for me, thank you. But having a saint is different.

It's different because it's a relationship with a person instead of a magic spell. I mean sure, I still try to guess what the year has in store based on the name, because that's human nature, but the point isn't that he's the patron saint of whatever. It's that centuries ago lived a man with all the flaws and joys of being human, and this year we get to become friends. 

I used Jennifer of Conversion Diary's Saint Generator to select my new acquaintance, and I was glad it was someone I've never heard of: Joseph Calasanz. He lived from September 11, 1557 – August 25, 1648 in Spain, and he founded an order devoted to teaching poor and homeless young boys. In fact, he was the organizer of the first free public school in Europe. Moreover, he was remarkably progressive in his views - believing in gentle discipline, training in vernacular languages, vocational training, and a devotion to math and science. He was also a friend of Galileo's! 

He wasn't perfect though, and his greatest flaw sounds awfully familiar. One of the teachers in the order, named Cherubini, had a long and documented history of sexual abuse of the children in his care. When confronted by Calasanz, Cherubini reminded him of the great power Cherubini held due to his family name and prestige, and threatened to dissolve the Order if his crimes were made public. So instead of publicly denouncing Cherubini, Calasanz simply moved him to another position to get him out of the way. Funny how some things never change. 

It was a cruel irony then that Cherubini was so favored that he was promoted by popular demand to Calasanz's place. Upon his appointment, Calasanz finally revealed his secret, but it made no difference in Cherubini's position. Instead, these facts, together with opposition from the Jesuits and Calasanz's connections to Galileo, contributed to the demise of the Order, and it was disbanded by Pope Innocent X. In spite of all, he remained faithful and was cannonized by Pope Alexander VII, who also cleared the name of the Order and its schools. He is the patron saint of students and schools, especially Christian schools. 

Cool story huh? I look forward to learning more about him as the year progresses. And, I hope that it will inspire me to serve the poor wherever we end up, and to be bold against injustice when needed. 

Saint Joseph Calasanz, pray for us!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Duck Dynasty Eats Jim Crow

OK, so I can't be the only one who noticed this quote from the infamous Phil interview:

"I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field ... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' — not a word! Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."
So conservative Christians, please, for the love of all that is good and holy, stop saying that Phil is just defending the Bible! No matter what you think about homosexuality and sin, what Phil said in that quote is textbook historical revisionism. It's pure racism ala Gone with the Wind, My Old Kentucky Home, "where the darkies are gay" (heh). I grew up with this shit, and yes it is shit. Think about what he's saying for a second: 
1. "I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash." Yes, there were a lot of poor whites in the South during Jim Crow. My grandma used to pick up coal on the Atlanta railroad tracks for heat, most of us have moon-shine or lint-head ancestors, etc. But you know what? If Phil wanted to go to the movies, he could sit in the regular seats. He could sit up front on the bus; he could eat at a lunch counter without getting arrested; he could go to a public library and check out a book; he could attend white schools; he could use public restrooms and water fountains. Sorry, that whole "we may have been white but we were poor too" is bull, and it doesn't in any way recognize the fact that black Americans in the South were barely treated as citizens. 

2. "They're singing and happy... they were happy, no one was singing the blues." Yes, blacks were so happy before them liberal damn Yankees stirred them up. Here's a news flash: people can have momentary happiness in spite of oppression, because somehow you've got to deal. That's called the endurance of the human spirit. Smiling/ singing does not equal "I have no problems." People got to cope. And speaking of singing, did you ever wonder why most of those spirituals talk about Moses and Pharoah? Doggonit, there must be some symbolic significance there. 

3. "They were godly." OK boys and girls, let's play a word association game. I say shiftless, you say _______. Have you ever heard of a white person described with that adjective? No, because at every point in American history white propaganda has taught that blacks are immoral savages who need to be controlled for their own good. Sure, you had a handful of Mammies and Uncles - the "good blacks" that we still have around today in different costumes. But those blacks were only good because they knew their place.

In the white person's mind, black males were Coons who dreamed of raping white women, and black females were Jezebel gals who wanted to ensnare upstanding Christian gentlemen. In The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and every other Confederate apologia, the KKK was necessary in order to rescue white women from the clutches from brutal blacks. That's why we "needed" Jim Crow, because those black people just couldn't handle their freedom. It went to their heads like liquor, and so the paternalistic, long-suffering whites had to take them in hand for their own good. So you tell me, what exactly has changed? 

Second of all, it wouldn't matter if every single black person during Jim Crow was a perfect saint and every single contemporary black person were a swinger, not when human rights are concerned. It does not follow that "they were more moral then, ergo we should have kept them in their downtrodden place." So whatever you think of an ethnic group's morals (because they aren't individuals, just a monolith, right?) it doesn't matter. You don't get to oppress people because it's somehow better for their eternal souls. Again, this is straight from slavery days, when Massa told his slaves how much better off they were in America going to church. Y'all, our morals really should not be on the level of a slaverholder's. Can't we do better than that? (This is ignoring the fact that Phil has absolutely no knowledge of another person's soul, let alone those of entire ethnic group. What kind of arrogance does it take to say something like that?) 

What happened when a black teen looked at a white woman
4. "I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' — not a word!" How about that - a black person during Jim Crow didn't complain to a white person about their lack of civil rights. That's so odd, because if I were part of a subjugated race I would make sure to complain to the elevated race at every opportunity. Because "grumbling" never ended badly for anybody in the era of Jim Crow and the KKK. And again with the arrogance: Phil never heard a black person complain to him, so there must not have been a problem. 

5. "Pre-entitlement": Here's what I've learned from growing up in the South. There are certain groups of people who can be entitled and certain groups who can't. If you're an elderly (white) person, you can expect Medicare without being considered entitled. If you're a middle class kid with educated parents, you can expect a college education without being entitled. But you know who's really entitled are those damn black people with their expectations of voting rights, equal wages for equal work, equal housing rights, desegregation of schools and public facilities, being allowed to matriculate at a state university, being able to marry someone of a different ethnic group. It's - what's that word? - uppity.

6. "Pre-welfare": yes, because what this country really needs to do is pull out every social safety net when there simply aren't enough jobs for the demand. That's statistical reality, folks, and that's assuming that everyone is healthy enough in body and mind to even hold down a full time job. You want to know how bad this economy is? It's so bad that when DC opened a Wal-mart the acceptance rate for applications was more stringent than the acceptance rate to Harvard. That's how desperate people are for work, any work. I'm sincerely happy for Phil and his family that they were able to escape grinding poverty. I wouldn't wish a hard life on anyone, no matter how racist they are. But don't turn around and give a good kick to the people who haven't had the same combination of skills/ luck/ support/ mental stability. 

And yet, even in this shit-hole of an economy, I would rather be a black person now than in any other time in American history, no competition. If you're white, take a minute and ask yourself that question: would you willingly prefer to be black now or in the 1950s South? 
In all the buzz about his talk about homosexuality, somehow the racist remarks got lost in the shuffle. Which is too bad, because it spotlights the dark underbelly of the Southern evangelical churches: that many white people, "fine upstanding Christians," in the South secretly think that maybe black people were better off, "happier" and more "godly," when they were living in shacks, working in white women's kitchens, and drinking at a fountain labeled colored. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

7 Quick Takes: Favorite Christmas Memories

Gosh that was really heavy. Let's do something light today.

The Santa in a Car

In my hometown, there was an elderly gentleman who, for 50 years, set up a vintage red convertible with a mechanical waving Santa saying "Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas!" with music. Generations of children in that town remember driving by it at night as one of our favorite Christmas traditions. Looking back as an adult, it's wonderful to think of that man, year after year, putting up a beautiful and happy display, knowing that children in the area were delighted by it and traveled from neighboring counties to see it. That's the Christmas spirit in action.

Stockings in the Morning, Wrapped Presents in the Afternoon

My mom's family had an odd tradition of doing stockings in the morning and waiting until late afternoon, after Christmas dinner, to unwrap gifts from family. As a child, this was perfect because Christmas wasn't over by noon. It also gave a more magical feel to the Santa myth because it wasn't meshed in with family gifts. 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

I like this even better than A Charlie Brown Christmas. Like millions of children I always got frustrated by the commercial break right when the Grinch was peering over the mountain in his sledge. Parents, don't curse your children with the "real life" monstrosity; stick with the traditional, complete with the darling cartoon dog and the delightful "you're a foul one, Mr. Grinch."

