Let’s Blame the Immigrants!

The US economy is in the crapper, everyone’s feeling the squeeze, so of course it’s time for the next round of “Let’s Blame Immigrants for All Our Problems!”

The following post has been making the rounds on Facebook (again):  SO LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT … If you cross the North Korean border illegally, you get 12 yrs. hard labor. If you cross the Afghanistan border illegally, you get shot. Two Americans just got eight years for crossing the Iranian border. If you cross the U. S. border illegally you get a job, a drivers license, food stamps, a place to live, health care, housing & child benefits, education, & a tax free business for 7 yrs …No wonder we are a country in debt. Re-post if you agree.

Let’s look at this piece by piece.

As far as I can tell, the claim that you get 12 years of hard labor for crossing illegally into North Korea is based on two American journalists who received that sentence in 2009 for “illegal entry and ‘hostile acts.'”  What were the ‘hostile acts’ they committed against North Korea?  That government never specified, but convicted them anyway.  (I wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that the two journalists were reporting on the trafficking of women.)  In any case the two journalists were pardoned and deported two months later when former President Bill Clinton visited that country and requested their release.  In the last couple of years, four Americans have been arrested and convicted of illegal entry, and all four have been pardoned and released.  Most recently, in April of last year, an American was accused of illegal entry and ‘an unspecified hostile act’ (he was a Christian missionary).  He was sentenced to eight years of hard labor, but also received a pardon and deportation.

It’s difficult finding news about Afghan shootings that don’t involve US soldiers and/or the Taliban, but I did find something claiming that the penalty for resisting arrest in Afghanistan is being shot.  The only story I could find about the shooting of migrant workers illegally crossing the Afghan border involved Afghan migrant workers sneaking across the border out of Afghanistan into Iran, where they were shot.

The two Americans who just got eight years for crossing the Iranian border actually got three years for crossing the border, and five years for ‘spying for the United States.’  They are also political tools for the Iranians to highlight the alleged mistreatment of Iranians in US prisons, and most likely will be released as bargaining chips for something else the Iranians want.

Those are the facts regarding those three countries.  Now the obvious question: DO WE REALLY WANT TO PATTERN LIFE IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AFTER NORTH KOREA, AFGHANISTAN, AND IRAN???!!!  Are these countries we wish to emulate?  If so, then why are two of them part of the so-called (by us) Axis of Evil?  And Afghanistan?  Talk to any American vet who’s been over there, and ask him if he was there fighting so that we could be more like them.  I dare you to.  And if you’ve posted this quote on Facebook, or supported someone who did, don’t try to claim now that no one is saying those countries are better.  That’s exactly what you’re saying when you state or support such comparisons.

As for the welcome wagon that is supposedly waiting just this side of the border handing out free housing, health care, jobs, education, et al to the sneaking illegal immigrants–um, really?  What jobs?  Below-minimum wage under-the-table jobs where they’re little more than slaves, constantly living under the threat of deportation if they complain?  Or maybe you’re referring to those who tried the indentured servant route, and are now working in sweatshops or brothels?  Or maybe you’re talking about the migrant workers who do back-breaking work at the fruit farms of Georgia for minimum wage plus performance bonuses, which sometimes earn them upwards of $20 per hour.  Yeah, them.  When Georgia recently passed a new law designed to drive out the illegals, farmers were unable to hire enough local legal workers to do the work, even though Georgia’s unemployment rate is over 10%.  More Americans would rather collect unemployment that work at Federally-approved pay levels with the potential of earning nearly three times that rate, if their performance warrants it.  When crops were rotting in the fields because there weren’t enough workers to harvest them, the farmers hired probationers, a group of people who usually have a very difficult time finding work.  Most of the probationers quit, and the very few who stayed weren’t nearly as productive as the illegal immigrants who had done that work before them.  Crops are still rotting in the fields.  There is no special employment plan for illegal immigrants at the expense of American citizens.

Who’s just handing out drivers’ licenses?  I’ve been licensed in four states, and all four times I had to provide a birth certificate and/or a Social Security card and/or a US passport (plus several other documents to prove residency).  It’s true that some illegal immigrants may be forging or buying stolen identification papers in order to get their licenses, but that’s not the same as just being handed the licenses.  Oh yes, and those licenses obtained with forged or stolen documents?  Those allow the illegal immigrants to work at legitimate jobs where they pay taxes that benefit all Americans, including Social Security and Medicare, which, because of their phony SSNs, illegal immigrants will never benefit from.

Qualifying for food stamps varies from state to state, but I believe income verification and proof of identity are universally required.  And I also wonder–whether a person’s here illegally or not, do we really want people starving to death within our borders?  What does that say about our national values?

The only free housing I’m aware of in the United States are homeless shelters, and the only ones envious of people living in homeless shelters are the people living on the streets because there’s no room available in those shelters.  And those people aren’t likely to be reposting anti-immigration rhetoric on Facebook while they wait for a bed to become available.

There is definitely no free health care here.  Most people without health care, whether they’re illegal immigrants or American citizens, don’t go to the doctor until it’s such an emergency that they have to go to the emergency room, where they have to be treated regardless of ability to pay.  Doctors and hospitals charge a much higher rate to the uninsured than their ‘negotiated’ rates with the health care providers, and that virtually guarantees that individuals without insurance won’t be able to pay for the emergency services they received.  This isn’t an immigration problem; it’s a health care problem.

I’ve already addressed housing, and I’m not sure what child care benefits the post is referring to.  Exemptions for children in the tax code?  They’re paying taxes, and they have children.  I don’t think that children here illegally are any cheaper to care for than those with American citizenship, and the important point to remember here, again, is that they’re paying taxes.

