Saturday, March 27, 2010

My Daughter is Watching Me

I think I may be ready to fight again. As I wash dishes, I listen to my eleven year old daughter telling me her plans for changing the world. She wants to be an organic farmer raising her animals humanely so that even her vegan mother will feel comfortable drinking the milk. She wants to be an environmentalist, a feminist, an artist. She raises funds in our family to give to people in need and can tell us how much it costs to immunize 50 children against polio. As I run hot water over the plates she tells me about how far our small amount of money can go if we share it with people with greater needs than our own. She wants to give to PBS, to UNICEF, to wildlife protection and she plans to give all of her birthday money away. So much like me when I was a child, she is full of fight and idealism. She can be moralistic and judgmental but she is also relentlessly compassionate. She is champion of the underdog everywhere. Even when she was a tiny thing, her face would grow fierce when she heard about an injustice. She hangs on my words and devours the books I give her about social justice, environmentalism, and peace.

I don't want to be the one who tells her the world can't be changed. I don't want her to see me broken.

So I'm going to keep fighting. I'm going to give each speech and walk into each class like a prize fighter. Justice. Equality. Peace. Compassion. I will teach these things. I will sing about them, shout about them. I will whisper them into my students' ears and write them on my children's hearts. I will not let my daughter see me break.

I am small. I am female. I am poor. I am neurotic too with more phobias than I can list in a blog, but it doesn't matter because I am going to uphold my own promise to Integrity. I will speak the truth. I will not apologize for my knowledge. I did not go to college to get rich. I got my doctorate so that I could learn to tell the stories of those who dared and thereby infect others with courage. I cannot promise that I will not feel frustrated. Money is tight, opportunities are scarce, and acknowledgment is rare, but I will not let these be my excuses for a failure to do what I am called to do. I educated myself so that I could serve the world not myself.

I will never be famous. No one will remember my name when I am gone. I will never be rich and I may never escape my debt but I am not here to be rich or famous. I educated myself so that I could be useful. And dammit, I will be useful. I will make each day an act of faith and use all that I am to magnify the Light I find in every heart I encounter. I will sing, and laugh, and dance, and write with everything I have. As long as there is Good in the world, let me serve it. It is true. I've been sad and tired. I've felt bitter, misused, and discouraged, but it is time to lift my head. Yes, I think I'm ready to go out fighting again. Look at me square my shoulders. Hear me raise my voice. My daughter is watching me. I cannot fail.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Superstitious Nonsense or How I Keep Alive in this Churning Sea of Evil

My parents and I ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant yesterday. After the meal, we contemplated a small plate of fortune cookies. My father pushed the dish toward me and I picked up the cookie nearest me. Then he indicated to my mother that she must make her choice. He was not just being polite. In fact, I realized, he was waiting to see which one was destined for him. "You're awfully superstitious for an atheist," I said to him. I can't remember what my own cookie indicated about my future. I think I did not pay it much mind because I had already negated it. You see, I viewed my fortune before completely consuming the cookie. This messes with the cookie vibes.

There are certain protocols one must follow in order to ensure the safety of one's family. Women in particular must be careful to admonish loved one's toward safe travel whether it is out of state, just down the road, or even just down a flight of stairs. "Be careful. Travel safely. You won't get there any faster if you speed. Don't tailgate. Drive defensively. Call me when you get there." We also give advice to avoid falling into ovens and to be mindful of the tines on plastic forks lest one should inadvertently bite one off and choke on it. We ask people to mind that they chew carefully, walk slowly, look where they are going, and watch what they are doing. We give this advice not because it helps anyone. We don't live with complete fools. We give this advice because the advice is magical. It protects our family from harm.

When I am to be separated from family members, I am careful to say,"We'll see each other later" not "I'll see you later." You see, I might see them later in a morgue and that would be no good. On the other hand to "see each other later" implies that both of us will have life and the power of sight. These details are important. One must always tell someone you love them before they go away for any length of time. If you don't, you increase their chances of death. Also, if you are angry with them or treat them badly in any way, you put them at higher risk. God is cruel that way (if I believed in God but of course I don't.)

When I was a child, I liked to do my homework on the hardwood floor of my bedroom. Sometimes I would get tired and want to rest my head for just a moment as I wrote. But I didn't. Why? Because if I did, the pencil lead would lodge itself in my eye. That was a fact. Also, it was important to not look out my windows at night lest the undead stare back at me. And one must be careful to decide on which side one sleeps. If I slept on my right, that would indicate to my murderer that now was the time to kill me. Unless he wanted me to believe that was his plan and the real danger side was the left... in which case I should sleep on my right side to fool him. Unless he expected me to second guess myself...

As an adult, I believe that to allow any person who is not a member of my family to drive me anywhere is to tempt fate. Likewise, I only allow my parents or spouse to drive my children and then only when it cannot be prevented. I will try to go with them because my presence in the back seat of an overcrowded vehicle has protective powers. Likewise, I have found that if I pretend that I have a break pedal on the passenger's side of the car, my husband does not run into other vehicles on the thruway.