The Christmas Program at church 

My parents were super congregants - they participated in everything, and if the church doors were open we were there. From the time I was 3 to about 12 my mom was in charge of the children's programming on Sunday nights (Protestants typically go to two services on Sundays). This meant she was also in charge of the Christmas program/ pageant every year. Those of you who escaped this rite of passage need to read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which is right on point. Our church was much smaller than that congregation, so we couldn't have a "angel choir" - all the participants were required to sing regardless of (lack of) ability. Since we were hard-core, it was required that we memorize all the verses to multiple carols, which meant rehearsals started in November. Oh the angst. We had a broken piano we practiced on which had a bad habit of crashing its top on people's hands; we had homemade costumes complete with itchy halos stuck in your hair with pins; we had misbehaving kids. I was not among them - since my mom was in charge, she would have roasted me on a spit if I'd been a problem. There was one infamous year in which all the boys decided they had Tourettes or something and really put on a performance, complete with lying down on the stage and shredding their garments. We always sang Away in a Manger, which, as the author of "Christmas Pageant" puts it, always sounds like a bunch of mice at the beginning because it's been pitched too high. And we liked to do "Go Tell it on the Mountain" because it has pizazz, and because we liked to drag out the end of the verses ("was born on Christmas mo---orn!"). 

Community Christmas Music Programs

My hometown was great about having Christmas parades, and the symphony orchestra always put on a great show. As a kid one of the highlights was sitting in the community center listening to the same soloist male who always did O Holy Night and encouraged harmony amongst the audience. 

Getting the Tree

And decorating etc, but the best part was going to the same place in the city every year, knowing the men who prepped it for us, having the same arguments about height. Children love rituals so much more than novelty - except for - 

That One Year it Snowed

My generation in the South remembers the '93 snowstorm as the one year we got our annual Christmas wish for snow. It was the first time I'd seen snow and the only Christmas I've made a snow-man. We were driving to my grandparents' as it stormed; my parents were worrying about adult trifles like tire chains, but I recognized this for the God-sent magic it was. Southern children spend every winter thinking "maybe this will be the year!" and that time it really was.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Culture of Fear: TULIP

Growing up, I thought that we Calvinists were a persecuted minority among American Christians. The mythology went like this: all Protestants (except Methodists) were originally Calvinist. Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and the like, all believed in predestination, total depravity, and all the rest. However, the American churches in particular had been lead astray by false human doctrines called Armenianism, and now only a minority were faithful to the Word of God. (Catholics and early Christianity didn't really figure into the story; nobody ever talked about pre-Reformation Christianity except how corrupt the Popes were). We were part of that minority: those who were both conservative and Reformed, who hadn't given in to liberalism or Armenianism. If you've been part of a fearful group, you know the drill, except maybe you spoke in tongues amongst a bunch of Baptists or were the only group that knew the TRUTH about Jesus coming back for your congregation. It didn't help that a prominent Southern Baptist church in our town had our denomination listed as a cult. It also didn't help that I grew up in an area crawling with Baptists and Methodists and a bit slim on conservative Presbyterians.

That mythology has been burst. In a couple of decades, Calvinism has become cool again, as evidenced by the gradual take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention and the popularity of dominionist groups. Young people are especially attracted to this theology, perhaps because they've been disenchanted from the altar-call style evangelism of their youth. The image of a Calvinist is no longer Mark Twain's frozen chosen choir boy but a bald-headed hipster seminarian smoking a pipe with his ale. As one who was Calvinist before Calvinism was cool, I'm terrified by this turn of events.

Part of my worry is that young people are diving in head-first without thinking through the repercussions for their children. That may sound strong, but I have been severely wounded by Calvinist theology, and those wounds haven't healed yet. So nothing I say is meant to be against a particular Calvinist, unless he or she is obviously being manipulative or controlling of others. However, I'm not going to mince words when it comes to the theology, if only because many, many people have been wounded by it, some of them losing faith altogether. There are also many misconceptions about the theology, and it's good to know what people actually think outside of the stereotypes.

Here's what I grew up believing:

God is completely holy, pure, incorruptible. He is also unchanging - "immortal, invisible, God only wise." This means that God never changes His mind, or His "will," and that because He is God, His will is both unshakable and perfect.

Furthermore, because God is holy, He cannot look upon sin. This means that He cannot love a sinner whose sin is still visible to Him. Moreover, His perfect justice demands that all sins be punished. To be clear, this punishment is not meant to be a deterent for future sins, or a refining fire for penatants. This punishment is needed because God's holiness demands punishment for sins, full stop. Think of it as a mathematical equation, and in order to solve for X, sins must be punished by suffering.

Now, this holy God made everything, including Satan and mankind. In the beginning, Adam and Eve had free will, meaning that they could chose whether or not to obey God. They chose to disobey God. This act of rebellion spawned "The Fall," and this fall was total and complete. Because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, every human being is born without free will. In other words, no one can chose to worship or serve God, and no one desires to. Not only that, but we are spiritually dead and completely incapable of doing any good. The only reason we haven't all killed each other is because of "common grace," which means that God allots a certain amount of grace to most humans in order for human civilization to continue. I was taught that people like Hitler were not given common grace in order to show us what we are really like, but I don't know that all Calvinists think that. Most Calvinists would compare the unregenerate human heart to Lazarus' dead body, simply incapable of waking himself up or walking without Jesus' miraculous healing. Also, most Calvinists would never say that God pre-ordained evil, so there's a very fine line that one must walk. This is what is known as "total depravity," the T in TULIP.

In response to the Fall, God's holy nature requires punishment of sins (see number 2 above). However, God is also love, and He loved His elect so much that He sacrificed His Son in their place. This is similar to garden-variety evangelicalism but with a distinction. An Armenian would agree that God's holy nature requires punishment of sins; however, they would argue that Christ's death on the Cross was meant for all humanity. The onus is then on individual humans to accept the gift of Christ's death and believe that their sins are therefore forgiven. Calvinism is different: in this paradigm, Christ only died for those already predestined by God "before the foundation of the world." What this means is that Christ's sufferings are mathematical, an exact calculation for an exact number of people. The Calvinist would never say that Christ died for everyone, but only that He died for His elect. I was told that this way none of Christ's sufferings were "wasted" on those who would decide to reject Him (again, I don't know if all Calvinists think this, but it's certainly a common belief). This belief is called "limited atonement" and, for obvious reasons, is the most controversial Calvinist belief. There are so-called "Four Point Calvinists" who believe all the tulip except the L because of a niggling sense of compassion.

The U, for unconditional election, follows from those beliefs. Because of The Fall, man is totally depraved and has no free will. Because God is holy, all sins must be punished. Because God is love, He sacrificed His Son in place of the elect. Because man is totally depraved, i.e. has no free will, he requires direct intervention; ergo, God predestined a certain number of human souls to be saved. His election of these souls is eternal, meaning that it is outside of time altogether. Some Armenians would interpret election to mean that God foreknew - i.e. saw into the future - and knew that Sally Sue would accept Jesus Christ, and therefore Sally Sue is part of the elect. This is not how the Calvinist sees it. In Calvinism, God predestined Sally Sue before the foundation of the world for no discernible reason other than simply because He willed it. It had nothing to do with any choice or good works on her part, and it only had to do with God's (admittedly capricious) choice. This is called "unconditional election" because it is not conditional based on our will or works.

The I, for "irresistible grace," follows logically from unconditional election. If the creator of the universe wills for Sally Sue to be saved, then nothing can stop Sally from being saved. God's saving grace cannot be resisted by her or anyone else, cannot be stopped, cannot be negated by human sins. Those alarm bells ringing in your head are correct - this does sound a lot like rape. When I was a Calvinist though, I was derisive of those who called it divine rape. It goes back to the Lazarus analogy: Christ brought Lazarus back to life, and Lazarus didn't have anything to do with it. Lazarus came forth from the tomb because he had no choice, but no one thought Jesus was guilty of rape!

The P is for "perseverance of the saints," which is kind of controversial. I've heard it called "once saved always saved," but I've also heard Calvinists take great pains to distinguish it from once saved always saved. What I believed growing up is that if Sally is elect, then she will persevere in God until she dies. She may fall away for a time, but she will never be totally separated from God. This is the part where fear and legalism really come into play, because if you're not showing "signs of the elect" then you must not be saved. Jonathan Edwards was mildly obsessed with this problem and wrote a book about it called "Religious Affections." This is why so many atheists get the "No True Scotsman" fallacy thrown at them. After all, the existence of fallen Christians is really frightening if you believe in TULIP. These people thought they were saved, sincerely believed, and now they don't.

