Monday, December 17, 2012

After the Shooting in Connecticut, Jokes About Guns from the Pulpit

A day after the horrific murder of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, one of America’s most secular of institutions, NBC’s Saturday Night Live, felt compelled to deviate from business as usual during its regular broadcast.  Instead of opening the show with its usual comedy sketch, the “not-ready-for-primetime” TV show began with a children’s choir.  Sweetly singing the Christian hymn, “Silent Night.” 

The next morning, at my local church, the service began with three leaders making a gun joke from the Pulpit.

I prefer Saturday Night Live’s approach.

The church was holding a fundraiser after the service where cookies were being sold.   During the opening announcements, the church lay leader joked about someone using a gun to keep someone else in the congregation away from the cookies.  The joke was picked up by the church board president and then the Pastor.  I was stunned.  In the pews sat the children, more of them present than usual for the service because it was to feature the children’s choir.  They listened as the adult leaders of Christ’s church joked about using guns to keep people from eating cookies.  I wonder what lesson they took away from that.

Saturday Night Live got it so right.  My church got it so wrong.

As soon as the joking about guns ended, we began the actual service with a congregational prayer.  It contained this line:

“Restore our fortunes, O God, that we may show everyone we meet your power to transform the world.”

The word “transform” jumped out at me.

It was hard to tell if anyone else was so affected.  We read over those lines, monotone, words said because they were printed on a piece of paper and we had to say them to get to the next part of the service.  How could we talk about transforming anything with no passion or no comprehending of the words – especially with 20 six-and-seven-year-olds lying dead in their classrooms with their little bodies torn apart by three to 11 bullets.  Each.  If there ever was a time for us to feel passionate about needing to transform the world, to do something, to protect the little ones who Christ called to Him, it surely was this Sunday.

Instead, the only thing out of the ordinary was the cookie sale and the joke about guns needed to protect the sweets.  And, as usual, we droned through the words of prayer printed in the bulletin.  The words we spoke were just words to pass over.  But if the words we say in church are meaningless, why say them?  Indeed, why go to church?

These questions were urgent ones for me, not only because of the soul-numbing tragedy in Connecticut but also because I have been trying hard to give church a second (third, actually) chance.  I’ve struggled with my beliefs as an adult, alternately rejected then re-accepting the Christianity of my childhood.  During my recent 273 mile hike in Vermont I found myself examining my spirituality and asking myself, “why not just believe?”  So when I moved back home to rural Southern Illinois to live with my mother for a few months before making my next move to Seattle, I readily agreed to start going to church with her (and I even joined the choir to boot).

But, I realized that Sunday after the killings in Connecticut that I had set myself up.   I walked into church Sunday morning hoping to find some sort of grounding, some words or consolation or spiritual guidance that would help my soul deal with such a senseless act of violence brought upon our nation’s most innocent during the season of peace.  Surely, I thought, if a tawdry, secular show like Saturday Night Live can comprehend the need to depart from the norm the House of the Prince of Peace could do the same, if not more.  But I was wrong.

In the end, though, it’s my fault.  Many churches surely got it right on the Sunday morning after the killings.  The words offered in the vigil in Newtown were good words.  Calming words.  Spiritual words.  We are fortunate they were said.  Lucky, perhaps.   My error was depending upon a human institution to provide spiritual support and allowing my expectations to grow from that dependence.

Churches are run by fallible human beings and my church’s leaders failed me that Sunday morning.  I realized that, while church or religion may help at times to bring me closer to God, I shouldn’t depend upon them to do so.  A week earlier we discussed the role of religion in Sunday school class.  Religion’s role, I thought, is to bring us closer to God.  But since religious organizations are run by humans they simply can’t be trusted to fill that role.  I trusted my church to help me find God in the aftermath of one of the most horrific events of violence that has occurred in my lifetime.  I misplaced my hope.

If transformation is to come, it must start within ourselves.  We must examine our individual role in changing the one tiny part of the world we have control over, which is what lies within our own hearts and the actions we chose to take.   For that transformation to occur we each have to find God ourselves and not allow the quest to be diverted by the distractions of human failure.  The church may at times be able to help in that quest – but I will no longer look to it as the primary source of my spiritual growth. 

