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Posts from the ‘Church’ Category

Regarding Prince

One of my favorite Durham memories is of the 2011 Prince vs. Michael Jackson dance party on 9th Street.  People who had danced to their music as adults in the 1980s were dancing with strangers who were born in the 1980s.  It was a spectacle of sheer, shared joy.  We “went crazy,” forgetting for an evening ways that Durhamites are divided from and taught to fear one another.

I was 16 when Purple Rain came to the theater in San Angelo, Texas.  I am pretty sure I went to see it with a close friend from church and her sister.  It was cheesy in just the right way, and Prince was the most beautiful person I had ever seen on the big screen.  I had a crush on Han Solo when I was little, and I loved David Lee Roth’s devil-may-care ways on MTV.  But Prince was a different universe of sexy.  He conveyed in his music an unselfconscious joy-in-common that suggested to my 16-year-old virgin self an inkling of what sexual intimacy should optimally be.   Read more

True Populism

The essay will appear in the April 3, 2016 edition of the Durham Herald-Sun. ‘Where to Invade Next’ is showing at the Carolina Theatre this weekend. Check here for showtimes.

The drill team at my high school in West Texas made some unorthodox song choices for routines. One of them was “Crazy Train” by former Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. This song has been going through my head during election season. Songwriters Robert Daisley and Randall Rhoads penned: “Crazy, but that’s how it goes, millions of people living as foes. Maybe, it’s not too late, to learn how to love, and forget how to hate.” They go on to name that “heirs of the cold war” are vulnerable to media messaging that keeps people living as foes: “The media sells it, and you live the role.”

I was recently back in Texas for a wedding. A recurring loop was “No Politics!” One patriarch advised, only half-jokingly, if a conversation starts drifting that direction, interject “How about them Cowboys?” A cousin told my daughter, “Whatever you do, don’t name the one who shall not be named.” Waiting to disembark on the flight home, one hapless neighbor said something about Sarah Palin, and people visibly winced, anticipating an old fight was on. This instant-argument, divide and conquer mess now has a name. The term is “dog-whistle politics.” Keep people living as foes by crafting a figure so divisive we cannot discuss politics with the people we are supposed to love. “The media sells it, and you live the role.” When we cannot discuss our shared future with relatives, something is wrong. Afraid to seem uncivil, or erudite, or backward, or radical, or misinformed, or snooty, we stick to talking about recipes or sports. Some might sweep this into an indictment of “political correctness,” but it is a form of political manipulation. We shout at one another on social media but stay silent when together. This is a crazy train.

True populism requires that people who need to work for a living (meaning, like, all of us) actually talk to one another about what we are experiencing as we work or look for work. For starters, try this: “Name a time when you stood up for yourself at work,” or “Name a time when you stood up for a co-worker.” “Populism” is a phrase political pundits are now using to sort you and me – that is, the populace – and their words are worse than a poor substitute for actual, political conversation with neighbors. Their words are an insulting distraction. The talking heads amplified on media and social media further divide and silence people who need one another to reverse this second great depression.

Here are two examples of insulting distraction. Assessing support for the one who shall not be named, an ostensibly “conservative” media outlet called “National Review” ran these words: “Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence – and the incomprehensible malice – of poor white America.” The writer continues “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.” The writer recommends people leave the towns where they grew up and get a U-Haul (with what extra income, I am not sure) to go somewhere else. This is a hateful, unapologetic form of social-Darwinism. If you cannot afford to leave home, you deserve to die. Another widely-circulated assessment of “populism” from a supposedly “liberal” source was Gloria Steinem’s suggestion that young women prefer a labor advocate from Vermont over a hawkish, free-trade opponent because “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys?’” Steinem actually said that. In both cases, ways that working people are genuinely struggling to find traction are dismissed as besotted. Either you’re clinging to a past best thrown in the trash or you’re hoping to date a hipster. What if people privy to these dog-whistles talk to each other? What if we get off the crazy train and remember, if not how to love, then at least how to work together?

This essay will appear on Sunday, April 3. I recommend we each bring a neighbor to see “Where to Invade Next” at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. A reviewer named Jon Schwarz writes about the main message of this movie: “You and I aren’t bad. All the people around us aren’t bad . . . If regular people get control over their own lives, they’ll use it wisely rather than burning the country down in a festival of mindless debauchery . . . [the movie] is all the more powerful because it doesn’t tell you this, it simply shows you. It’s not speculation about how human nature will be transformed after the revolution so we’ll all be happy to share our ration of grass soup with The People. It’s all happening right now, with imperfect human beings just like us.” As Ozzy sings, “it’s not too late.”