John Calvin actually took it a step further and believed that God would trick people into thinking they were chosen when they weren't, a little godly cat and mouse game. Not all Calvinists espouse this though, for obvious reasons. There is also disagreement on whether God foreordains souls for destruction or simply foreordains those whom He saves. In my opinion this is a non-sequiter because if you're not elect, you're headed for Hell, whether God assigned you a seat there or not. There are philosophical reasons to believe or not believe in "double predestination" (or as some would call it double secret predestination), but I'm not going to go into that here.

The other key element is that of "imputation." On the cross, our sins were imputed onto Jesus, and His righteousness is imputed to the elect. This is different from the Catholic idea of infused grace for many reasons. Unlike infused grace, imputed grace doesn't require an act of human will (see: unconditional election); the transaction can't be resisted by human will (see: irresistible grace); it's only offered to those whom God has chosen (see: limited atonement), and it can't be lost through human sin (see: perseverance of the saints). This grace also doesn't mean that we stop sinning or "aren't living in Mortal sin." What it does mean is that we are, in Martin Luther's phrase, a "snow-covered dung heap." We need the covering of Christ's righteousness (i.e. His perfect obedience on earth) so that God can stand to look at us, because a holy God cannot look on sin. I didn't understand this concept as a child, which is interesting because without it the whole building collapses. You want to try something disheartening, try being a Calvinist without understanding imputed grace, with a little Armenian altar-call theology and Last Times obsession stirred in for good luck.

If you're confused, the now-disbanded Caedmon's Call (the band Derek Webb used to write for) explains this quite clearly, in a more positive light than I can manage:

Now, most people would say that the above beliefs make God a monster. However, there's a catch: "who are you, O man, to question God?" You're totally depraved, remember? Your spiritual intellect is decayed, rotten to the core, and your moral compass is shot unless God supernaturally corrects it. So who are you to say that God is being capricious? You're a tiny, sinful human, and God is the pure, holy, sovereign creator. Aren't you being a wee bit presumptuous to judge God?

I'll let you sit with that.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Culture of Fear

When I started reading Catholic blogs about 4 years ago, I came across the idea of the "culture of death." I think they're onto something, because there is a definite trend towards death in America, whether it's the high abortion rate of Downs infants, glorification of violence, constant war, isolation of the sick and dying, and a general cast-off attitude towards those who are no longer "useful" due to sickness or age. So I'd like to crib the term and say that there is a culture of fear in strict American religious groups.

I say "strict" instead of fundamentalist because it's a broader category. Growing up, I was proudly "not a fundamentalist" even though I had nightmares about going to hell. I couldn't be a fundamentalist, because fundamentalists were Armenian! Likewise, one might say that the SSPX are not fundamentalist because fundamentalists are Protestants. So, in order to be as all-inclusive as possible, I'll be using the words fearful and culture of fear to describe the type of culture I came from.

This is important for those of us who are healing. There is a tendency among fearful groups to see themselves as unique, as totally different from those "cults" and crazies. This is why you have Dominionist groups who proudly smoke pipes (the men that is) and drink expensive microbeers. They need to express their "Christian liberty," to show that they are different from those legalists who abstain from alcohol and tobacco. In fact, the more insistent someone becomes on Christian liberty, the more I look around for exit signs. In my experience, this Christian liberty talk is a smokescreen.

The other way in which fearful groups express their uniqueness is through doctrinal statements. Most of us grew up thinking that cults are defined not by their behavior but by their beliefs. This may sound nutty to the general public, but it's true. My initial training on what constitutes a cult was from reading a book published in the 1960s called "What's the Difference?" I thought for sure this book was out of print - my copy was a tattered paper-back edition from my grandmama's house - but damned if it hasn't been "expanded and updated for the 21st century". This book purported to explain the difference between Real Christians and other religions and cults. The first three chapters were devoted to Catholics, because you can't make this shit up. However, the most damaging section was the grand finale, in which the book listed the warning signs of a cult. As my memory serves, the signs were devoted to particular doctrinal statements such as "Jesus is not fully divine and fully human." Anyone who took this book as Gospel (as I did, and as many Amazon reviewers did) would have not the slightest clue that a cult can believe the Nicene Creed and still be a cult. Not to mention that cults are found in every religious group in the world and that the word cult really just means small religious group, but that's another story. The danger is that in our country, the word cult typically means that a religious group is dangerous to its members - that it engages in mind-control, dictatorship by the leader(s), a lack of privacy, and various other damaging behaviors. Books like What's the Difference? obscure this fact by putting the emphasis on doctrinal purity.

Doctrinal purity is not the end all be all. If I could tell my 10 year old self one thing, that would be it. Love is more important than doctrinal purity. Safety is more important than doctrinal purity. Dignity of the human spirit is more important than doctrinal purity. Freedom of conscience is more important than doctrinal purity.

The culture of fear is a tendency within strict religious groups of any flavor or doctrinal persuasion. There is no doctrinal Creed or statement of belief that will render a group safe from this poison. Being doctrinally correct is no guarantee that you or your children are in a nurturing environment. If that's the case then, how do you know? Outsiders would suggest that "when you know, you know," but this is not helpful for those in toxic religious environments. Part of the package is believing that your group has The Truth, that your own personal feelings are less important than the objective standards of The Group, and that all personal desires are to be subjugated. So it is unlikely that you will simply trust your gut instincts and get the hell out, and it is unlikely that anyone stuck in such a group will take your advice to "trust your feelings." They've been deliberately trained not to.

Since feelings are hard to rely on for those trained against them, perhaps a good hard look at the facts would help. Does any of this sound familiar?

1. Any statements implying that "God is love" are often met with derision or are qualified. You may hear someone say "The Bible says God is 'Holy, Holy, Holy,' not 'Love, Love, Love'." (Direct quote from R.C. Sproul in his video series "Fear and Trembling.") If you mention God's love too much, people become suspect, begin to see you as a liberal or "social justice nut." You may also hear a lot of "God is love, but he is also justice," as if these qualities are at war with one another.

2. Speaking of wars, the words "We are at war with _______" are a constant presence.

3. All of your friends are in that one particular religious group. Not only do you not have any non-Christian friends or close acquaintances, but you don't have any friends outside your denomination.

4. You have been pressured to give up friends or even family members due to their doctrinal beliefs. Or, you have been pressured to shun someone in your fellowship who has transgressed. This shunning can be subtle: it's not always a mass email with a name to avoid.

5. All of your media influences are from a particular point of view. You may have become increasingly particular about your blogs, books, music, etc, to the point that reading anything outside your normal reading list induces fury. This is a bigger problem now than it was when I was growing up thanks to the internet, so even those of us not in fearful groups need to watch out for this.

6. There is a fascination with Hell. One sure-fire (pun intended) way to tell is that anyone who ventures that maybe hell isn't highly populated is promptly dismissed as a heretic. "Goodbye Rob Bell" etc.

7. Your group likes to make fun of other religious groups, sometimes in vicious ways. Your pastor may feel OK with making sexist remarks as long as it's towards liberal women (or conservative, depending on the group. I'm not giving liberals a pass here either). If hateful words are not always viewed as sinful, that's a huge warning flag.

8. Your group has a list of proof-texts that it uses as the ultimate zingers. A proof-text doesn't have to be hateful on the surface: many health and wealth groups may use "For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord...". These "nice" verses can become weapons towards someone whose mother died because they "didn't pray hard enough."

9. And, your group likes to make fun of other groups' proof texts. You can't make this shit up. We used to joke that everyone in "secular culture" knew John 3:16, and to tell the truth we weren't that keen on that verse because it said "For God so loved the world." I have been guilty of this too, more times than I can count. As a kid I used to "correct" my Baptist teachers' Armenian proof texts with my Calvinist proof texts, and yep, you could cut the irony with a knife. (Has anyone done a comic strip of this? The Calvinist proof text light saber verses the Armenian proof text light saber? This needs to happen.)

