The speech the Scouts deserved

On Monday 24 July 2017, President Donald J. Trump addressed the Boy Scouts of America at their Jamboree in West Virginia. The Boy Scouts, and really, all young people, deserved better from their President.

This is what they should have heard:

I am deeply honored to stand before members of the great American institution of the Boy Scouts of America. I did not have the pleasure of being a Scout when I was a young person, but you don’t have to be a Scout to know what an asset to our nation, and to the world, Scouting has been.

You are part of a great international felowship of young people. After you leave the Scouts, you may never pitch another tent, build another campfire, or tie another clove hitch. But you are part of a worldwide family, one whose values of thrift, industry, integrity, and service, are things which people can agree on–things which transcend nationality, political affiliation, religion, race, or economic status.

The Boy Scouts of America has, for over 100 years, trained young people for achievement–not just achievement which will benefit the individual, but achievement which will benefit communities, whether local or global. Look at the people who have made breakthroughs in science, industry, arts, government–among the luminaries, you will find people who spent at least a part of their younger years as Cubs, Webelos, and Scouts.

How does Scouting develop leaders? First, Scouts learn to obey legitimate authority. Unless your Mom is your den mother, or your Dad is your troop leader, you are with adults you can’t con into giving you your own way. Knowing you won’t always get your own way is one of the most important lessons you’ll ever learn. And you will never be able to exercise legitimate authority until you’ve learned to work under legitimate authority.

Second, you learn to work with other people to achieve things bigger than any of you could possibly do on your own. Whether it’s setting up camp for the night, or service projects like feeding hungry people in your communities, you figure out who is best for what tasks, and appreciate the contributions of the entire group which lead to successfully completed projects.

Third, you practice the habits of character which our world is so sorely in need of: thrift, honesty, loyalty, friendlienss, integrity. Friendliness doesn’t mean everyone is your friend. It means you treat everyone as your friend. You’d be surprised how many friends you have when you treat people as though they are already your friends.

You learn respect–for yourself, but more importantly, for others. You learn a person is not necessarily inferior because she or he is different from you. Respect leads to understanding others. And understanding other people–their needs, their struggles, their abilities, and their hopes–always makes the world a better place.

Young people are the hope of the future. You are the future. Your participation in the Boy Scouts of America is an important way to make sure you contribute to a bright, peaceful, prosperous future–for America and for the world.

The President of the United States is the honorary President of the Boy Scouts of America. And it is indeed an honor to stand before so many young people who embody the best of what the United States has been in the past, and will be in the future.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. I wish you the best for a safe, fun, and productive Jamboree.

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On Being a Shitty Christian (warning–strong language follows)

In the aftermath of the 2016 General Election process, leading to the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States, I’ve lost a number of online friends. Some have “unfriended” me, others I’ve “unfriended.” I use this option particularly if a person with whom I need to maintain a face-to-face relationship behaves badly online. Yesterday, someone whose friend request I had accepted a few days prior became so belligerent and holier-than-thou, I decided not only to unfriend, but to block.

Those who know me, know how much I detest the “holier-than-thou” thing. (It’s funny how the holiest people I’ve known never pull it.) I especially bristle at people who pull the “some Christian you are” kind of thing, reminding me we both took (or renewed) the same baptismal and confirmation vows–but excoriating me for not interpreting them the way they do.

BAD Christian. BAD. I’m half expecting someone to roll up a newspaper and strike my snout.

I’ve decided I am not a bad Christian.  I am a shitty Christian.

I said this on Facebook last night. A few people seemed to “get it” right away, fully appreciating my Christian shittiness. Others, well-meaning, told me I should not worry about the way people judge my religious practice (thin though it currently is). I’m sure they meant to give comfort and encouragement, which I do appreciate.

But, truth is, I’m a shitty Christian, and I am wearing the title as a badge of honor.

A shitty Christian is not just  a bad Christian writ large. It is not (simply) a flawed human being who doesn’t follow the Law, Prophets, and Teachings of Christ perfectly, or who slips up more than she stands up. Although all of this is true of me as well.

A shitty Christian is a different kind of being. And after the exchange with friends where I declared myself a shitty Christian, I decided (since there is no real definition for this category) I would outline what I mean, and how, if I’m going to be Christian at all, I’ve got no choice but to be a shitty one.