The belief that illegal immigrants receive free education can be attributed to two things.  One is the K-12 public school system, in which case the assertion is true.  It’s also true that each of those illegal students is responsible for money going to their school system, thanks to the prevalence of attendance-based funding formulas.  If you want to see a school system tank, yank out all the undocumented students, and see what’s left for the citizens in that district.   The other possible source for this belief is the controversy over allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition for state-run colleges and universities.  I know of one person in Massachusetts who has repeatedly lamented the fact that she has to pay for her kids to go to college, while the illegals get in for free.  In truth, the program (at least in Massachusetts) is that all Massachusetts students who attend a Massachusetts community college and graduate with a 3.0 or higher GPA can enroll at UMass Amherst and have the in-state tuition waived (though they’d still be on the hook for the $10K in additional fees per year).  The controversy stems from the fact that most of the community colleges aren’t very diligent at determining the residency of their students, so out-of-state students and illegal immigrants might slip in, too.  (Granite Staters and Mexicans together at UMass–oh the horror of it all!!!)  The people who are complaining about having to pay aren’t sending their kids through community college and expecting them to make the grade; that’s why they have to pay, not because illegal immigrants (and New Hampshire residents) are hogging all the free tuition.  There is no free tuition.

I have to claim complete ignorance on the tax-free business for seven years.  My husband and I have set up our own company, and I don’t remember seeing any exemption in the corporate rules that said if we could prove illegal status, we wouldn’t have to pay corporate income tax.

Some of these claims that I don’t know about may be because they’re holdovers from the Canadian, UK, Australian, or even Indian versions of this electronic rant.  It’s been circulated in all those countries.  Sorry folks, you’re not that original.

And as a final note, I’ve noticed that there are a quite a few Christians getting behind this post, usually the same ones who use the bible as justification for denying marriage to gay couples.  Please take out your bibles and read Leviticus 19:33-34 (it’s just a little bit past that verse you love so much that proclaims that a man lying with another man is an abomination): “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”  If you’re going to demand biblical authority for the laws of this land, then start with this one.  The treatment of the alien is mentioned far more often than homosexuality, and much less ambiguously.

There are real problems facing this nation, but blaming illegal immigrants for them won’t solve anything.  I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but a number I’ve seen invoked is $113 billion being spent on illegal immigrants.  $113 billion seems like a big scary number.  But our total national debt is over $14 trillion (and rising), and that $113 billion is less than one percent of that.  Now, I’m a big fan of ‘every little bit helps,’ but I’d be willing to bet that illegal immigrants contribute much more than $113 billion to the US economy.  So let’s stop with the hate and the blame, and take a hard look at the systemic failures that got us here.  And then let’s figure out what we can do about it, rather than just point to people we don’t like and make them our scapegoat.

And if you want to repost something because you agree, please check the facts first, rather than continuing to spread misinformation that detracts from finding real solutions.

Faith Vs. Reason

Last week I wondered what Christians do that give others the opinion that we’re angry, judgmental, unhappy, or stupid.  This week I have yet another example as to why.

GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann said to a group in Florida, “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians.  We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane.  He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?  Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now.  They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to reign in the spending.'”*  Really?  God is mad at American politicians who value spending money to try to help the poor and bring peace to the world over keeping a balanced budget?  I realize that how government spends taxpayer money is certainly a matter for debate, as are the intentions behind such spending, the effectiveness of the efforts, and the appropriateness of such priorities in a democracy.  But claiming natural disasters, one of which took forty lives (and counting!), are God’s way of championing the rights of Americans who don’t like the way their government is being run is heartless, arrogant, ignorant, and cruel.  I’m one who thinks the government needs to reign in spending, but I don’t want God to throw a tree at an 11 year old boy’s home and killing him to make my point.  Furthermore I refuse to worship a God who does so.  Fortunately I don’t have to repudiate my faith or my God, because Bachmann’s interpretation of recent events is wrong.  She does not have the monopoly on understanding God’s will.  (Neither do I, before you start pointing fingers.)  Unfortunately she’s got a microphone to help her spread her interpretation, and media focusing attention on it.  No one is going to repeat with such fervor that the earthquake was due to perfectly natural friction caused by the constantly moving tectonic plates beneath the earth’s crust, or that the hurricane was caused by typical weather patterns for this time of year.

Not all Christians believe as Bachmann does, but she’s got the louder voice and the sexier story, so her beliefs are understood as representative of all believing Christians.

And we (those of us who subscribe to faith and reason) let her do it, by keeping silent.

It’s understandable why we keep silent.  When we speak and offer an alternative interpretation, those who believe as Bachmann does shout us down with their accusations that we’re not really Christians, that our faith is tainted, or misguided, and not true Christianity.  And those who aren’t Christian (by their own profession, not my designation) won’t listen to us, because we’re Christian and therefore obviously ignorant and reactionary, because they know how Christians are (they’ve heard what Michele Bachmann said, after all!).

I don’t know how to counter this.  With the increasing polarization in politics, society, and the world, ‘faith seeking understanding’ is no longer seen as a viable approach.  It’s now either/or.  The most vocal Christians proclaim that faith gives all the answers, and anything that challenges those answers challenges the faith.  Because of that insistence, faith has been pushed out of all other conversations, and those of us who have faith are assumed to have nothing of value to contribute.  That more than anything else, I believe, is what may succeed in relegating the church to irrelevancy.  In many ways, we’re almost there already.

It doesn’t have to be a choice between faith and reason.  The two are not diametrically opposed.  There are thinking Christians out there, trying to contribute to the important conversations.  And they are out there, doing good work in spreading the good news.  They just never make the news.  At best they’re seen as the exception, and at worst, they’re not seen at all.

*As reported by the L.A. Times.

Identifying with the Church-Harmed

I’ve been doing a lot of pulpit supply since I returned to Massachusetts, mostly at the church where I’m a sort-of member.  I’ve actually preached there five Sundays out of the last seven, which is good, because I never could have preached the sermon I preached on Sunday if I weren’t known to and had established trust with the congregation.  In order to preach the sermon I was led to preach, I had to get personal, and I don’t do that with congregations I don’t know.