10. Your group has strict rules, but they are different rules than other groups, which means that you value Christian liberty. This may sound crazy to an outsider, but this is a real problem in fearful groups. As I mentioned above, it is trendy for Christian men to drink alcohol and smoke pipes (not cigarettes, those are gauche) in the name of "Christian liberty," while in the background their wives plan a purity ball for their daughters. Fundamentalism doesn't always look like a Jack Chick tract, and it probably doesn't call itself fundamentalist. It may go out of its way to be "not legalistic," which makes it hard to put your finger on the problem. There are fundamentalists who sport visible tattoos, cuss, wear jeans to church, listen to rap, wear long hair or shave their heads, and to all outer appearances look like hipsters. By the time you realize that the group is, in fact, a fearful group, it might be too late. And yes, I am thinking of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, but this could apply to other groups as well. The rules may not be obvious when you're joining, because fearful groups excel at subtlety and manipulation. But once you've crossed the line, you'll know it immediately.

11. And yes, I am going to bring up gender and feminism, but with a caveat.  You may remember the raids on FLDS camps in 2008 and 2010, and the discovery of child marriages to men in their 40s and 50s. Well, it doesn't always look like that. It can also be subtle, and to outer appearances it can look like honoring women rather than subjugating them. That's why I would argue that instead of saying "all fearful groups hate women," it would be more accurate to say "all fearful groups obsess about gender." There are million different ways to do this, and not all of them are obvious. I mean, if your group says that women have no greater value than babies and forbids getting a college education then yep, that's your clue. Unfortunately, it's usually not that simple. Not all fearful groups forbid pants, but many do say things like "ladies, let's be charitable to our brothers in Christ who are suffering from lust." This is code for "if a man lusts it's your fault, and we will shame you for it." Not all fearful groups are like the Westboro Baptists, but many do assume that all homosexuals were abused by their parents or other authority.

12. And the biggest tip-off of all? That you are constantly looking at a group that is stricter than yours and mocking everything about them. You come up with names like "rad trad" or "TR" or hyper-Calvinist. You make a big deal of anyone who believes in "work salvation," and you hold up your doctrinal statement of Sola Fide as proof that you are a grace-filled congregation. You believe in "once saved always saved," so it's OK to shun backsliders because clearly "they were never really saved." You like to think of yourselves as hip because your worship team plays the drums, and you make fun of "Gothardites" who forbid rock music. You think that because your group has "denominational oversight" (i.e. isn't congregationalist) that you are free from the danger of a demagogue.

Groups like this are can be as big as a huge denomination or as small as a single congregation. In the days of the Internet, these groups can also be bigger than any one strictly defined group: it can be a publishing company that sells its goods to millions of families, or a highly-influential speaker who is revered by his or her listeners. What these groups have in common is the need for control. They are primarily concerned with worldly success, no matter how "other-worldly" they might seem. I grew up in the thick of multiple groups, with various degrees of overlap, and I have seen first-hand the devastation that can become of the one attitude that holds their members together:

"It can't happen to us."

**Note: I do not endorse the links that I provided, and perhaps it was a bad idea to list them, but I wanted to give examples. These are extremely influential groups that are not beholden to any one church or denomination, and therefore are more dangerous than groups like the Westboro Baptists, which is really just one family in Kansas.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Recovering from Fundamentalism, Calvinist-style - The Intro

I pondered whether or not to write this. This blog isn't technically anonymous, since it would be easy to figure out who I am given what information I've offered. However, I'm a realist: maybe a handful of people will read this post, and probably that will include no one I know. At the same time, yep, it's the internet, so I will only post things I would be OK with other people seeing. Back and forth, back and forth, etc, etc.

What changed my mind? Simply this: I have read so many bloggers journeys out of various kinds of fundamentalist Christianity, most of them from more "extreme" versions than what I grew up with. However, their stories were similar enough to be profoundly helpful and healing for me. So this is for the one random person that lights on this blog long enough to read this and hope, and pray, and dream, that maybe God isn't a monster.

For that one person, whoever you are, you should know this first and foremost: you have a right to your own thoughts and feelings. You may be so afraid of committing the "unforgivable sin" that you are paralyzed, unable to acknowledge the anger and hurt from your past. You may have been shut down by family and friends whenever you expressed doubts about theology or ideas, and you may have been exhorted not to "throw out the baby with the bathwater" more times than you can count. Even opening a Bible or walking into a church may cause a full-blown panic attack. If so, please do yourself a favor and consider the following: all you have to do today is survive. If staying home from church is what you need to do to survive, then that's what you need to do. If you need to stay away from Christian books and podcasts and blogs and bookstores (gah, those are the worst), then try to understand that survival is good, and any action you take towards survival is good. And anyone who tells you otherwise is full of shit.

Now, where was I?

Oh yes, surviving. Here's what I did to survive:

A. Didn't go to the Calvinist college I'd dreamed of and went to a nominally Christian liberal arts school  that didn't have mandatory chapel, dress codes, etc.

B. Didn't go to church much during the first year of college, partly for practical reasons (I didn't have a car), and partly because church was still a nightmare for me.

C. Decided to leave a small church in my denomination (which I started attending while in college) because I noticed cult-like tendencies amongst the congregation. Thinking back, this was the real turning point, because I decided that emotional safety was more important than denominational/ doctrinal purity. I'll come back to that, because it's huge.

D. Delayed joining the Episcopal Church (which I'm now a member of) because I needed time to figure out who I am, what I think/ believe, where God wanted me to be, and what the safest place for me was.  (I'll talk about the concept of safety later. Safety can be a dirty word in Christian circles, and there's a lot of misunderstanding about safety, boundaries, etc, especially in the more fundamentalist groups).

E. Decided to join the Episcopal Church even though I'm not 100% on board with everything the church does. Again, doctrinal purity is no longer my number one priority.

F. Attended a different church from my husband. My husband is training to be an Episcopal priest, and we go to different churches. We didn't plan it that way - I just happened to find a church that I fell in love with, and he was already working at a different parish that is a lot farther off. I went through a lot of post-patriarchal angst about being at a different church from my husband, but he thought it was a jolly plan, and now I do too. Sure, sometimes scheduling can be tricky, but it has given me the time and space I needed to develop spiritually outside of the "priest wife" role.

G. Explored. My story would be a lot different without the internet, because without it I might never have encountered Catholic spirituality, fundamentalist recovery blogs, the sermons of George MacDonald, and other resources that have been crucial in my development. So cheers to the information age! It's got a lot of flaws, but it's also done a lot of good.

I'll get back to my actual story on another day. It involves Calvinism, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and some tangental connections to Bill Gothard and sundry, so you know it'll be good. :)

Friday, December 6, 2013

7 Quick Takes: Lies About Winter

"December 21 is the first day of winter"

Where? In Miami?

Windshield Scrapers Work

Not so much. They'll get the snow off, but to dissolve the ice you need fluid. We get the big gallons.

Southern states are pleasant in winter

Actually Southern winter sucks because instead of snow you get freezing rain. And you know how humid heat is hotter than dry heat? Humid cold is colder than dry cold. So yeah, it's not as bad as Minnesota, but it's no picnic either. And your kids will always cry during Christmas specials because they never get snow.

Stay Inside So You Don't Get Sick

Actually it's the opposite. Kids who spent all winter (in Switzerland!) outdoors in a forest kindergarten did not get colds. (Doesn't mean it sounds like a fun time, but it does sound better than spending all winter at the pediatrician's). Colds and flu spread in the winter precisely because we stay indoors and breath on each other. Fresh air actually is a good idea. 

"You'll Get Used to It"

Hahahaha just kidding, I hate being outside in winter. And no, I won't get used to it. My body is fundamentally opposed to being cold. I'm the freak who goes outside when it's 98 degrees to warm up from the air conditioning in the office, and I love that nice "toasty oven" feel when you first walk out. I mean, I don't want to go running in it, but my body handles heat much better than cold.

Cold is Normal

Actually, we humans evolved in African plains.  Check out the fur on animals that evolved to survive cold climes: 

Yeah, we don't look like that. In fact, it doesn't take much for us to die from hypothermia, as evidenced by the statistics of homeless people who die from cold exposure every year. So tell me again how being cold is normal?

Being Cold Builds Character

My dad always said this whenever I complained too. I'm still waiting for the character part.

If being cold builds character, then what happened to Stalin? Guess his mama should have made him go barefoot.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Becoming Flesh and Blood

Southern women are expected to fit a certain mold. You wear a skirt or dress with a girdle or control-top panty hose, high heels, plenty of feminine jewelry, perfume, the works. Your hair is "fixed," hardened with hair spray, and your nails are "done." When you walk out the door, you assume the pose: head up, shoulders back, stomach in, fake smile pasted on. Poke out those boobs, ladies. And when you stand for a picture, have one foot slightly in front of the other to distribute your weight. If you have an excess of five pounds or greater, always have someone stand a little in front of you to hide those extra pounds. Never say what you really think or feel, and put on a slightly high-pitched voice when you pick up the phone. You are an image, not a person.