A shitty Christian is not a newbie Christian who is just finding his or her way. S/he has more than likely been a Christian for some time, has probably been a seriously involved member of one or more congregations (serially or consecutively), and has engaged their tradition in greater detail than simply Sunday attendance, Bible study, and reading whatever books the ordained leadership mentions from the pulpit. (I’m an extremely shitty Christian, given my educational credentials and work history with churches.) It’s more than likely s/he is a lay person, or no longer serving as a public/ordained minister, because it would be hard to be a shitty Christian in such a capacity.

So, in no particular order, here is what I mean by shitty Christian. I hope it becomes clear why I see myself as one, and why I’m comfortable (even proud) of it.

  1. A shitty Christian has had significant involvements in one or more congregations. I’ve moved around a fair amount, and have been part of Episcopal churches in six of the United States, and two English counties. I’ve preached in five dioceses of the Episcopal Church, and three in the Church of England. I’ve been a lector, altar server, and adult educator in Episcopal churches. I’ve worked as an educator for prospective public ministers But always as a lay person.
  2. A shitty Christian has a deeper knowledge of and engagement with his or her tradition than the average person in the pew. I’m an extreme case here, I realize. I studied in an Episcopal seminary alongside people who were going to be ordained, matching their ability in most, if not all, of the academic disciplines required by the General Board of Examining Chaplains. I hold a doctorate in systematic theology. I spent two years researching changing roles and expectations of clergy in a Church of England diocese.

However, these things are prerequisites to being a shitty Christian–they are not in themselves enough. Obviously, being a shitty Christian is not amateur hour stuff. You actually have to be a reasonably proficient Christian before you can be a shitty one.

So, at least a few of the following must be present before one can claim being a shitty Christian. (NB: I possess all of them, which means I believe myself to be a perfectly shitty Christian.

3. A shitty Christian is not overly impressed with clerical authority. Partly, this comes from having spent a lot of time around people who either are ordained, or want to be. Between studying, teaching, and researching, I spent six years up close and personal with people who were priests, were training to be priests. Ordination does confer a church’s seal of approval to minister the Word and Sacraments, but no matter what anyone tells me, I don’t buy the ontological change thing. It reveals the whole person, more than it transforms. Those who have been ordained may want to argue differently, but the truth is, I don’t see it. I can respect the work of the ordained without thinking they are holier or in some way special or magical.

4. A shitty Christian gets frustrated with religious foppery. As much as I may love my ordained friends, I dread every Advent and Lent, and the nonsense about when one may wear the rose vestments (and believe me, there are people who fear lightning will strike should anyone refer to them as pink), or the argument about whether a cassock-alb is an abomination unto the LORD. I won’t go into whether the Advent wreath candles are properly called purple or violet, or the chills people seem to experience when it is suggested blue might be used. We won’t mention the im/permissibility of using “alleluia” (or “hallelujah”) during Lent, or the order in which the candles at the altar must be lit.

5. A shitty Christian may understand a lot of doctrinal niceties, but doesn’t necessarily buy into all of them. When I worked as Director of Studies for a Church of England ministry training program, I always had an internal smirk about how ordinands had to “subscribe” to the XXXIX Articles of Religion. Like any magazine, I tend to skim and pick out what I need at the moment.

6. A shitty Christian may actually love Jesus but have serious reservations about the Church and its leaders. Sometimes, to the point of stopping going to church. I got to a point where I would throw up in my mouth on receiving Communion (even my needed gluten-free). If I saw someone in a clerical collar in the supermarket, I’d move to another aisle and stay there for at least 10 minutes and pretend to be a very careful shopper. I think I now know the ingredient list on every canned soup my local store sells. But I think Jesus is a great moral, ethical, and political leader and teacher–even if I have questions about the divinity stuff.