The gospel lesson I was preaching on was from Matthew, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and then, “But who do you say that I am?”  (The full passage was Matthew 16:13-20, if you’re interested.)  When preparing to write the sermon, I found a note written next to this passage in my bible, probably from a text study I attended years ago: Outsiders’ opinion of Jesus.  Why does the Church today need to hear what non-church people say about the Church?  What do we do with that information?  And with that old notation, the direction for my sermon was set.  I needed to explore what Christians do that give non-Christians the impression that we’re angry, unhappy, judgmental hypocrites, or else simplistic and too stupid to really understand what’s going on around us (because let’s face it: when you see Christians depicted in movies and on television, that’s usually how we’re portrayed).  Sure, there are the obvious culprits like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, but we can’t lay all the blame at their feet.  There are a lot of ordinary, non-famous and non-controversial Christians out there who do a lot of harm to others, and give both Christianity and God a bad name while doing so.

And that’s where my sermon had to get personal.  I am one of the Church-harmed, and my own story demonstrates the point I was trying to make better than an over-the-top Falwell or Robertson foot-in-mouth moment that most people can simply dismiss as idiocy.

I was first harmed by the Church (my capitalization here is intentional) when I was thirteen years old.  I’d been attending CCD at the same Catholic Church since kindergarten, at the same church I’d been baptized in, and where my parents had been married.  At the beginning of 8th grade they signed me up for CCD automatically, but no one bothered to tell me where and when to report.  So I missed the first class.  The next day in Social Studies several schoolmates, who were also in that CCD class, told me that the teacher (CCD wasn’t taught by the priest) had told everyone there that I was the spawn of the devil because I obviously didn’t care about learning about God, and that their eternal souls would be at risk if they associated with me.  Fortunately for me, they weren’t too worried about their eternal souls, so I didn’t lose any friends over this.  That church did lose a member (me only–my parents had already stopped going because the Church didn’t recognize their divorce), and once I got confirmed later that year (at another Catholic Church in the center of town–my mother made me), I left the Catholic Church and never looked back.

The second time was four years later, when I was attending an evangelical church with a friend.  We were going on a ski trip to Vermont, but the bus that had been chartered to take us there never showed up.  The youth pastor organized us into cars driven by adult volunteers, without informing our parents of the change.  The volunteer driving the car I was in drove recklessly and caused a serious accident.  No one was killed, but I missed nearly two months of school recovering from my injuries, and then spent several more months unable to walk without the assistance of crutches or a cane.  My mother sued the church, and I was then informed by some of the leadership that I was an unrepentant sinner beyond all hope of salvation.

Fast forward through my years of atheism, militant church-hating, and then eventual return and even (shock, horror, and awe) ordination, to a first call with a workaholic senior pastor who was unable to share leadership and allow me the autonomy to minister according to my own gifts, to a second call at a level three conflict congregation (a fact that was known to the synod, but was hidden from me).  Because I wasn’t aware of the dynamics going in, I didn’t provide the correct leadership for that level of conflict, and it quickly became level four.  That last experience caused serious spiritual harm to me and to my family, and has me questioning whether or not I ever want to have anything to do with congregational ministry again.

And the reason I put all of this into my sermon is because all this harm was caused by other Christians, and we as Christians need to know that our words and our actions matter.  I called myself one of the Church-harmed earlier, because I’ve discovered that there’s a disturbingly large number of people who have been harmed by the Church in similar ways.  We are pastors who have been spiritually and emotionally destroyed by abusive congregations.  We are church members who have been exploited and condemned by abusive pastors.  We are seekers who have been judged and convicted by well-meaning believers who are convinced that their understanding alone is sufficient to determine who is worthy of God’s love, and who is not.  We are still on the fringes, trying to find our place in the Church.  We are seeking acceptance and belonging in secular circles, wanting nothing to do with the Church.  We’re okay with God, but don’t want anything to do with the people of God.  We’re not okay with God, because who wants to be okay with a God who lets his* people treat others like that?  Or it doesn’t matter if we’re okay with God or not, because our experiences with Christians have convinced us that there is no God.

I now identify with this group.  And who knows–maybe my calling as a pastor is to reach out to others like me, and to make sure a part of the Church is safe for those who have been harmed by it before.

Assuming the Church doesn’t totally beat me down first.

*I disagree with the current efforts to use only gender-neutral language for God, but I’ll save that for another post at a later time.

Whose Fault Is the Next Recession?

The government is tapped out.  The big banks are teetering.  Large corporations are watching their stock prices plummet, then skyrocket, then plummet again, with no idea where they’ll settle.  We are on the brink of recession.  And if we go over that edge, it will be the fault of American consumers and small businesses.

At least that’s what an article* in the Wall Street Journal suggested last week.

According to an economist interviewed in the article, consumers and businesses who worry about a recession and make spending decisions based on that worry will then, by their cautious actions, trigger that recession.  He called it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

His words make sense, but they–and the article–leave out some very important details.

The United States government has been passing a deficit budget nearly every year since around 1970.  That means that for about forty years, the government has been borrowing money to meet its expenses.  Of course, they eventually had to pay that money back, and they did that by borrowing more money, on top of what they were already borrowing.  And then, when those bills came due along with all the others, they paid those off by borrowing yet more.  It’s like someone paying all their bills with a credit card, and when their credit card bill comes due, they get a new credit card to pay it off, and on and on it goes.  The recent fiasco in congress about raising the debt ceiling came about because someone finally questioned whether it was a good idea for the government to continually get a new credit card every time they maxed out the old one.

So now the government is trying to cut spending.  And some of the things they are cutting are the safety nets.  Now I for one see a distinction between a safety net and an entitlement program, but that’s an entirely different rant for an entirely different post.  At any rate, I believe that some of those entitlements do indeed need to be trimmed.  But the entitlements benefit so many people that they have powerful lobbies, and it’s hard to touch them at all.  So the small safety nets that are still left and make the difference between life and death for a few people (comparatively speaking) are being cut or eliminated, and the backlash against the entitlements when it comes (and it will come) will cut too deeply, and then they will barely function as safety nets, either.  So watch out, citizens!  Don’t count on Uncle Sam helping you out if you get in trouble; you’re on your own.