I would apologize for offending anyone by saying this, but fuck that shit. I'm tired of being an image. I'm just me.

I grew up as a "non girly-girl" who was constantly scolding for either not smiling or for smiling too hard. My mom would make me practice in front of the mirror so that my eyes wouldn't squint so much. None of my pictures were good enough with the exception of a few, and their existence was a burden. "Look at this picture - see how pretty you look? If you would just smile, comb your hair out of your face, and stand up straight, you would look that pretty in all your pictures. No, just look at the picture. That's all I want - just do that for all your pictures."

My wedding pictures are gorgeous. I'm not being vain; I'm just being objective and saying that yep, those are some damn good pictures, of both me and my husband. My eyes are full of stars, my smile is genuine, my body is relaxed (not quite poker straight, but the dress was forgiving). Everyone said I was "glowing."

My pictures will probably not look like that ever again. I will be just as happy when my children are born, maybe even happier, but I'll look like shit because I just had a kid. Happiness and joy aren't always clean and pretty. And joy isn't always happy either.

Therein is the trouble. In order to even look at the problem, the issue of becoming human, I am unable to think of myself. First I have to look at pictures and images of myself, and even that is painful.


In her sort-of-memoir Bossy Pants, Tina Fey explains why the image problem has gotten even worse, no matter how liberal or conservative, secular or religious you are:

"Back in my Wildwood days with Janet, you were either blessed with a beautiful body or you were not. And if you were not, you could just chill out and learn a trade. Now if you're not "hot," you are expected to work on it until you are."

Oh Tina. In New Jersey in the 70s, it may have been that simple, but it has never been that simple for a Southern woman, not unless you were poor and had to work so hard that you just hoped you could keep your teeth. All Southern women are required to be in a constant state of panic where looks are concerned, and if you're not panicking then that means you're "common." No woman of class would feel comfortable enough to walk outside without a full face of makeup. So it is now, so it was in 1940 when my grandmama was in college, and so it was in the days of Scarlet O'Hara. Forever and ever, Amen.

Southern women could never just "chill out and learn a trade," unless they had iron wills that kept out the steady stream of masculine and feminine disapproval. Masculine disapproval? Oh yes honey. Men would never say something to a lady's face, but behind her back they will look archly at a photo and say "If the barn needs painting, paint it." They will, according to a co-worker I had, touch their teenage daughter's legs and say "What is this? Is this stubble? Why is that there?" (The same co-worker proudly noted that he need never say this to her, his wife.) They will tell their younger cousins that leg shaving is an every day chore, no exceptions. They will wonder aloud why someone at church let her varicose veins show. No, not all men, but enough that it matters. And these men don't have to be paragons of fashion either - just ordinary men with "reasonable expectations."


When Simcha Fisher wrote her brilliant call to arms entitled "Pants!," there was some confusion about why, exactly, men were so concerned about the attire of women who are not their wives. The sentence most vilified, justly, was the writer's "Make it good for us" statement, which managed to be creepy and grammatically nonsensical all at once. Unlike some readers, I was not surprised. This is what happens when all women everywhere are given "reasonable expectations" for everyday use, and it is business as usual in the South. The difference between now and, say, 40 years ago, is that Tina Fey could walk on a New Jersey beach and know that some women are blessed and some are not. Now, we have the Jersey Shore, yo. Different rules than at a PTA meeting in Mississippi (I got a panic attack just typing that). But the principle is the same: women=images.The Southern woman has been exported nationally, with local color added depending on the region. And it makes me madder than hell.

That's right, mad. The angry feminist is raging, ahhhh! Run for your lives! No apologies, folks. There's good reason to be mad, when the poison has seeped into every facet of society. That's why liberals blame conservatives for slut shaming, and conservatives blame liberals for immodest dress, and they're both right. The closer we get to the utopia of Truly Feminine, the less real flesh and blood we have to cope with. If you are expected to be an image, then you will realize that flesh and blood bodies are unimportant - an impediment to be overcome. The logical outcome that no one is really "naked" in this world. All women are thoroughly covered: it's just that different cultural groups embrace different coverings.

During the last decade after 9/11, it was popular to decry the horrors of those who wear hijab. American women with chemically-treated hair, Brazilian-waxed pelvises, bleached teeth, and blue-colored contacts were happy to report that they were "free" enough to show their bodies.

Some days I want to be a conservative Muslim so I can throw on a burqa and say fuck it, I'm not shaving my legs or washing my hair today.


So here's my "call to arms." Stop blaming magazines. Stop blaming Pinterest. Stop blaming all the usual suspects, depending on "whose side you're on": Hollywood, Muslims, Christians, Protestants, Catholics, capitalists, liberals, conservatives, feminists, homosexuals, transsexuals, fundamentalists, working women, SAHMs, blah blah blah.

Start with your own word for "natural." What does that mean to you? Does it mean that your face is completely clear and "neutral" looking? Does it mean a total lack of wrinkles, freckles, pimples, crows feet, skin tags, hair? If you've got a dark complexion, does it mean you need to be "white"? If you're pale, does it mean you need a tan?

Mothers of little girls, this may be easier for you, because you don't have to use yourself as a reference point. Remember when she was born, all red and covered in goo, screaming her head off, squinty-eyed? Tell me that child was not the most beautiful, the most natural thing you'd ever seen.

When you're daughter comes home with a school picture and her smile is so big that it makes her eyes squint, be proud of that smile. That's a natural, happy smile. If you criticize it now, if you make her "practice smiling" now, don't be surprised when her teenage pictures are gloom and doom. Don't tell her that "you don't need to wear tons of makeup, I'm just asking you to cover up that shine on your nose," and then express shock and awe when she turns up covered in black makeup and goth gear.  You've already implied to your daughter that she is an image, remember? Don't be surprised when she decides that she wants to determine her own image, to rebel against your image of what she needs to be.

In other words, don't be a Gnostic. We women are flesh and blood, just as flesh and blood as men. We were redeemed by a flesh and blood Savior. We were born red and gooey, and we will die grey and decayed, and both states are natural. It's only in-between that we create graven images and hold them in front of our faces.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Five Favorites: Southern Thanksgiving

My parents are coming up to DC to celebrate Thanksgiving with me and my husband. Somehow, we will make a full Thanksgiving meal for 4 in the glorified box that is our kitchen. I woke up in the middle of the night wondering how, exactly, we would do this in a kitchen with one drawer (too narrow for a silverware drawer), about 2 feet of counter space, and a shallow single sink. But I refuse to admit defeat - not when I have the thought of these delicious foods driving me:

Sweet Potato Casserole 
If I can't have anything else for Thanksgiving, I want this - yes, more than turkey, which is overrated. Ours isn't as sweet as most people's and the topping is pecans, not marshmallows. We also add sour cream (that's our surprise ingredient that makes it so creamy and good).

Let me explain what I mean by dressing. I mean cornbread dressing. It is baked in a pan, not stuffed in a bird. It has chicken broth, crumbled corn bread, bread crumbs or some other filler if desired, sage (lots of sage), and poultry seasoning. It is topped with gravy. It is moist and thick and to die for. The first time I had Yankee "stuffing" I thought wow, these people don't know what they're missing. 

Squash Casserole 
The rest of the sour cream will go in this dish. Here's what you do: chop up a bunch of summer squash and an equal amount of sweet onion. Bring to a boil in just a little water, then simmer. The Southern term is "cook it down," i.e. cook it until it's mush. Put the mush in a baking dish and mix in sour cream to taste, then top with canned French fried onions (not bread crumbs - these are so much better). So easy, so gooey, so caloric and divine. 

Cranberry Sauce

None of this canned crap will do at Thanksgiving. Buy bags of fresh cranberries and follow the directions on the back. All you need is sugar, water, and cranberries, and time for it to gel in the fridge. This is the cranberry sauce your grandma made, and it is so good on leftover turkey sandwiches.