7. A shitty Christian may not care much about being “spiritual.” Years ago, when I was a more conventional Christian, I “experienced” glossolalia (commonly called “speaking in tongues”). Twice. I write “experienced”, because it may not have really happened. I blatted along in something which was no language I spoke. But now, a quarter century on, I wonder if it wasn’t really a submission to peer pressure and wanting to fit in with more charismatic friends. I’ve had very few instances when I’ve felt God as a real, active presence in my life–almost none where I could say I got clear guidance or comfort or instruction. Never a “word from the LORD.” And do not even ask me about my “relationship with Christ.” It’s like a bad breakup where we’ve got a lot of mutual friends, but we’re wary of each other.

8. A shitty Christian may think a lot of God’s work on earth has nothing to do with the Church. Maybe the only part of the LORD’s prayer I really care about any more is “on earth, as in heaven.” Which means making earth a place God might want to spend some time. And a lot of how that happens may involve stuff which the Church has no expertise to help, and might be more harmful. Too many people have said to me, “the church needs to look around, see where God’s work is being done, and get involved.” No. The church needs to support and encourage, but there are a lot of things where it has no special expertise, and could do as much damage as good.

9. A shitty Christian’s committment may look somewhat inconsistent. This is where I had to delete a person from my Facebook. It was insinuated I was not a good Christian because I couldn’t “love” the people who I thought had committed a great evil. Because I made a vow to “respect the dignity of every human being”, I should just love and accept them as is. Fair enough, but there were also things in the baptismal covenant which said I was to renounce evil, and to strive for justice and peace. These are inconsistent with letting evil go unremarked. (And yes, this was political, because shitty Christians will often see their form of Christianity lived out in the political sphere.)

10. A shitty Christian may live more in their intellect than in their “heart”, or “spirit”, or “soul”. It doesn’t mean a shitty Christian is necessarily smarter than any non-shitty Christian. It just means we’re less likely to accept what we’re told without question, or to toe the line without investigating. We’re likely to argue back.

11. A shitty Christian will criticize his/her religion as fiercely, if not moreso, than s/he will criticize the faith of others. S/he knows it well, and despite any love and loyalty, understands its shortcomings and failures.

So, this is what it means to me to be a shitty Christian, and why I wear the title proudly. It’s something different from just being a supremely terrible Christian. It’s being the kind of Christian to whom more conventional Christians respond by saying, “Oh, SHIT.”

 

 

Yes, I’m a “doctor”, but not of “spin”

I woke up this morning to this charming piece of news. I commented on it, both on my own Facebook feed and on of the many comment threads where I saw it. My view is this:

She took the bait.

“You are fascinated with sex.” It was supposed to sound like something said in the heat of the moment. My suspicion is he was waiting with the line, just ready with the juicy little worm on the hook, until the perfect opportunity. Holding back on dropping it until she was ready to snap. It was calculated to throw her off her game, give him the upper hand, because he could insinuate the WORST thing a (conservative) man could say about a (conservative) woman on a (conservative) news network.

She isn’t “ladylike”. Her desires might be out of control. She’s unpredictable.

Except he *did* predict–well, and viciously. Because she played the semantic game, and gave him what he expected.

“No, I’m not.”

The proper, ladylike response. Which, in this case, loses the game.

The winning strategy would have let him blow all that hot air, not interrupting him, not talking over him. Give the ugliness its space. Then make the unexpected response:

“Yes, Mr. Speaker, like all human beings, I’m fascinated with how we come into the world–which means I’m fascinated with sex. However, some of us are fascinated with other things too, like how we sustain ourselves in the world (which means we’re fascinated with food), and how we leave it (which means we’re fascinated with death). Our fascination with sex has not been detrimental to our careers and reputations.

“Shall we proceed?”

I was asked if I’m a “spin doctor”. To intelligent people, this is not “spin”. It’s called discourse analysis–I’m looking at the environment in which the semantic game is played, the way the game is played, and whether the game is even a valid one.

Gingrich didn’t play a valid game once he started with “you are fascinated with sex.” She played into his trap when she said “I’m not fascinated with sex.”

People are saying how Kelly “handed [Gingrich] his ass.” No, she didn’t. She handed him her ass, and took it back in a takeout box.

People are saying she is “off the leash” now Roger Ailes is gone from Fox. She is still playing the “defend my white woman’s [sexual] purity and honor” game her paymasters like best.

I’m not a fan of either of the participants in this exchange. But if you’re simply keeping score, she lost the semantic game.