Big banks were lending large sums of money to people with small incomes.  Mortgages were great for the banks.  The more money people could borrow, the more they could spend on a house.  As more money was available to spend on housing, the more expensive houses got.  So people had to borrow more money for less house, and with the availability of that money, houses got yet more expensive, and people had to borrow more.  Anyone not buying a house was cautioned that they’d better do it before they got priced out of the market completely, because home prices were only going to go up.  So more people felt pressured to buy, and took on interest-only mortgages with low monthly payments that would balloon later, expecting that by the time their payments went up, their house would be worth so much more than they’d paid for it that they could just tap their equity and make the house pay for itself.  Free money, free house.  Banks encouraged this by lowering their lending standards to practically nothing.

Then the banks began betting that their borrowers would default with the investment known as Credit Default Swaps (CDS).  These little beauties made it so the banks won either way: if the mortgage was paid back along with the interest due, the bank got a payoff from its investment; if the mortgage defaulted and wasn’t paid back, the CDS would pay the bank a lump sum, and the bank got a payoff from its investment.  The losers were the ones who had to pay out the CDS.  And since you don’t have to actually be the creditor (i.e. hold the mortgage) to buy a CDS, anyone can get one.  So those made their way into pension funds, mutual funds, etc., as safe investments with high payoffs, which was accurate (provided the mortgages never defaulted).  Of course, once things reached a breaking point and people couldn’t pay their mortgages, there was widespread failure across the system.  The banks, who held both mortgages and CDS, found themselves overexposed and ready to fail.  Of course if that happened, people and businesses couldn’t borrow money, and the entire economy would seize up (because we’ve already established that no one can pay for anything unless it’s with borrowed money).  So the government bailed them out and covered their investment losses (but did nothing to help the individuals who suffered losses–except make it easier for them to borrow more money to make ends meet) and took more money out of taxpayers’ pockets and gave it to the banks.  So watch out, bank customers!  Don’t count on the banks working with you if you get into trouble; you’re on your own.

Businesses have focused so much on quarterly earnings that they cost-cut their way to short-term profits while sacrificing their long-term strategies and even viability.  They lay off employees (i.e. people who are trying to work for a living and take care of themselves) and expect unreasonable levels of productivity from those who are left.  They shift more of the costs of health insurance to their employees.  They make management decisions that cause the workplace environment to become unpleasant or even unhealthy (I’m aware of one company that has removed every third fluorescent tube from their overhead lighting to save money, making the office just dim enough to cause eyestrain).  They use cheaper quality components in their products while charging their customers higher prices on account of the company’s ‘increased costs.’  And finally they take advantage of perfectly legal tax loopholes that allow them to post record profits while keeping their federal income tax liability at zero. So watch out, employees!  Don’t count on your company to value your job over their shareholders’ gains; if they need to lay you off to save a few pennies, that’s your problem; you’re on your own.  And customers, don’t count on prices going down, either.

Individuals aren’t innocent here, either.  No one was forced to take on an oversized mortgage.  If you took out anything other than a conventional mortgage with a fixed interest rate, then you contributed to the problem.  If you took out a home equity loan for anything other than major home repairs or improvements, you contributed to the problem.  If you ever used your credit card and didn’t pay off the balance in full at the end of the month, you contributed to the problem.  (I’m not talking about the occasional large purchase that took two or three months to pay off; I’m talking about if you can’t remember the last time you didn’t carry a balance on your credit cards.)  Of course, this was also in an environment when costs were going up, salaries were remaining stagnant or going down, and we were being told that it was our patriotic duty to stimulate the economy by spending money.

No one (that I’m aware of) is spouting off that ‘patriotic duty’ crap this time around, but putting the responsibility of another recession on the backs of consumers amounts to the same thing.  (It’s also notable that the American public is usually referred to as consumers, and not citizens or people–I guess it’s clear what our primary purpose is in this country.)  We’ve learned that prices are going up, jobs can’t be counted on to last, banks will gamble with people’s money and expect the government to cover their losses, our own individual taxes will have to pay for those bailouts as well as make up for the taxes the large corporations aren’t paying, and the government isn’t going to help us out if we get in trouble.  But if we practice fiscal responsibility by living within our means, saving for a rainy day, and spending cautiously, the next recession is our fault.

Give me a break.

*The article was “Penny-Pinching Puts Recovery on Thin Ice” by Ben Casselman and Conor Dougherty, in the Wall Street Journal’s online edition on Wednesday, August 11, 2011.  I have provided a link, but I believe the article is locked unless you have a subscription.

The Seductive Simplicity of a Studio Apartment

Don’t get me wrong– I love my husband and my kids.  I love them more than life itself, and I wouldn’t want to contemplate living without them.  But the thing is, I have this daydream.  In my daydream, life is simple.  I live in a small, uncluttered studio apartment in the city (sometimes it’s Boston, sometimes it’s Manhattan, depending on my mood).  It’s a snap to clean, and it’s quiet.  I keep my own quirky schedule, because I live alone and I don’t have to worry about carving out time for a 9-to-5-job-holding husband or messing up the routines of two small children.  I go out frequently to shop for the necessities or run errands one or two at a time, because I don’t have a car and I’m limited by how much I can carry.  But it’s the city, so everything’s either walking distance or a short ride on the bus or subway.  My life is simple, and quiet, and flexible.

In my daydream I’m not rich, but I live so simply that I don’t need a lot of money, and I’m able to support myself with my writing.  It’s not like it was in my late teens and early twenties when I was working 60 hours a week at two crappy jobs I hated just to pay the rent on my should-have-been-condemned-by-the-Department-of-Health studio apartment.  In my daydream, my studio is very nice, and I can pay for it just from writing.

Except I suffer from chronic insomnia, and if I’m writing out of the house full-time, I’ll be spending all my time in my sleep area, making it very un-restful.  That won’t work.  I’ll need at least a one-bedroom apartment, so I can keep my sleeping area separate from my living and working area.