I realized that most people don't know what I mean by cornbread (i.e. what constitutes most of dressing). Real cornbread does not have any wheat flour. ANY. AT ALL. It also does not have sugar or "sweet milk" (that's what old time Southerners call regular milk to distinguish it from butter milk). Here is how you make cornbread: 

Get a cast iron skillet and put about 1/2 inch vegetable oil or bacon grease in it. Stick it in the oven and turn the oven to 450. Meanwhile, mix equal parts cornmeal (white) with buttermilk (whole fat), beat in 1 or 2 eggs (2 if you're using more than 2 cups cornmeal), and 1/8 teaspoon baking soda unless you're using self-rising cornmeal, and a little salt. When the oven is hot, pull out the skillet (with mitts - it's hot!) and pour the excess grease into the mixing bowl. Stir it up and pour into the skillet. Cook about 35 minutes or until golden-brown. Eat with butter, not honey. If you're making it for dressing, stick it in the fridge to cool so it's easier to crumble.

Add some sweet tea, butterbeans, and turkey with gravy, and you've got yourself a Southern Thanksgiving dinner. Can't wait.

* Just realized that Hallie won't be doing Five Favorites this week. Fail.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Remembering others

This is life for thousands this time of year. Insert your own name for the personal pronouns. For additional clarity, sit on your front steps while reading. Leave your warm coat and gloves inside.

We're all out by 6. You have to leave the shelter at 6 a.m. or be arrested for vagrancy, so we all get up earlier than that, maybe 5:40. When you don't have to take a shower or change clothes getting ready doesn't take very long, so I try to sleep as long as possible. Most days it's so loud that I get up anyway though.

We go out in a herd as we flee the building in search of two things: food and somewhere warm. I feel like cattle now, because that's how it feels - stabled in close-quarters at night, out in the open while it's still dark, and milked for all we're worth by exhaustion. No matter how tired I am, I try to keep moving. It's too cold to stand still in the dark, not to mention dangerous.

The shelter's in a bad part of town. The men's shelter is right across the street; some genius thought it was a good plan to empty a bunch of men and women at the same time every morning, pre-dawn, into the street. I'll let you fill in the blank. I haven't been raped. I refuse to add "yet;" that would admit defeat. I've heard the stories, but now I shut my ears to them. When someone tries to tell me I walk away. I still get nightmares from the stories I've heard, and I need my sleep. Compassion is a luxury I can't afford.

I always leave that neighborhood during the day for two reasons. One, it's not safe for a homeless woman, like I said. Two, you can't get any money or food or anything from people who have nothing to give.

Every day is scheduled like a clock. Get up, leave the shelter by 6. Find a food pantry. The church I go to opens at 8 a.m. on weekdays. You have to hurry to get in line so that the food doesn't run out. The lines are always longer in winter....

The people at the church are very nice; they don't try to force any messages down our throats along with the food. One time I went to a church where they made you sit and listen to a sermon before you could eat. You know, when you're tired and cold and hungry, all you can think of is food. The only thing that sermon does is make you mad, and sick. We told everybody to avoid that church.

I try to drag out breakfast as long as possible because the church is warm. I sit with the same friends every day. You have to be careful who you trust. I don't talk to anyone that I know is on drugs or alcohol, because I don't trust them. At first I didn't trust anybody, but that was so lonely I couldn't stand it. So then I started talking to some of the older women who know the rounds, got their advice. This one woman in particular became my mentor. You have to have a good mentor, that what I tell all the newbies. We have to stick together and help each other, because the city sure won't do that.

Next part of the day is trying to make some money. I panhandle in the tourist district because they're less jaded. The business crowd will walk right by you, and they never look at you. You might as well be a light pole. Kids will sometimes talk to me because they haven't learned that I'm not a person, but if their parents are there they get jerked away and told not to talk to strangers. And I get that. But these adults, these men who walk by - what do they think I'll do? One time I yelled "I don't bite!" At least that got them to run away, so they acknowledged my existence.

In the tourist district, your best bet is to be as personable as possible. Make a sign, that always helps, and say that you'll take food or coffee. Sometimes there are people who won't give money but they'll buy a cup of coffee or a sandwich, which is nice. It won't help me pay for the bus or laundromat, but it helps. My sign says "I'm homeless because I left my abusive husband." That's different and true, and it gets people's attention. That's what my mentor told me: be unique. Everyone says "help the homeless get something to eat." People learn to ignore that.

The best is if you can play an instrument; people like to be entertained. I don't play an instrument and I can't sing, but a good friend of mine is a Baritone. He likes to sing praise music, and sometimes Christians will give him something. Most of them just say "God Bless You," which is nice, but it won't help your hunger at all. He's such a sweet man, he always shares with me.

But whatever you do, don't talk to yourself. People are scared of crazy people, and they think it's a sign of sanity to be happy and smiley when you're cold and hungry. I think the crazy ones are sane, and I wish I was sane like that. Maybe it's easier to bear, emotionally, when you can talk about politics or the hit man that's after you. Gives you something to get up for besides just avoiding arrest.

I close up shop before it gets dark. This time of year, that's around 4:30. If I have the money I take the bus back to the shelter neighborhood, because now the clock is running. The lines at the shelter are long, and so usually they do a lottery to see who gets in. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don't, but I time it so that I've got a fighting chance. Those of us who don't make it stay together, because there's warmth and safety in numbers. Sometimes I give my lottery number to someone who's older, especially if my mentor didn't make it in time.

We sleep right outside the shelter because it's safer than wandering the streets. Night-time is always the worst no matter where you sleep. If I make it to the shelter, I don't get up to use the bathroom, so I always go first thing and then stay put. The restrooms aren't safe in the middle of the night because that's where people go to make drug deals. If I'm stuck outside, I also hold it because I don't want to have to go out alone. Also, I only use the bathroom outside if I'm desperate. I still have pride even if it's taken a beating.

I thought that I had been afraid before I was homeless. I didn't know then what it was like to live with fear, eat it, breath it, feel it all the time. I didn't know what it was like to have no where truly safe to go, to never be alone except in a public restroom stall, to never be able to lock a door and take a deep sigh of relief. My skin is constantly tense; my mind is always on alert. I think that even when I'm sleeping, some part of my body is ready to jump. My hearing and eyesight have never been so good; they never had to be.

I thought I had been cold before too, but that was a joke. I never knew the cold that never leaves your bones, the cold that can only be escaped temporarily. I never knew what it was like to dread the early morning so much, to dread being kicked outside in the icy dark. I never knew what it was like to plan my day around the weather, to miss out on afternoon cash because it's sleeting, to know where all the public libraries are.

I thought I knew what loneliness was, but back then I knew I was a person. And everyone else knew it too. People might not have liked me, but I wasn't ignored, treated like an innatimate object. I never saw the quickly averted eyes, the hurried feet, the turned head. I never knew what it was like to be lectured for my "greed," for my "entitlement" by people holding Starbucks lattes in leather gloves. I never knew what it was like to rip out the brand name from the jacket I found in a dumpster, because if people see a brand name they berate you for "wasting money."

If I ever get out of here, I'm going to buy a shack. I don't care what it looks like as long as I own it, as long as a landlord can't kick me out if I miss a payment. And I will look at every single homeless person I see and ask what they need the most. And I will hug every woman and tell her to hold on.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Seven Quick Takes: Why Scrubs is the Best Show Ever


My husband has always said so, and I scoffed until I watched it all the way through. And yes, it is the best show ever with the exception of MASH (similar shows though, in many ways). Check it (spoilers!):

The Janitor

Much has been said about the character simply known as "the Janitor," JD's arch nemesis. The actor tended to add-lib, to the show's general improvement.  The writers did not intend on him becoming a major character, but who can deny destiny? 

The Treatment of Sex

Let me be clear: it's not exactly a show I'd watch my grandma, and there's plenty of fornication to go around. However, the show's treatment of sex is different from that of most TV shows in the past decade or so, because it treats it seriously, as a part of life that changes your relationships and even who you are. When JD and Elliot decide to become "sex buddies," it backfires, and JD is faced with the fact that sex is tied to emotional attachment. When JD and Kim fool around but avoid actual intercourse, they are shocked to discover that Kim is pregnant, and JD must grapple with the burden of unexpected fatherhood. And one of the most beautiful scenes in the show is when Dr. Cox and Jordan realize that they have "grown up" and need real, genuine intimacy that is not hidden by sarcasm and irony.