We have a creek in the backyard and a tree house in the woods. You must ritually remind children not to drown or fall. Additionally, since we live in a house with three living spaces separated by two staircases, one must daily remind children not to tumble down stairs. "Hold onto the railing. Don't fall. Be careful. Don't trip on the cat." My grandmother is elderly so I scan the floor for things that might make her fall. There are the obvious things like loose carpet and toys but what about that twist tie or a tiny bit of paper? If I saw such a thing and did not pick it up immediately, she might become inexplicably entangled in it and fall to her doom. And whose fault would it be? That's right. Mine.

You see, one has to take a rational approach to the unpredictability of life and make the appropriate plans for health and safety. I don't believe in God, but I am careful to correct myself whenever I grow frustrated and indicate that "I hate my life." No. No. I don't hate my life! What I mean to say to anyone who is listening is that "I dislike my life as it is now and would prefer a more healthful and fulfilling lifestyle. That's what I meant to say and that's what I mean- just in case there was any unfortunate misunderstanding.

You see, I don't believe in angels (mine is named Jasper) and I don't believe in faeries (actually it is much better to refer to them obliquely as "the wee people" or "them that be"). I believe we are subject to the laws of science and that my use of divination cards is a rational exercise in creative exploration of the unconscious. Reincarnation is yet another form of wishful thinking (my special pendulum with the shiny faceted black plastic bead on the end of the old string indicates that I was a emotionally distant Asian business man in my prior life. Other assessments are inaccurate because only the shiny plastic bead has the right powers.)

It is silly to keep talismans and charms although I have found that a certain turquoise ring is excellent for safe travel. I have a goddess figurine who brings me success and a bronze cow who controls my temper. Little angel figures hung here and there in my home return my loved ones safely home. Rocks keep Grandpa's memory alive and a tiny fetus doll carried in my purse intensifies my maternal connections to my offspring.

OK. So maybe I'm just a little superstitious. Just a smidge. But mostly I take care of myself and my family with good sense and planning. Wear a seat belt (you know the first time you don't- even if you're only just sitting in a parked car, you'll die). Exercise and eat sensibly. Don't smoke or drink. (And you should probably hold your breath when you walk by smokers because second hand smoke will kill you just like that). Eat organic food. Take your vitamins. Every day. Or else you will be suddenly stricken my every disease you have ever read about on the internet.

I think these are wise precautions. And really, you don't want to go overboard with worry to the point at which you are engaged in ridiculous magical thinking. As frightening as the world is, beyond wholesome discipline and sensible precautions you can't keep evil forever from your door--although I do find that the image of the roaring lion I keep in my entryway seems to help.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Unqualified Hireling Ministers

My position on the issue of education and ministry grows out of my origins as a minister's kid. In fact, my earliest memories are of life on a seminary campus where I lived with my father as he completed his graduate work. In my world, professional ministry was not something one took on until one had completed both undergraduate school and three years of graduate training. Those men and women who began serving churches in anything other than in the roles of student and assistant before they completed this necessary education were irresponsible- like public school teachers without grad degrees in education, like bus drivers without licenses, like psychotherapists without clinical training. How can one possibly accept a paycheck for professional ministry until one has the educational background and preparation in biblical scholarship and ministerial skills? Following are reasons why you should have a graduate degree before you become a professional member of the clergy.

Reason #1 Your religion and its sacred texts are more complicated than you think.

Despite what many people apparently believe, you actually can't interpret the Bible just by reading it "spiritually." As it turns out, there are methodologies with which one should first become familiar before speaking authoritatively on biblical texts. When interpreting ancient readings, it helps to know just a little about biblical criticism and history- unless, of course, you want to believe that God created all other civilizations to be helpful tools for our spiritual revelation. I tend to believe that other civilizations weren't thinking, writing, and behaving for our benefit but for theirs. Therefore, to interpret their literature, I find it helpful and respectful to acknowledge that it is possible that one cannot directly translate their motivations without first knowing something about their culture. But that's just me...and every other responsibly educated social scientist out there.

That's not to say that one has to be entirely academic when reading spiritual texts. I do believe there are human and spiritual commonalities across time that transcend cultural difference. I also believe that one can receive amazing wisdom in very non-linear, emotional, and inexplicable ways. It is sometimes beneficial to read the Bible "spiritually". Hell, I once received an important message from a fortune cookie. You just never know. So, I have nothing against spiritual interpretation per se. It has a role to play, but a hell of a lot of the the nonsense I've read and heard from many Christians might be eliminated if they had clergy who knew that a pericope was not some kind of exotic fruit.

Reason #2 Churches are full of human beings with complicated needs. They need people with expertise and training not a Pollyanna with a Christ complex.