Wait a minute.  Living and working area?  Boundaries are important, and I’m going to need a way to unwind and relax when I’m not writing.  Just moving to the couch and turning on the TV or opening a good book won’t work if my computer is mocking me from three feet away.  Since the sleep hygiene necessary for my insomnia prohibits my moving the computer or TV into my bedroom, clearly I need dedicated office space.  So a two-bedroom apartment it is, with the second bedroom being used as office space and the living room as my living/recreation area.

Hmmm.  A nice, two-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city.  Manhattan is out–no way can I afford that!  Boston’s still possible, but a stretch.  I don’t think I could do it on writing alone, not right now anyway (hopefully someday my writing will really take off and it would be possible, but right now it’s just not realistic).  So I’ll need to work an outside job.  Part-time would be preferable, but a nice two-bedroom in a nice area of Boston?  That’ll require full-time work.

A full-time job while writing part-time from my not-so-small two-bedroom apartment.  I’ll need a cleaning lady to come every other week to dust and do the floors, kitchen, and bathroom.  I hate cleaning, and that time would be better spent writing, anyway.  Oh yes, and I’ll need a car so I can do all my grocery shopping and whatnot in one quick trip.  I might need to work some overtime.

You know, my daydream is beginning to sound pretty hectic and complicated.  And lonely.  Wouldn’t it be nice to find someone to share the load, to enjoy each other’s company over the mundane things like morning coffee and supper together after work, a simple, healthy supper at home that I would cook and he would do the dishes after.

And it would be nice to have a couple of kids.  But the city’s no place to raise them–we’d have to move to the suburbs.  And daycare’s so expensive, it would make more sense for me to stay home with them.

I’m sure I could fit writing in somehow…

Time Well Lost

My internal clock is scary-accurate.  On those (extremely) rare occasions when I’m not wearing my watch and my son needs five minutes in a time-out corner, my estimate of five minutes is usually accurate within a few seconds.  I’ll drive my husband crazy when we’ve just turned out the light for the night, and I’ll say something like, “What time is it?  11:37?”  And he’ll check and then reply (rather crankily), “No, it’s 11:36.”  Actually, that’s how he used to answer.  Now he’s more likely to say, “Oh, shut up.”

This accuracy comes from a lifetime of constantly checking my watch or keeping an eye on the clock.  Even if I have nowhere I need to be and nothing going on later, I still need to know what time it is.  (This is why I have to ask my husband if it’s 11:37–he removed the clock from my nightstand because he got tired of hearing the minute-by-minute account of how poorly I’d slept the night before, what time I woke up, how long before I fell back to sleep, etc.).  I don’t know why it’s so important for me to always know what time it is, but it is, and it always has been.

But every once in a while, I’ll actually forget to mark time.  It’s an extraordinarily rare occurrence, but it does happen.  And it happened this past Saturday.

I was bringing the kids to Hampton Beach to meet a friend I hadn’t seen for several years.  She’d never met them, and I’d wanted to introduce them to the beach anyway.  We left the house at 11 AM, and I figured we’d arrive around noonish.  I didn’t anticipate the traffic.  At 1 PM, when we finally crossed the New Hampshire border, I pulled over at a rest stop to use the facilities, call my friend, and have a picnic lunch with the kids.  We got back on the road at about 1:45 (OK, it was 1:47).  We arrived at the condo where my friend was staying at 2:15, unloaded all the accessories (two small children come with lots of those!), then went in search of a parking spot.  One mile, twenty dollars, and thirty minutes later, the car was parked and the kids, the double stroller and I joined our stuff and my friend at the condo.  It took nearly forty-five minutes for me to get myself and the kids in our swim suits and well covered with sunscreen.  The beach was only a short walk away, so it was 3:30 when we laid down our blankets.

Then I did what I’d been dreading all day.  I took off my watch and put it in my beach bag.  Then I walked about fifty yards to the wet sand that was cooler and much more fun for the kids to play with.  No watch, no clock.  I was on my own.

My friend and I talked while the kids played.  The sun beat down on us, and after a while I went back to our blankets to get some water.  And check my watch.  I’d guessed we’d been there for about an hour.  I was right–it was 4:30 exactly.  I put my watch back in my bag and went back to the group, where my son was splashing in the small pool my friend had dug for him and my daughter was doing her best to become one with the sand.  Completely.

An hour later I saw the lifeguards take down their chairs and lay them against the wall near the sidewalk.  I knew it was an hour because it had felt like an hour, and I’d seen the sign on the way in stating that the lifeguards were on duty until 5:30 PM.

And then it happened.

At some point after the lifeguards left my son announced that he wanted to go back to the condo.  My friend rinsed all their toys in the ocean, and I rinsed the kids in the little pools we’d dug in the wet sand.  We returned to the blankets, shook them out, packed them up, and went back to the condo.  Once there I herded the kids into the bathroom and stuck them both in the shower, t-shirts, bathing suits, and all.  They weren’t happy.  It took as long as it took, and when they were reasonably salt- and sand-free, I sent them into the living room so I could have my turn in the shower.  I think I took a quick one, but I could be wrong.

After that, the kids and I hung out while my friend took her turn.  By that time I was wearing my watch again and sitting in front of a clock.  I remember looking at it a few times, but the positions of the hands didn’t register.  I didn’t care, and I didn’t notice that I didn’t care.  When my friend was ready, we went out in search of dinner.

We found one at a nearby restaurant, where we had a very enjoyable meal.  When we were done my friend returned to the condo to retrieve the double-stroller, so I could introduce my kids to that staple of Hampton Beach cuisine–Blink’s Fry Doe.  Not surprisingly, they’re now fans.

Having accomplished all that I’d wanted to accomplish that day, we got the car and were driving back to the condo to drop off my friend and pick up the kids’ accessories when my cell phone rang.  It was my husband.  He was worried about me, because he’d expected me home a while ago.  I started to laugh until I realized–it was full dark outside, and it had been for a while.  I looked at the clock in the dashboard, and was astonished.  “Is it really 9:20?!” I asked.  Both he and my friend assured me that it was.  I’d completely lost track of time.