Grief and Pain 

There are some episodes that hit me in the gut every single time and make me bawl. Others make me just quiet, thoughtful, in need of a walk alone outside. And just like real life, the mood can turn on a dime. This is one of my favorite instances of this technique:

Relationships within Families

Scrubs has a lovely way of delving into the characters' pasts without being Freudian or weird about it. The treatment can be subtle: Elliot has a truly dysfunctional past, as does Dr. Cox, but JD's past is a little more nuanced. Best of all, it shows how part of growing up is seeing our parents as people in their own right, not just how their lives affect ours. In this wonderful episode about parents, JD reflects on his father as a person separate from the father role: 

The Philosophy of Sickness and Death

Scrubs throws a light on this crazy world we live in, where death comes in sterile hospital rooms and patients die surrounded by medical personnel instead of their families. Scrubs talks about the elderly, dying pregnant mothers, suicides, the death of children, the fear of death, and the macabre humor that medical staff must use to keep their sanity. One day, I want to have the perspective of this wonderful woman:

It is the funniest damn show ever

If you can't laugh at Scrubs, you are unconscious. It has something for everyone, whether you like snark or dry wit or slap-stick or pop culture references or relationships or just the zany craziness of life. And by the way, this show is considered the most realistic of all doctor shows, by other doctors. My father in law, a pediatrician, adores this show because it shows what it's really like for residents at public hospitals. Y'all, people complain about how much doctors make, but they deserve every penny. Consider the following: long hours, insane student loans, 4 years of med school, 4 years of residency with poverty-level pay, and unbelievable anti-law suit insurance. It is impossible to have your own practice in some states due to insurance rates (but that's a rant that I won't go into...).

So folks, appreciate your doctors. They have a hard job, especially now that folks go in thinking they know a lot because they looked on Web MD. Give them a card at Christmas or something, especially the pediatricians. There are bad doctors of course, but the good ones really care about their patients.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Remembering my Southern grandmama

The first thing I think of is lipstick. Until Alzheimer's had ravaged her brain, I never saw her without it. When my then-boyfriend, now husband, met her in the nursing home, I heard her talking to my aunt through the closed door as we approached, "Well get me my lipstick, I'm about to meet somebody."As a girl she wore bright red with her panty hose and house dresses and pumps; as the woman I knew, she changed to pink because "it looks better with grey hair."

She could be exacting in the old Southern style: "Head up, shoulders back!" "Pull your stomach in." "Get a move on you." She despaired of my poor posture and had me stand against the wall or walk around with a book on my head, a failed endeavor if ever there was one. But she was also kind, generous to a fault, a powerful thinker and a tower of strength. She loved the image of God as a rock. At her husband's funeral, she struggled to stand and was afraid she would faint. In her weakness, she heard the inner voice of God say "You will not faint; you are standing on a rock." She used to play Rock of Ages on the piano with vim and vigor, and when we found her Bible after she died, every reference to God as a rock was underlined.

She had an almost photographic memory, which made Alzheimer's an especially cruel joke. She held in her mind a life-like depiction of the family tree going back more than 200 years, complete with intricate details and hilarious stories. She could tell you exactly how we were related to other citizens in that county of Alabama where she lived most of her life. We kept saying "let's get a voice recording before we forget" and then it was too late. But we do have pictures of her dancing in her apron while my aunt played the harmonica....

She was the most truly generous person I've ever known. Wealthy benefactors use their surplus after spending on luxuries; she re-used tin foil and mended underwear so she could give to her charities, both personal and official, family and otherwise. We didn't realize the full extent of her giving until her death, even though we knew how freely she gave to us, her children and grandchildren. She gave the gifts of her time, her intellect, her leadership and wisdom. When my cousin was in college he called the local pastor for guidance, which made the minister feel quite proud. It was a bit of a downer when my cousin said "I wouldn't have troubled you but my grandmama isn't in town."

And the food. Oh my. I still feel the crispness of hoe cake, hear the rattling of the jigger on the pressure cooker, feel the warmth of hambone vegetable soup with okra and butterbeans, see her pouring a bottle of wine over her fruit cake. She came from a time when Southern women served "dinner" at noon with mint iced tea. At 9 a.m. she would start things going, and somehow every cooking pot in the house would get used, and the heat would fill up the kitchen until you escaped to the 95 degree heat outside for a breath of fresh air.

Such, in fact, was our tendency - to see her gifts instead of her. To see the things she provided instead of the rich crackling voice, the knobby hands, the deepness of a soul who lived a full but quiet life in an obscure small town. The tendency was to pour out my heart instead of opening to hers....

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Children Need Magic

As a child, I had supreme confidence in cause and effect. I put out cookies and milk for Santa; in the morning there was an empty glass and a plate of crumbs. I put my tooth under my pillow; in the morning there was a quarter (my parents were cheap). The ginko trees leaves turned golden and fell; in the spring they grew back new and green. I scraped a scab off my elbow - because like Eustace says, it hurts like Billy O, but it is so fun to see the nasty thing come off; and new peachy skin grows back. The grass dried up in the long summer days; the evening thunderstorms brought it back to life.

Christ died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

The story of fall, winter, spring is woven in our hearts, but children have the cleanest grasp of its power because they haven't learned to explain things away. If they are allowed to be "men with chests," they can retain a vision of the beauty in this world, even when things are at their blackest, because the darkest night is just before dawn.

That's why children need magic. That's why they need Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and ghost stories and elves and centaurs and Aslan and hobbits and jack-o-lanterns and The Snow Queen and Hansel and Gretel. And the stranger and starker the better; the least schmaltzy and commercialized the better. Lewis called this a "baptism of the imagination," and it is just as important as teaching straightforward theology. I don't remember the lessons in Sunday school, but I remember my grandmama rocking me and saying "The murmuring pines and the hemlocks" as if it meant all the world. I remember turning off the lights to gaze at the Christmas tree with its enormous colored lights and lighted star. I remember getting goosebumps when I learned that the seeds from Diggory's magical apple grew into the tree which provided the wood for a wardrobe. And when we found out that it wasn't a train accident, but that the real Narnia was home at last....

When those children grow up, they will know why trees lose their leaves, and why rainbows follow rain. But the magic, otherwise known as wonder, will stay nestled inside, ready to spring up. And when those children meet the real Aslan, they will welcome Him as a friend.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

My Relationship with Rap Part Two: Leaving the Old Neighborhood

For those of us who grew up in poor neighborhoods who managed to leave, there is constant inner tension. First of all, there is the survivor guilt. Why are our old friends still poor? Why are they still boarding their windows after break-ins and learning which gang colors to avoid? The unfairness of life is thrust in our faces, especially if we didn't "earn" our way out, i.e. if our parents were the reason we were able to leave. (By the way, this is one reason why those who escaped homelessness often end up back on the streets. They are constantly thinking of their close friends still suffering hypothermia and are crippled by that knowledge).

Second, there is the nostalgia. The love of home is sometimes strongest for those who grew up in hard times. It goes beyond mere nostalgia though: the passion for home is defensive in nature. The more one's home is mocked or hated by others, the stronger one's passion grows for defending her honor. Outsiders are viewed with suspicion because they don't understand. Think of the classic examples: Sicily, North Ireland, China, Myanmar, Russia, Cuba, Brooklyn, Appalachia, the southside of Chicago. The deadliest example of course is Nazi Germany, but it appears in subtler forms in American ghettos. We would rather be feared than condescended to, because with fear comes power.

Third, there is the shame mingling with the love. In her brilliant memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette describes how she washed herself with snow before school to hide the fact that they lacked running water in the 70s. Underneath the bravado, there are parts of our old lives that we despise, that we never talk about with outsiders, that we wish we could erase. We tell lies about the past to disguise our self-hatred, to distance ourselves from the shame of growing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because most of growing up poor is not cool, which is why it's so grating when middle class white kids try to be "gangsta."

In my own life, my parents had a stroke of luck which allowed us to move from the old neighborhood to a better part of town. Suddenly we had a two story house with a dishwasher, and I had my own bathroom. The ceiling didn't crack and shed; the kitchen didn't have mice behind the stove; I didn't have roaches crawling over my bed; the nighttime was dark and quiet. I was relieved by many of these changes, but I was also afraid. Change is scary, even good change. I couldn't sleep at night because I was used to noise. The streets were scary in a new way: there were no sidewalks, and these folks drove SUVs and huge pick-ups must faster than they should have. There were few pedestrians; the children played video games instead of street-ball.