That has to come from God.  With a little assist, perhaps, from Saturday Night Live, whose clip of Silent Night I’ve played repeatedly as I try to move past the terrible tragedy in Connecticut and the callous comments about guns that my church’s leaders felt led to make just two days later.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Shenandoah Farewell

An SNP deer lets me take this closeup
Shenandoah National Park has been my favorite stomping ground since I first moved to the DC area.  My ex and I spent our first mountain trip there and walked on its trails for more than two decades.  We were often joined by our two dogs, Ranger and Buster, two perfect trail mutts who bounded between us eager to see what was around the next corner.  My ex and I would take long day hikes, finishing around 4 p.m. or so, then head back to the cabin or campsite for a beer or two.  I preferred to backpack, which we did occasionally, he preferred car camping or staying in one of PATC’s cabins.  We rang in the new millennium in 1999 there.  We spent the weekend before my Dad’s death there, our last trip in the park together.  In between we soaked up its riches and shared countless happy moments.   We saw our first bear in the wild there, not to mention countless deer, a copperhead or two and once a rattlesnake.  We learned how to set up a tent after you forgot the tent poles at home in those woods.

That’s why I had to take a final hike there before leaving the DC area. 

I wanted a simple hike, so I parked at Booten’s Gap in Central SNP with the intention of camping at Rock Springs Hut, summiting Hawksbill Mountain (highest point in SNP) either that afternoon or the next morning.

It turned out to be one of those hikes that brings to mind the trekker’s adage, “don’t quit on a bad day.”   I’ve been on numerous solo hikes over the past year as I train for the Long Trail.  This was the first time I felt lonely.  Or perhaps it wasn’t loneliness so much as the past clinging to me like quicksand, dragging my spirits down into the muck of regret.

With my spirits flagging, I decided to camp at Big Meadows Campground, preferring the “luxury” of a campground instead of a hut.  It was the right decision.  A large campfire, the sound of children laughing from the families camped nearby and plentiful deer wandering the grounds relieved my melancholy.

As I watched my fire I told myself that I am moving past my break-up grief stemming from the loss of two relationships.  “It’s over, it’s over,” I told myself, trying to focus on the fact that in the coming week I would be finally leaving D.C. and my life here and, more importantly, starting my Long Trail hike and eventual move to Seattle.  Since June my life has been about ending things.  I am about to start beginning things.

Well, almost. 

The next morning I rose at 6:30 and broke camp at 8:30 (truly, if there is one thing I enjoy most, it’s a hot breakfast outdoors).  I hiked the rest of the way to Hawksbill, and summited at 10:07.  The day was hazy and overcast.  Below me stretched the beautiful Shenandoah in the mist.  Flanked by Massanutten and Old Rag.  Never one to miss an opportunity for sentimentality, I could see my ex and I still tromping over those trails below, Ranger and Buster joyously bounding at our feet.  Looking at Old Rag I remembered the many hikes up its slopes he and I led since 1987, sharing the camaraderie that comes from enjoying the fellowship of a beautiful view gained from a day of steep hiking and a rock scramble.

My heart full of these memories and images, I climbed down from there. 

It became hard to see the trail ahead.  Hikers really shouldn’t cry.

View of Old Rag from Hawksbill summit


Monday, August 20, 2012

Simpler Days

The GOP is longing for simpler days when "I am not a Witch" was the defining statement of right-wing crazy.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Walking Memories

My hike is a month away, but I am already walking.  In a sense walking from my old life into an unknown new one.  And quite literally walking everywhere around this town I've called home for most of the last 25 years -- Washington, D.C.

Sunset over the Potomac River, from the Potomac Heritage Trail
I've always walked a lot.  D.C. is a good city to walk in, with ample paths, great scenery and traffic and parking logistics that make driving a real nightmare .   I bike here a lot, too.  When I worked in an office I biked to work.  Now that I'm preparing for my hike I take every opportunity to walk.  I go out of my way to walk.  I have a doctor's appointment 10 miles from my home tomorrow.  I will walk back.

All this walking gives me plenty of time to reflect on my time here.  Memories good and bad follow me everywhere.  My past echoes with each footfall.  I have a connection to that building, that street, that business.  Some memories are so distant I feel connected in fact only.  I know this place was part of my history I thought yesterday, standing in front of the home my ex-partner lived in when I met him.  But I have no feel for that place anymore.  Like a date inscribed on a tombstone it's just a cold memory scratched in my brain.

Other places are warmer, recent, familiar.  They still pull me in.  Some evoke smiles and laughter.  Yet there's still the sad sense of finality.  This part of my life -- the life I have known the longest -- is coming to an end.  The new part is not here yet and I feel caught between two worlds.  The old one passing and the new one not yet beginning.  Walking among shades of the past, I am a ghost among ghosts.

And all the while I keep walking.  Because walking is what I do now.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Your Children and Chick-fil-A

A friend from high school just posted this on her Facebook page.  It reminded me of what is most upsetting to me about the recent Chick-fil-A controversy.

The glee with which so many laughingly and light-heartedly defended the right of someone to say hurtful if not hateful  things about gay people and pursue policies that will continue to deny their equal rights.

The right to say such things is not in question.  The joy and mirth that so many expressed in defending that right is.  They seem to have forgotten that their joyful anti-gay messages will be heard by small ears.