Why I Am Christian and Pro-Gay

This op-ed originally appeared in the March 6, 2016 edition of the Durham Herald-Sun.

A North Carolina middle-school has started a support group for gay students and friends.  I celebrate this.  Adolescence is a fine time to receive attentive friendship and mentoring about sexuality.  My mother was a middle-school teacher.  She says it’s a time when kids begin to get their “stuff” together.  (She uses saltier wording around adults.)  We begin to sort out how to define our own style of fashion, practice our signature, and discover our gifts for arts or sports at the very time we are trying to accommodate to bodies that shift weekly.  It is tricky, finding your own “voice” when your voice cracks while trying to impress a peer.  Add to this what can be an isolating realization that your lack of conformity to the predictable Adam and Eve pairing was not just a periodic quirk of elementary school, but a solidifying desire to kiss someone of the same sex.   Read more

Rollercoaster of Love

This essay first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on February 7, 2016.

I stayed up way too late last night following social media about the Iowa Democratic caucus.  My house has a pink and blue homemade sign in front proclaiming “The Green Street Girls [Heart] Bernie Sanders.”  The last time I had this much love in the game was during Obama’s first primary run.  I remember talking to a good friend in Chicago about the race.  He and his son were traveling to campaign for Obama across the Midwest.  “Do you really think Obama is going to change things?” I asked him, hopeful but also trying to be realistic.  “He is going to break our hearts,” he said, “but I am campaigning for him anyway.”

It is not easy to put your heart back into a game after your heart has been broken.  After I went through divorce five years ago, I was talking to a new friend about trusting in love again.  He and his wife train horses, and they likened the task to getting back onto a horse after you have been thrown off of one.  You cannot let your fear rule you.  You have to trust again that the world is more safe than not – that people are more worth loving than not.  I have found this to be true not only for trusting in romantic love, but also for trusting a new church after a congregation has thrown you off the horse, so to speak, or for trusting a new classroom after you have gone through a really rough ride with a group of particularly rude students.  Investing your heart, truly risking a part of your soul by loving a person or a group of people, can be harrowing.  “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” may be true, but it is not easy.  To venture a sufficient part of yourself truly to be open to love is scary.  

Another friend compared dating after divorce to being in freefall.  He is older than I am, and I had confessed that I felt like I was twelve again, and that it was unsettling.  He reassured me that he often feels twelve also, and added that he often feels like a twelve-year-old in freefall.  Members of funk band The Ohio Players were definitely grown-ups when they wrote their 1976 hit-song “Love Rollercoaster.”  They are singing about loving a sweetheart, and the sense of both exhilaration and barely-controlled panic that go along with such love.  The writers of the 1989 movie “Parenthood” use the same exact image for what it means truly to be part of a family.  The grandmother in the film puts it this way:

You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.

Richard Thompson has a song that says something similar about love.  He wrote it around the same time that his marriage to singer and songwriter Linda Peters was coming apart at the seams.  It is called “The Wall of Death,” referencing a circular track where people ride a motor-cycle or other vehicle sideways, basically.  You will have to look up images yourself, because words fail me.  I cannot begin to imagine riding a motorcycle sideways.  But Richard Thompson sings “you’re going nowhere when you ride on a carousel,” which is true.  Grandma is right.  As one saying about family goes, having children means consenting to allow your heart to walk around outside your body.  I have seen this be true also for love between sweethearts, and love of children for parents.  

Investing your heart with fidelity is not always exhilarating.  Putting your heart into a game – venturing, risking, trusting – is also about the tiny little steps that make love possible.  Bernie Sanders tied Hillary Clinton in Iowa not due to something giant, but through one little phone call after another, one conversation after another, made with patience, not so much with valor.  Love between two sweethearts is similar, like kindling, as one of my favorite television shows put the matter recently.  Life together is made little stick by stick.  That same series has a very astute argument against couples writing their own wedding vows.  In one episode, a young couple writes absolutely ridiculous vows to one another, describing love as an up-front, 100% sure sort of thing, thereby confounding other young couples in the congregation.  I am grateful the marriage vows in my tradition are set in stone by old people, who, even though they sometimes feel like twelve-year-olds in freefall, know that love is also about getting back on that horse, trusting daily that the world is more safe than scary.