I can’t say exactly what it was about Saturday after the lifeguards left that made me forget to care what time it was.  It wasn’t just that I was relaxed and having a good time; I do do that sometimes, and I still need to check my watch obsessively.  But I liked being freed from the schedule, especially with the kids.  We had things to do, and we did them, and it took as long as it took.  I know I can’t live every day like that, but I certainly hope to do it more often than I have been.  Especially with the kids.  My son is three, and every time he sees a clock, he asks me, “Mama, what time is it?”

Remembering Emma

I’d written something I was going to post today.  It was one of those witty mom posts in which I complain about my kids in a funny way and wax eloquent about how much simpler life was before I had them.  I may yet post it at some point.  But I can’t post it today.

I got word on Sunday night that Emma died.  I’ve never met Emma.  I’ve never met Emma’s parents.  My family connection to Emma is so distant that it would sound like the beginning of a bad joke if I tried to explain it here, and there’s just no room in my heart for such jokes right now.  Suffice it to say that while Facebook is sometimes criticized for inflating the importance of casual acquaintances, it sometimes does allow people to be touched by others that they wouldn’t have been otherwise.  Emma is one of those cases.  Her maternal grandfather is an old friend of my husband’s, and even though we’ve never met personally, he and I are Facebook friends.  Emma’s aunt is married to my brother-in-law, and we have met, and are also Facebook friends.  And through their status updates, I got to know Emma.

Emma was born on July 12, 2009 with a genetic defect that threatened her life the moment she left her mother’s womb.  The hospital was ready for this, having detected the defect in utero via ultrasound.  Extraordinary measures were taken immediately to give this precious child a chance at life.  I don’t have all the details, and they aren’t important anyway, but I believe she was on full life support for a time before undergoing multiple surgeries.  I don’t think her parents were able to take her home from the hospital for about six months, and to my knowledge she was always dependent on supplementary oxygen.

Through her aunt’s and grandfather’s status updates, frequently asking for prayers, I saw this little girl struggle to survive.  I saw her come through every surgery, endure every hardship, and celebrate every victory.  As she continued to grow and her family posted pictures, I could see her young personality just beginning to emerge.  I saw her smile for the camera, the oxygen tube taped to her adorably pudgy cheeks.

But such a young body isn’t built for the high levels of trauma she suffered, and the surgeries and the treatments necessary for saving her life caused complications of their own.  She caught a respiratory ailment that probably wouldn’t have been a big deal for most children, but for her it proved to be fatal.  She died on Sunday, less than two weeks after her second birthday.

My kids were already in bed when I found out.  All I wanted to do was hold them.  My son had been sick earlier, and got a second look at his supper as it coated his pillow, his sheets, and his beloved stuffed Cat (who is still drying out–Giraffe is stepping in temporarily).  I was glad that he still couldn’t sleep and needed to be cuddled.  I held him and rocked him and cried into his hair, grateful that an upset tummy can be easily soothed, and knowing there are far worse things to face than a vomit-covered bed.

A couple of hours later my daughter woke up crying.  I usually let her cry, not wanting her to get in the habit of a midnight cuddle, but this night I jumped right out of bed and held her close, stroking her wispy curly hair so similar to Emma’s.  My daughter is just four months younger than Emma.  I held her in my arms and cried, not even wanting to imagine the heartbreak Emma’s parents must be feeling.

No parent should have to bury their child.  I know it happens all the time, but it still shouldn’t be.  As Emma is laid to rest tomorrow, my heart goes out to her parents.  My prayers have been with them unceasingly since Sunday, and as Emma returned home to her Lord, she was surrounded by the prayers of hundreds of people she’d never met, but who mourn her passing.

Rest in peace, Emma.


In Memory of Emma Seraphym Ballard
July 12, 2009 – July 24, 2011

Context, Costume, and Identity

Under the best of circumstances, my children’s sermons suck.  This past Sunday was no exception.  And it was not the best of circumstances.

I’d just invited the children to come forward, and they’d all come up (all four of them–not bad, actually, for the middle of summer) and assembled themselves in a line, sitting on the stair leading up to the chancel area.  I took a breath and opened my mouth, about to launch into my vain attempt to be interesting and informative to the average six year old, when one of them spoke up and demanded, “Where’s the pastor?”

I was the only adult standing, I’d led the liturgy up to this point (with the assisting minister and reader–great lay leadership and participation in this congregation!), my clerical collar peeked out the top of my alb, and my stole matched (more or less) the paraments on the pulpit and altar.  Several people in the congregation snickered in their amusement as I said to the child, “I’m the pastor.”  He looked at me in stark disbelief, and I heard more snickering as I found myself having to explain, “I know I’m not your regular pastor, but he’s on vacation, and I’m filling in while he’s away.”  The kid seemed to accept that, and I was finally able to launch into my poorly crafted children’s sermon, which flopped as usual, and then they were free to go back to their seats and I was free to go back to my comfort zone in the pulpit.  But that child’s question, and the fact that he hadn’t recognized me as pastor even while I was in full costume and doing all the things a pastor does during worship stuck with me.

Anyone can wear the costume and say they’re a pastor, but that doesn’t mean they are one.  Even someone wearing all the appropriate clothes and doing all the appropriate things in a worship setting can just as easily be an imposter.

That innocent question from a confused child had exposed me for what I’d been feeling like all along.  When I don the uniform and stand up there on Sunday mornings, I feel like an imposter.  Even though I’m technically in good standing with my roster status listed as “On Leave From Call – Family Leave,” I also can’t forget that some have labeled me (and I’ve labeled myself, if I’m going to be honest about it) as a “failed pastor.”  My last call went horribly wrong for a variety of reasons, and I enjoyed no coverage or support from my bishop or his staff.  It’s unclear if I could get another call now even if I wanted to (which, right now, I most certainly do not want).  I’ve done nothing pastoral for a solid year (no preaching, no worship planning or leadership, no teaching, no visiting, nothing).  The moment I returned to Massachusetts and made myself known to a few pastors in the New England Synod, I was immediately sucked back into the vortex of pulpit supply.  But despite the three weeks I’ve already served as substitute pastor, with two more to go (and still counting), I’ve not felt like a pastor.  At all.