Can you not copy and paste for me for one hour?

If I had to name a single pet peeve with social media, it would be the Facebook posts which read as follows:

 

With a broken heart and tears in my eyes I can honestly say this is the most difficult time ever. I know what cancer and treatment can do to a body and I sometimes wonder if it is worth it in the long haul. It seems to do more harm than good.

Nothing is more painful than trying to smile and remain positive, but after chemo and radiation, the person physically  changes and they suffer with sadness. I know many of you do not give a hoot about this message, because, of course, the cancer has not affected you. You do not know what it’s like to have fought the fight, or to have a loved one who leads a battle against cancer.

For all the men and women I know, I ask you a small favor – I know only some of you will do it. If you know someone who has led a battle against cancer, is still struggling, or who passed, please add this to your status for one hour as a mark of support, respect, and remembrance.

Copy and paste to support those affected by cancer. Do Not Share. From your phone or tablet, hold your finger over the message to copy and paste to your page.

Thank you,

Someone Who Cares . . . Deeply

Showing Support To Those Who Are Fighting This Awful Disease

 

Apart from the poor quality of writing, this is an appalling thing. It is manipulative: “I know many of you do not give a hoot”. And to show you not only give a hoot, but multiple hoots, you must copy and paste–“share” is obviously inadequate. It must appear as your very own struggle (best if you can mention a particular friend or relative–by name or de-identified–on whose behalf you give your precious hoots).

Tied to the manipulation is shame. I believe shaming people for doing something morally wrong, mean, or willfully harmful is not always inappropriate. But telling people they don’t care because they don’t “copy and paste”? As if caring is measured by my putting my finger over a message and pretending it’s my own (which is why you don’t “share”–it identifies where you got this crap).

It is arrogant: “You don’t know what it’s like to have fought the fight, or to have a loved one who leads a battle against cancer.” It is a tragic truth to say there are few people over age 15 (which I believe is late in life) who have not, in some way, been up-close-and-personal with cancer. A parent, sibling, grandparent, family friend: by the time you’re in your mid-teens, someone you know has, more than likely, dealt with cancer. The outcome may have been survival (which may not mean return to things as they were), it may not. But pretty much everybody‘s life has been touched by cancer.

But apart from manipulation, inappropriate use of shame, and arrogance, there are a few big problems with “Copy and Paste if You Care! I Know Which of My Friends Will!” The first is, it’s ridiculous. At least on Planet Earth, which is where I maintain a mailing address. Go ahead and “Copy and Paste Because You Care!” if you can imagine the following scenarios on your home planet:

*****

“I’ve just had my one-year follow up, and it looks like I’m cancer free. Thanks so much for your copy and paste of that one status for an hour! I just know it did the trick.”

*****

Bob: John, I just wanted to let you know before you hear it from someone else. I’ve got cancer, it doesn’t look good, I may not have a lot of time left.

John: I’m so sorry, buddy. I’m here for you. Name what you need, and you’ve got it.

Bob: Thanks, man. It would really help if you did that Facebook copy-and-paste thing. A few hashtags on Twitter if you can would seal the deal.

John: Done, bro. You always know I’ve got your back. (Fist bump.)

*****

Loved ones around a deathbed, holding the hand of someone about to pass onto whatever comes next. Handkerchiefs dabbing eyes, and weeping: “If only I had copied and pasted that status!”

****

Newspaper death notice:

Maria Virgomaterdei died Monday, August 15 2016, at Vassar Brothers Hospital, after a long illness. Auchmoody Funeral Home, Rt. 82, Hopewell Junction, NY, will hold no visitation or memorial service. In lieu of flowers or contributions, the family requests her to be memorialized by copying and pasting a Facebook status, or tweeting #cancersucks.

*****

You get it.

But even these stupidities are not why the “copy and paste” burns my onions so badly.

I have said very little about it publicly, but just about a year ago, a “friendlative” (someone whose relative is married to a relative of mine, whom I would not have known otherwise, but who has become a cherished friend) was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia simultaneously with an aggressive form of pneumonia. This person was hospitalized for a total of eight months in three separate institutions–and set a record for the length of stay in the intensive care unit of a specialist cancer hospital. There were weeks of medically induced coma. There were Christmas trees of IV bags. There were prognoses of “will not likely live another week.”