You can't just go into a church, which is a financial and social body as well as a religious one, without being prepared to deal with the fiscal, emotional, psychological and business needs of that community. A Masters of Divinity is a three year graduate program that prepares professionals to encounter these difficulties. It probably should be a longer program but that's what we've got now. One hopes that those who possess this graduate education will continue to discipline themselves with continuing education and experiential learning. My own father did post-graduate work in clinical psychology after he earned his Masters of Divinity. Education is not a catch-all or a cure-all but it certainly does minimize the number of potential clergical dick decisions such as when my friend's untrained "Pastor" advised exorcism for her children. Being all revved up in the spirit of Jesus ain't going to cut it when you find yourself facing a budget shortfall or a case of child abuse.

I'm still floored whenever I hear about anyone in the paid ministry who has not completed a graduate education. How does that work, exactly? With a graduate degree, one can justify asking for a salary. A qualified minister has undergone coursework in topics such as biblical scholarship, theology, hymnity, and pastoral counseling. Their parishioners can expect a level of expertise, discipline, and access to information that will enhance the well-being of the community. But what if they just show up for work filled with the Spirit of the Lord but pretty light on credentials? What gives them the right to dispense religious teaching any more than the next person? Because they want to? Because they have a special interest? I'd like to teach anthropology to grad students. I've taken two introductory classes in community college. That should qualify me, right? My husband would like to fly a helicopter. He does own a model that actually flies. Maybe that's enough. I say we let him wing it. My father used to assist in autopsies. I say he should give surgery a shot.

Sure, some people are called to the ministry. Fine. So minister. But when you get paid to do that work, you set yourself up as one with authority to whom people in really serious trouble will turn. People respect that authority and they can be hurt by that authority. Badly hurt. I've seen it happen far too many times. This is why responsible people insist upon certain protocols in determining which individuals may provide which services and under what circumstances. Professional clergy must be responsible to a set of standards to which they are held not only by their congregations but also by a governing body outside the congregation.

I see the role of professional clergy as educators, advisors, and administrators. Their usefulness rests in their training and they should be trained to execute the tasks of research, counsel, and business. Their spiritual authority should not exceed that of any other member of the congregation. We should not hire clergy primarily because of their enthusiasm for their faith any more than we should hire college presidents for their enthusiasm for academics. How would that look, anyway?

"And why do you think you would make a good college president?"

"Well, I like to boss people around and I've visited several colleges.I know where the bathrooms are, and I look good in a suit. I'm an excellent bullshit artist and I really want this institution to succeed."

"Well, then, you're hired! What more could we want? I predict that under your unqualified but enthusiastic leadership, we'll achieve all the goals of our five year plan!"

Let me be clear. I am not against emotion, faith, and enthusiasm, but I do differentiate between professional clergy and faith-led ministry undertaken as a spiritual endeavor. As a Friend and as a spiritual person in general, I believe that all are called to ministry. I do not believe that any one person's calling, no matter how fancy or famous, is intrinsically superior to any other person's calling. For some of us, our ministry is obviously traditionally spiritual. For others not so much. We're all precious snowflakes that way, relying on each other to collectively express the fullness of humanity none of us can achieve on our own. We all have something to bring to the community which is why I so appreciate unprogramed Friends' meetings. None of us has authority beyond that borrowed from the community itself in the process of corporate decision making. We recognize that certain members have certain strengths, gifts, training, and talents that will serve us powerfully in specific situations, but do not assume that such gifts qualify them to dominate the discussion or the community in general. I recognize the unique wisdom others can bring to a community but I reject that anyone's wisdom is so unique that they, without any kind of academic or professional training, is better qualified to interpret scripture, advise others in distress, or make executive decisions. I believe we are all spiritual equals. No one has the right to assert any personal authority over any other human being.

We would expect that in addition to that enthusiasm, professionals and community leaders should have the training and background to justify giving them so much access to power. So this is why I am baffled when congregations hire clergy without educational and experiential backgrounds designed to prepare them for them for the position. Enthusiasm alone does not qualify anyone for practical authority. Or maybe I've missed something. Is there a religious wisdom meter out there of which I am not yet familiar? Is there some kind of spirit breathalyzer that can indicate when a person is drunk on the Lord and ready to lead a group of people in their religious life? What gives them the right to assume leadership in a community of potentially endangered, vulnerable human beings? Are they at least given a list of emergency numbers to call when some twenty year old "minister" first comes across a domestic violence victim or a pedophile in their congregation? Are they prepared to deal with it when the parking lot needs paving or the belfry has bats? Mightn't it make a teensy bit of sense to actually require that before someone takes on the role of leadership that they have taken just a few classes, at least, to prepare themselves for the professional clergy? It seems to me that a congregation that hires a minister with less than a graduate degree is like a family that hires a thirteen year old for a babysitting job. The kid's probably a great sitter so long as absolutely nothing unexpected happens while you are away. Likewise, a minister without training will probably do a great job so long as they are placed in a church without any problems. Have you ever been to one of those churches? Me neither.