An hour and a half after that six year old asked me that question, I showed up for the last day’s programming of Readercon 22.

Readercon is an annual convention of science fiction and fantasy writers and fans.  Unlike other science fiction conventions, Readercon focuses almost exclusively on the craft of writing.  I learned about it from my husband, who is an avid reader of the genre.  I have nothing against science fiction myself, but it’s never particularly grabbed me, either.  However, because Readercon focuses so heavily on the craft of writing, most of the panels are of interest to a nonfiction writer and aspiring writer of literary (opposed to speculative) fiction, like me.

I’d attended the previous two days of programming as well, and I’d pretty much blended into the scenery.  On Sunday, however, I’d come straight from worship, and even though I’d left my stole, alb, and pectoral cross in the car, I was still wearing my tabbed black clergy shirt and black skirt.  This time, I was noticed.

Why didn’t I de-tab before going in?  I could have.  But I think I was rebelling against an anti-religious sentiment that had been pervading the entire convention.  Earlier in the weekend, at different panels, I’d heard religion (particularly Christianity) referred to as — at best — a “silly superstition” and — at worst — a “dangerous colonial imperialism” that “oppressed” people.  The context was inappropriate for a debate on the merits of my particular theology, but I was in no mood to hide my beliefs, either.  I had a legitimate reason to be wearing that collar; I wasn’t about to ‘camouflage’ my uniform because many of the people there didn’t think much of what it represented.

The reaction to me was mixed.  Some people asked me, politely and (I interpreted) out of genuine curiosity, what brought me to Readercon.  I recognize that some of the anti-religious sentiment was triggered by some Christians’ very vocal opposition to the science fiction and fantasy genres as a whole.  All of it has been categorically dismissed as ‘pagan’ or ‘devil-inspired.’  My presence was a curiosity, and my uniform combined with my bearing and manner (i.e. I was engaging with the panels the way everyone else was, rather than pounding a bible and threatening hell and damnation on everyone who wouldn’t repent and be saved) made me an approachable representative of Christianity.  Some talked to me about religion.  Others disregarded my attire and talked to me as a human being (how refreshing!).  Others gave me a very wide berth when I walked down the hallway.  But no one attacked me.

And through it all, it felt right to me.  I knew I was wearing ‘distinctive’ clothing, but it felt more like a uniform than a costume.  I felt like the clerical collar represented who I was and what I believed.  As I talked with people, I was even able to bring legitimacy to my claims of being a writer because of the writing I’ve done in the course of my ministry.  I’m a writer who ministers.  I’m a minister who writes.  I can’t do one without the other.

Officially, I’m in a period of discernment as I focus on raising my kids.  (At least that’s my justification for staying on the roster, rather than just dropping off.)  I think what I need to discern is why I feel more like a pastor at a gathering of non-religious science fiction writers and fans, but I feel like an imposter at church.  What is my calling, anyway?

Reality TV and Justice

Through an unusual twist of fate which doesn’t need to be explained here, last Thursday I found myself stuck in a room for about an hour with nothing to do but watch a TV that was tuned to CNN Headline News. Given the circumstances that had me in that room to begin with, it would have been inappropriate for me to change the channel.

Last Thursday was the second day after the Casey Anthony verdict, a media circus I’d gone to great lengths to avoid. Specifically, at the time I was in that room, the judge was hearing arguments about whether or not the names of the jurors should be made public.

I know a lot of people feel pretty strongly that Casey Anthony should have been found guilty of murdering her daughter Caylee. Alan Dershowitz wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that explained why the outcome was what it was, and a couple of the jurors have publicly stated that as much as they wanted to find her guilty, the prosecution just didn’t provide enough evidence to justify that verdict.

Most of the posts I’ve seen on Facebook, however, as well as comments on online news articles and interviews with ‘random people on the street,’ suggest that many people are angry about the verdict, believing that Casey Anthony got away with murder. That’s all well and good; people are entitled to voice their opinions, and that’s what Faceook, message boards, and interviews are for.

But can we trust people to leave it at voicing their opinions on social media sites, or when asked by a roving reporter?

According to my forced TV-watching, at least one juror had expressed “very serious security concerns” to the judge, and most of the jurors had communicated to him that they wished to be left alone, to keep their privacy. A juror’s family had already reported being stalked by someone angry about the case, and the judge read one comment which involved the writer’s wish to “filet the jury, pour salt on them, and feed their legs to a piranha.”

The attorneys for the media argued that it’s in the public’s interest to know who these jurors are, and if there are credible security concerns, the jurors can and should be protected. The judge feels that these jurors were compelled to come and do their civic duty, and shouldn’t have the added burden of an unwanted spotlight being shined on them, recognizing that there is a real risk that people might take out their anger on these jurors.

I find myself torn on this issue. On the one hand, I agree that there is a danger in making jury anonymity the norm. As many psychological studies have proven, people get more reckless, less responsible, and sometimes just plain mean when their actions are divorced from their identity. (Think about how many obnoxious comments you’ve read on a message board by someone named “RighteousDude447” or something like that. How many obnoxious comments are posted by someone who puts their actual name? If you are one who comments regularly, do you do it under your own name? If not, would having to put your real name change what you would say or how you would say it?) I don’t know that we want to try defendants in front of a jury of RighteousDude447s. A defendant in this country is entitled to be tried before a jury of his or her peers, and those peers are representative of the community the defendant is a part of as well as the community that has been wronged. Any one of us could end up as a defendant, rightly or wrongly, and we must rely on the representatives of our community to decide the rightness or wrongness of the charges against us. The jurors must then take responsibility for their judgment for or against one of their own back to the community which they represent. Keeping their identities secret means they don’t have to take responsibility for their decision. I agree with the media lawyers’ argument that this could cause the American public to lose faith in the judicial system.