"Careful the things you say, children will listen."

Lost in all of this are the children growing up gay but too scared (some for their lives) to talk to their parents or loved ones.  They fear they will be cast out (because they see their loved ones doing it in the things they say and in the politicians and policies they support).  These kids will have no where to turn.  And so these kids will hide.  They will withdraw.  They may turn to drugs and alcohol for relief from the crushing loneliness and rejection.  All too many will see suicide as their only option in a world where loved ones mock other people who are just like them.

After all, what future is there in a world where your dreams for a relationship full of love and companionship are demonized and rejected?

I hope that all those people standing in line to support anti-gay free speech at Chick-fil-A and posting "funny" cartoons about it like this one do not have any gay children or grandchildren.  Sadly, I know they do.

More sadly, those kids are watching.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Love Never Dies


Not sure if the spoiler alert is needed, since I'm uncertain that anyone really cares about Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequel to the Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies.

Count me among the uncaring.  At least, until I caught the performance on PBS the other night.

The idea of a Phantom sequel seemed to me unwarranted and desperate.  Hackneyed.  Why not an Evita sequel?  (I try to imagine some of the songs:  "Don't Rot for Me, Argentina," "Eva, Beware of the Cemetery," "High-Flying, Embalmed").

And then I found myself actually liking parts of it -- mostly some of the music.  Especially the Phantom's big number, "Till I Hear You Sing." Admittedly it's overwrought, melodramatic Webber.  But, in my recent state of mind after my last break-up, it works for me (and my recent ex-boyfriend frequently sang to me, albeit without a mask).

I would have to agree with some of the criticism of the show though.  The plot seems contrived and the characters not really believable.  In the story, 10 years after the disaster at the Paris Opera House, Raoul and Christine (and their son, Gustave, who is (hint-hint) 10 years old) reunite at Coney Island with the Phantom and Meg and Madame Giry.  We learn that the Phantom is actually Gustave's father and then Meg, in a jealous fit, accidentally shoots and kills Christine.  And you just don't really care.  Too bad Meg didn't shoot that sap Raoul as well, I never liked him.  I mean, really, using your girlfriend as bait for a deranged murderer (in the first show)?  Betting your relationship in a drunken wager with the Phantom (in the current show)?

If only, at the end, the Phantom had looked at Gustave and said, "Join me, and together we will rule the galaxy as father and son!"  Oh, but I guess that's another show.

Still, I liked the song.  What can I say?

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Take a Hike

“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, and so on – have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear – what remains?

“Nature remains.”

-- Walt Whitman

I need to take a walk.  Have an adventure.  Spend some time in the woods.

Seattle is in my future, as I’ve detailed here previously.  Until then, I’ve made a few other plans.  The focal point of those plans is a hike on Vermont’s Long Trail, a 270-walk in the wilderness:

Built by the Green Mountain Club between 1910 and 1930, the Long Trail is the oldest long-distance trail in the United States. The Long Trail follows the main ridge of the Green Mountains from the Massachusetts-Vermont line to the Canadian border as it crosses Vermont's highest peaks. It was the inspiration for the Appalachian Trail, which coincides with it for one hundred miles in the southern third of the state.

I take this journey for various reasons.  The main reason is recovery.  After going through what has seemed a prolonged period of loss, which includes the death of my father, the end of a 24-year relationship, the bitter breakup of a new relationship and the loss of my job, I want some fresh air.  I need a re-start.

I go into the woods somewhat battered, but not yet beaten.  I seek a better path and a stronger stride.

My goals for the hike include:

  • Re-evaluate my life and my career
  • Take time to discover/reconnect with the spiritual aspect of life that I have neglected for so long
  • Find the strength to overcome physical and mental challenges
  • Experience living in nature

And, finally:

Simply have an adventure – life is short, why postpone dreams until retirement?  That old diem needs to be carped before the tempus goes fugit.

After the hike I hope I find myself connected to new goals; more centered spiritually, more patient, self reliant and better able to accept conditions beyond my control.  I want to be a better outdoors-man.  I hope to simply be a better man.

I have more things to say about some of these goals as well as how I’m training for the trail, my hopes, my fears and, of course, my equipment.  I plan to start a blog devoted to the hike and hope to post updates when I can.  My hike will start in mid-September and I’ll be starting the new blog soon.

But for now, suffice it to say:  I’m going.

“ONE of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

 “I should not be withheld but that some day       
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.”

-- Robert Frost

Health Insurance

I had to talk to a doctor at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois about my medical history as part of my application process.  After 45 minutes on the phone:

Dr.:  "Have you ever had thoughts of suicide or harming yourself?"

Me:  "Not until this phone call."

I guess they didn't think that was funny.  I was denied.