I took walks every day because I believed in facing my fears, and the neighborhood seemed so empty - except for the speeding trucks of course. For one thing, I wasn't used to streets where everyone worked. Most of our neighbors either couldn't or wouldn't find work, and they sat on their porches getting drunk most days. These neighbors were busy even outside of work, and they had comfortable, air-conditioned homes to escape from the heat and mosquitos. The empty streets were lined with two-story houses, which seemed to tower over me. As I said in the previous post, we lived in a neighborhood with dumpy one-story houses, not the brownstones you would see in Brooklyn, and the "fancy" (to me, I was sheltered in that way) homes intimidated me. I was accustomed to tidy blocks with avenues and streets intersecting, and I was baffled by the rabbit warren of culdesacs and curling streets. They had almost identical names too, called drive or place instead of the more sensible street or avenue. Once I got so lost that I wandered for hours before finally making my way home.

These changes made me defensive of my home. Before I had avoided bringing friends home; now I bragged about my past. I was disgusted by the spoiled kids on my street, and I was eager to distinguish myself from those kids. I mocked my classmates that got new cars on their 16th birthdays, and I stopped trying to hide the fact that I still wore second hand clothes. Part of this defensive stance was delving into the music I had hated, but it was a long journey.

A Protestant's Journey to Mary

And not just any Protestant either: I grew up a five-point Calvinist in the Presbyterian tradition and, as if that wasn't enough, I went to a Southern Baptist school from kindergarten through 12th grade. I can safely say I never heard a good thing about Catholics until I was college. I wasn't taught that Catholics were the whore of Babylon, but it was a close thing. Catholics were wrong because they tried to earn their salvation; because they thought the Pope was sinless; because they had priests when we were all a holy priesthood; because they added to Scripture, etc. You've heard it all before. Even Lent was verboten because of its links to Catholicism, and my grandmama was unhappy when her church started using an Advent wreath.

As far as Mary went, we couldn't be too careful to avoid giving her honor - except at Christmas. Suddenly, images were allowed - we could have wooden manger scenes, Christmas cards with pictures of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and every church staged Nativity scenes with the kids dressed up in homemade costumes. (As a girl, I was typically made to be an angel, with a wire halo pinned in my hair. And if you haven't read the classic "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," your life lacks meaning). But as soon as Christmas was over, which for evangelical Protestants is December 26, Mary was packed away for the year and never spoken of again. (This sort of perspective was typical.)

When I was in graduate school I began to feel a strong emotional connection to Saint Monica, mother of Augustine. It came out of the blue and made no sense: at the time I wasn't even married, much less a mother to anyone, wayward or otherwise. However, I think it was one of the few real spiritual experiences I've ever had, precisely because it came out of the blue. My mama had just told me bad news about friends of ours, and I felt rudderless in the storm. Standing in the hallway with my eyes closed, my heart said Monica please help them. Only a day later I remembered this and thought where the hell did that come from? As the weeks passed, I began to feel an emotional, deep connection to this ancient mother, and I found myself seeking her intercession before I even (began) to understand on an intellectual level what the communion of saints is all about.

As I continued with graduate school, my flexible schedule allowed more prayer time than I had had in undergrad since my classes were all online. The backbone of my prayer life then and now is the Episcopal Daily Office, which I highly recommend even to Catholics (but that's a post for another day!)  As I began to understand the power of liturgical or "rote" prayers, which were verboten in my childhood, I wondered about the famous Rosary. It was forbidden fruit, idolatrous, and I'm afraid to admit that the rebellious side of me was drawn to it merely on those terms. But hey, God works with us where we are, right?

Still, I have the Reformation in my genes, even if I no longer counted myself a strict Calvinist. Most of my ancestors were Scottish Presbyterians who retained their traditions once they got off the boat; others had relatives slaughtered in the Bartholomew's Day massacre. I was also turned off by many of the websites that I found about the Rosary, with the Catholic kitsch, flowery backgrounds, and talk of "Mary will give you this if you pray the Rosary so many times." It sounded pretty manipulative to me, like a slot-machine Mary. But I was willing to try out the Rosary on my terms.

Note to Protestants: if you want to keep Mary at arm's length, do not pray the Rosary at all. Even if you pray an ecumenical version, without the beads, or cut out the last two glorious mysteries, it will bite you in the ass. Mary is sneaky that way.

At the beginning of the rabbit hole, I liked the idea of mediating on different mysteries about Jesus on particular days, except for those ludicrous last two Glorious mysteries of course. I didn't own the beads, and I didn't want to succumb to vain repetitions, so I tried out a Protestant version of meditating on the mysteries. As I washed dishes, rode the bus to work at the library, took showers, I would think about the appointed mysteries for the day. I kept an index card in my purse with the list until I had it fairly well memorized. I would always forget about Monday because, you know, Monday, so I was most likely to do Tuesday than any other day of the week. As a result, I memorized the Sorrowful mysteries pretty quick.

At length, I decided that praying the Lord's Prayer (that's what we call it instead of the Our Father) before each mystery was OK. If I was working the reference desk on Saturday and had no customers, I would put on headphones and listen to the Lord's Prayer set to music, or listen to instrumental music while doing the meditations. My attention span is atrocious, so I would get distracted and often pick up again several hours later.

Finally, I decided that maybe doing the set of prayers at the beginning (the Creed, Lord's Prayer, Gloria Patre) minus the Hail Marys of course, would be OK. And instead of doing that sentimental ending I would just pray another Lord's Prayer, or sing a hymn if I was at home alone. (For irony sake I sometimes sang "A Mighty Fortress is Our God.") And then one day I made the fatal mistake of actually reading the Hail Mary.

Most Protestants don't really know what it says. The very title, "Hail Mary," sounds idolatrous, because most of our Bibles have a different translation of the angel's greeting. The popular NIV says "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." It leaves out the "blessed are you among women." The equally popular New King James version retains the blessing part, but it renders the greeting as "Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you!" Now, the more classical Authorized King James Version says the word "hail," but the wording is different: "Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee." So most Protestants don't see the connection between the words "Hail Mary full of grace" and the angel's greeting, because none of them are told, and most of our translations don't include it. (Forgive the repetition, but it is crucial to understanding the Protestant mindset, in which Biblical translations are many, and interpretations can hinge on the wording of a single verse).

But I took the plunge, read the Hail Mary, and with a little help from a website explaining the Rosary, discovered the Biblical quotations from both the angelic greeting and the greeting of her cousin Elizabeth. I was shocked: Catholics are supposed to hate the Bible! This is what I had been told all my life - why else would they have opposed vernacular translations back in the day? So why would they quote the Bible in this most Catholic of prayers?

I still didn't like that second part though, because how would Mary pray for us? "For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus" was a verse I digested with my baby food. It's even set to music so as to instill it deeply in our conscious, and it is a popular proof-text among evangelicals. So I took another baby step and recited the first half of the Hail Mary during my meditations. I started doing the decades now (albeit with the cut-off Hail Marys), but those last two Glorious mysteries still rankled, so I used substitutes from ecumenical sites, or just substituted my own. I settled on using The Lord's Future Return for the fourth, and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb for the fifth. And I still steered clear of that ending prayer.

Gradually though, it dawned on me that I had been sub-consciously seeking the intercession of Monica, so why not Mary? They were both in heaven and loved by Jesus, right? I did some more research and learned about the intercession of the saints. I already believed that the dead in Christ were actually alive in Christ, and I already believed that we the living should pray for each other. So if the "dead" are actually alive, why not ask the saints to pray for us? How is that being any more of a "mediator" than if I ask my mama to pray for me? The whole "at the hour of our death" wigged me out, but I decided to give it a shot.

(For any Catholic readers, let me say something a little controversial: the term "praying to the saints" is really, really bad evangelism. It sounds like you're praying to them like you would God, rather than asking for their prayers like you would ask a friend to pray for you. It would really help your apologetics to say "ask the saints to pray for me" or something similar, especially when you're talking to your Protestant friends or writing on your *public* blogs. Ok, rant over.)

So there I was, playing with fire, while Mary just laughed at me. And y'all, I don't know, somehow I just fell the rest of the way. While the first part of this journey was primarily with the intellect, my heart finally followed, and I felt loved by Mary. It became a joy and comfort to say "O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary!" On days when I really was in a vale of tears, the poignancy of that previously despised prayer rang true. And I finally started praying the last two mysteries of the Glorious mysteries, even though I'm still not quite sure about the fourth one on an intellectual level. I finally now recognize Mary as my true Mama, the mother who breastfed God.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.