My person is still alive, and is home. Still using an oxygen concentrator (and the damage from the pneumonia may be permanent), and blind, although hard to say whether it was the illness, complications, or treament which took sight. Undergoing various types of rehab. Learning to live as a blind person.

And I never “copied and pasted” a single damn status. Why? Because there are better things to do. Things which actually do something.

On the night before he was crucified, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He took his most trusted friends, who ended up unable to pray with him for a single hour. Would he have appreciated a “copy and paste” as an expression of care, solidarity, support?

In the words of Dr. Evil, how about no?

There are much better things to do as an expression of care. Here are a few we tried during our loved one’s illness (some of which we still need to do):

  1. If you’re a religious or spiritual person, pray for an hour (yes, the same hour you’re supposed to use for the copy-and-paste status). Prayer, unlike posting a status, takes effort, energy, attention. And it is really about whatever higher power to whom you pray, in relation to the person for whom you pray. It isn’t about your smug self-righteousness about having copied and pasted.
  2. Ask what is really helpful to the person–and what is not. Then do what you can from the list. Some of what we did are these:
  3. Visit–according to the schedule of the patient. Take into account treatment times, appointments, the person’s energy, and the times when closer-in relatives can make it. If a hospital has a limit to how many people can be in a room with a patient, always defer to the patient’s wishes and step out if a closer person (or one s/he needs to talk to) arrive.
  4. Take care of the patient’s immediate family. If rides need to be arranged, offer them. Ask what meals they need, and cook or purchase them. Walk their dog or clean the cat litter. Buy them an hour of Merry Maids if you can. Help with the kids’ homework.
  5. Provide treats and comforts. Downloads or CDs of favorite music, or audiobooks. A cozy fleece or pair of slippers. When I broke my wrist and was housebound in 2014, one of the best ways to supply treats and comforts was the Amazon Gift Card. It allowed me to get what I liked, in the format most congenial to my condition, when I needed it. If your loved one has access to a tablet, smart phone, laptop (or has someone who can do this for them), Amazon Gift Cards are great. If they’re in a hospital, it lets them ask the staff what is allowed and what is not safe–a well-meaning visitor may bring all the wrong stuff.
  6. Send cards–but not always flowers. In the ICU of a specialist cancer hospital, flowers are too germy, but very few microbes can grow on dry paper.
  7. Offer your frequent flyer miles to bring distant loved ones to visit.
  8. Offer rides to/from the airport for out of town visitors.
  9. Offer your guest room to out of town visitors.
  10. If the patient is a member of a faith community, ask them if they would like a visit from a leader of their congregation, or if something like home communion or being put on a prayer list is something they would find comforting. If there are printouts of sermons, ask if s/he would like you to get them and (if needed/wanted) read them to your loved one. Then make the call to the faith leader. Even if it is a religion to which you don’t belong, or can’t stand. Remember, it’s about the patient, not you.
  11. Knit or crochet a soft hat in a favorite color if they’ve lost their hair to chemotherapy.
  12. ALWAYS use the “ring theory” when you don’t know what to say.
  13. When they come home, learn how to use the equipment needed (hospital beds, oxygen concentrators, nebulizers) to make the transition.
  14. Offer to research services needed.
  15. If they want, be with them at doctor or rehab appointments. Help by keeping a list of questions the patient wants answered, and take notes on the answers. Learn their physical/occupational therapy exercises, and help them do their routines at home if they want.
  16. Learn along with them about any adaptations to a different way of living which may be the result of surviving cancer.
  17. Organize a fundraiser to help with expenses which aren’t covered by insurance.
  18. Make a donation to a reputable charity whose work provides care to patients or research on treatments and cures.
  19. Sign a donor card so your organs/tissues can be used for transplantation or research after your own death.
  20. See if your blood/plasma/bone marrow are a match if there’s the possibility they may be needed.

 

No single act I’ve listed is beyond the capabilities of a reasonably competent, decent adult. No single act I’ve listed is by itself heroic. None of us did all of what I’ve listed. But each of us did at least one of these, according to his/her ability and resources. Together we had it covered.