Black Friday is a Mixed Bag

Before I confirmed a call to ordained ministry, my dad told me something I now tell students preparing for ordained ministry.  The life of a pastor can be summed up in one imperative.  On Christmas Eve, after the last worship service, make sure every toilet in the church is flushed.  This imperative assumes an important fact.  The imperative assumes that, on Christmas Eve, the pastor is the only one working.  Even though the church may have someone on staff to lock up doors and to care for post-worship tidying, that person will not be working on Christmas Eve.  My dad has flushed many Christmas Eve toilets over his half-century of ministry.  Such is the glamorous life of an inn-keeper at Christmas.

Growing up in a parsonage, Advent involved more than the usual tidying up, as we hosted choir parties, youth parties, and Sunday School parties.  The parties were spread out over Advent, so “Christmas” started early.  My brother and I sliced sausage rolls and cut crusts off fancy little loaves of bread used only for such parties.  We cleaned bathrooms and took out trash and dusted bookshelves, so guests would know we considered them worth the trouble.  The timing of these church parties at our house necessitated that Christmas jump the calendar forward to Thanksgiving.  We would often put up the tree before Thanksgiving, so everything would be ready when we came back from my grandparents’ annual Thanksgiving reunion.   Technically, Advent is about anticipation – anticipating the birth of Jesus.  But my mother is a practical woman, and she was not about to let a liturgical rule discombobulate the proper ordering of things.  

My second home growing up – my home away from home – was the nearest shopping mall.  My mother loves shopping malls.  A fantastically creative seamstress, she goes to the mall to spark her imagination for unique twists on fashion.  She started a Thanksgiving shopping tradition when I was young.  Thanksgiving was my father’s family’s holiday.  One set of cousins on that side did not celebrate Christmas, and my father always worked on Christmas Eve, so we would travel each year to Mineral Wells for a Thanksgiving extravaganza.  This involved Russel Stover candies, squash casseroles, fried okra, turkey, ham, and at least a dozen pies.  After all this cooking and an interminable amount of dish-washing, every woman and girl-child in the family was exhausted.  While every man and boy-child sat around watching football Friday after Thanksgiving, those of us who had cooked and cleaned on Thanksgiving escaped to a fancy shopping mall in Ft. Worth.  We spent the Friday after Thanksgiving walking under sparkling Christmas lights, looking at neatly arranged clothes – and decidedly not cooking or cleaning.  

These are the backdrop stories for my assessment of what has come to be known as “Black Friday.”  This time of year, news and social media sources offer a clashing combination of enticement and shame.  “Shop big savings!” advertisements compete with “Shame on greedy shoppers!” op-eds, videos, and photos.  News crews take cameras to big box stores, not upscale boutiques.  Women who shop in bulk at Costco are not particularly greedy.  But they apparently create a better spectacle for moralistic scorn than women shopping at Talbots.  And women shopping anywhere are apparently a more effective story about the ungodly spread of rampant consumerism than are men watching football in the living room.  I counter that dressing rooms can be a place for sisterly bonding, even with complete strangers.  I prefer trying on clothes alongside other real people, with real, non-photo-shopped bodies and faces.  Malls are more humanizing than shopping on my computer, trying to imagine what a dress on a pretend person would look like on my actual self.  There can be a camaraderie of such kindness on “Black Friday.”  I have seen holy mischief at the mall – the presence of God in the mix of neighbors watching mechanical bears sing “Silent Night,” weeks before we are, technically, supposed to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I have been searching my brain for any possible upside to a new “Black Friday” trend, and I have come up short.  Some stores have taken to opening on Thanksgiving night and staying open all night long, jumpstarting the holiday season by telling employees to host people all night long.  This, I submit, is a story of greed, and not on the part of shoppers.  My dad taught me to assume that a good employer does not expect the janitor to work on Christmas Eve.  Charles Dickens teaches us that a boss who expects employees to work on an important feast day is headed toward a gloomy fate.  Executives who tallied the numbers and opted for the trend of all-night holiday shopping should take another look, in the mirror.  

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