Your friend or relative is not properly remembered or honored or supported by a generic, whiny Facebook status or hashtag which does not describe him or her as a concrete human being. If all you can do is post a Facebook status, post one which tells your person’s unique story, and remembers the particular human being you loved.  But don’t “copy and paste.” It’s abusive, it’s undignified, and it does nothing good whatsoever.

I’m very sorry if you think my failure to “copy and paste” means I don’t care or don’t know as much as you do. But I was kind of busy doing most of the above, and cheering on people who did things on the list I was unable to do.

Amateurs

In February of 1938, Alfred H. Wertheim presented a paper to the New York Academy of Sciences and Affiliated Societies. The “subject” (not title) reads as follows:

 What may be proved from our present knowledge as to the possibility or impossibility of released intra-atomic energy constituting an important source of solar and stellar energy.

Mr. Wertheim’s certificate of membership is dated May 2, 1938, so this paper may be what earned him membership in one of the oldest learned societies in the United States.

For years, I saw Mr. Wertheim’s certificate every day, as it hung on the wall of the dining room in the house where I grew up. Alfred was my maternal grandfather. I never met him, as he died when my mother was a teenager. She adored her father, but did not speak in much detail about him–the memory of his untimely death in his early 50s was, understandably, painful for her. As a result, I don’t know a great deal about my grandfather.

One important thing I do know, however, is this: Alfred Wertheim was not a scientist. At least not by profession: he was a violinist, and he also ran a textile business. But by today’s standards, even by the standards of the 1930s, he was an amateur.

I don’t know if Alfred went to college or earned a degree–or, if he did, what his field of study might have been. But I am sitting here with a draft copy of his 1938 paper on solar energy, and looking at a carefully researched, closely argued essay of a quality I would expect in a master’s level seminar. Not from an amateur.

We need to remove the negative connotations from the word amateur, and welcome more of them into our institutions. Setting aside the natural pride I feel knowing one of my ancestors produced a work of this quality, as an amateur, we need more people who are not the “professionals” making significant contributions to things like our religious institutions, communities, political endeavors. We need to take into account the insights of people with curious minds and meticulous thought processes. We need to respect the intellectual power people have when they apply their abilities to big questions and projects, and stop dismissing them because they are just “amateurs”.

We need, in short, to revive my grandfather.

I’m not arguing we need people who don’t know what  they are talking about being taken as seriously as people who do. I’m not saying (as a recent Facebook meme suggests) a Google search is equivalent to an earned doctorate.

But I think we need to foster the kind of careful thinking about sophisticated ideas by people who may not be getting paid for it. We need to educate people not so much for discreet technical skills, but for the ability to evaluate varying sources of information, compare their quality, and articulate the reasons for accepting or rejecting them on their merits.

The kind of amateurism in Alfred Wertheim’s 1938 paper on solar energy is not the kind of amateurism of a world where Twitter and the 24 hour news cycle reigns supreme. But it is so necessary as an antidote to the world of the sound byte and Facebook meme. My grandfather’s amateurism is what comes from a world where a man or woman with a  wide-ranging mind is encouraged to put serious energy into exploring important ideas, and subjecting the conclusions to the scrutiny of people who know more than he does. It is intellectual courage in a high form.

I wish I had had the chance to know my grandfather. Because I think we need more of what he demonstrated in this paper.

Unfortunate “Christian” Terms

For a while, I’ve been hearing/reading an unfortunate term, used by Christians–often youth pastors–and I think it’s time to say something.

“We’re just here to love on these kids”. Or elders, poor people, people of a different racial group.

It’s a little creepy, and while I agree, “creepy” is only the tip of the iceberg.

To “love on” a person is sort of like “eating on” a plate or a table. The person/plate/table becomes an object for the convenience of the agent–the person doing the “loving” (or eating).

To “love on”, much like to “eat on”, is non-relational, and non-transformative. The person/plate/table “loved” on or “eaten” on, is not changed, improved, developed, matured.

Indeed, it is more likely the person/plate/table is just left with a crumby, sticky, wet mess. And the “lover”/eater is unlikely to want to clean it up.

How about just “love” the person?