That’s the argument for revealing the jurors’ identities.

Here’s my argument against.

We are no longer a civil enough society to expect restraint and self-control from ourselves. While most people wouldn’t get violent against these jurors, there are enough people who would that we must err on the side of caution. Even without the risk of physical violence, there are enough people who would verbally assault the jurors that I feel their requests for anonymity must be respected.

We are no longer a society that accepts representation. We want our own voices heard and heeded. Even as many of us do everything we can to avoid jury duty ourselves, we watch the trial on TV as though it were American Idol, or maybe Survivor. Or we don’t watch it at all, we just listen to the daily soundbites as our news, and we expect Casey Anthony’s guilt to be clear and obvious, and we expect the verdict to be what we think it should be, without considering the very specific mandate given to the actual jurors, and the requirements that must be met in order for the verdict to be guilty. And when the jurors do other than what we want them to do, we blame them. Some of us are willing to hear why, but many of us are too busy reveling in our righteous indignation to be bothered with the facts and the subtleties. It’s not for the sake of the public’s trust in the judicial system that people want the names of the jurors released; it’s for the entertainment value. It’s as though we’re angry about an unexpected plot twist, and we want to take it out on the stars of this new reality TV drama. But this isn’t reality TV; it’s reality. It’s life. It’s the judicial system in action, unfortunately confused with shows like Law & Order (and its many spin-offs) which are entertainment. I read an article recently that reported something like only 12% of high school seniors in the United States can correctly identify the three branches of our government.* Yet not even knowing that much about the judicial system, hoards of angry people are declaring that Caylee Anthony has been denied justice, and some of those angry hoards hold the jurors personally responsible, with one online article calling them the twelve stupidest people walking in America today. Would you want to be publicly known as one of the jurors who acquitted Casey Anthony? I know I wouldn’t.

If privacy is respected, the jurors can still choose to come forward. One that I’m aware of already has, and has given an interview, with her name attached, to ABC. Two more have spoken to the press under the condition of anonymity. And yet another one has offered to give the whole, inside story of the proceedings to whomever will pay him $50,000. That’s entertainment, folks.

In time this will all die down, and no one will care about the jurors anymore. You could say it’s just a short-term problem; fifteen minutes of fame only last fifteen minutes, after all. But some people don’t want even fifteen minutes in the spotlight, or they aren’t cut out for it, and, with the possible exception of the guy who’s willing to sell his story, none of these jurors sought it out. I’m reminded of Robert O’Donnell, the paramedic who rescued “Baby Jessica” from the well in 1987. He was just an ordinary guy doing his job, but unlike most rescues by paramedics, this one came with instant nationwide fame. Very quickly he was forgotten, but his fifteen minutes in the spotlight affected him in unhealthy ways. A few years later his marriage broke up. He was accused of abusing prescription drugs, and his career was over. In 1995, at the age of 37, he took his own life. Those who knew him insist that his downfall was caused by the media attention surrounding that rescue. He wasn’t equipped to handle the spotlight. And that was before the internet, and he was known for something indisputably positive. Can we honestly say that all the jurors on the Casey Anthony trial will handle it better? Judges and lawyers know the risks of a high profile case, and choose to participate in them for their own reasons (hopefully a sense that justice must prevail, but I’m sure the money’s pretty good, too). Jurors aren’t given a choice.

Getting people to show up for jury duty is hard enough. Lost time at work, childcare issues, sometimes such heavy restrictions on your movements and conversations that your closest relationships suffer…do we really want to add the risk that you will be publicly burned in effigy by RighteousDude447 and thousands others like him? He might think it’s like reality TV, but it could be your life we’re talking about here.

* If you weren’t in that 12%, the three branches of our government are Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.

Too Offensive? Or Too Easily Offended?

I am way behind in my reading. I’ve got a stack of periodicals that are getting increasingly outdated that I’m working my way through (except for the ones that I eventually throw away without reading, because they’re just too irrelevant now).

Right now I’m working my way through the May 17th issue of the Christian Century, which also happens to be the last issue of my subscription. I like the magazine, and I get a lot out of the articles despite the somewhat liberal Calvinist perspective (I’d always thought ‘liberal Calvinist’ was an oxymoron, but apparently not!), but I simply can’t keep up with a biweekly publication right now.

A regular feature of the Christian Century is the section “Living By The Word,” in which a guest contributor writes up a reflection on the upcoming two weeks’ worth of lectionary readings. Quinn G. Caldwell, who is listed as being the associate minister of Old South Church (UCC) in Boston wrote the reflections in this issue. In his reflection for May 22 he wrote about interfaith dialogue and worship, and he described two ways of going about it. The first way waters down everyone’s faith to the lowest common denominator, so that everyone agrees to only say things that everyone else in the room can agree with. The other way, which he identifies as his preferred way, allows and encourages everyone to be unafraid about who they are and what they believe. He writes, “Rather than agreeing not to risk being offensive, we agree not to be easily offended.”

I like this approach, and not just for interfaith dialogue. What would happen if, in general, people worked harder at not being offended rather than not being offensive? Your personal faith claim of ultimate truth isn’t an attack on mine. My preferred parenting method isn’t a critique of yours. Her strong preference for the culture of a coastal city isn’t a slam against his strong preference for the community of a midwestern farming town. The way one person chooses to live his or her life isn’t a judgment on how someone else chooses to live theirs.

I know that in truth, many people would rather be offended, and expect the world to fully agree with and affirm their choices or preferences. It would be much easier and nicer to live where we never felt like an outsider, or in any way different. And I acknowledge that sometimes people really are being attacked for their differences, and that is wrong. But not everything is an attack or a judgment. Sometimes two people just see things differently, and agreeing to disagree is the only way to fully respect both parties, rather than asking one or both to play down who they are or what they believe. As Caldwell writes in his May 22 reflection, “[T]he great challenge of our day is not to learn to live with watered-down versions of other faiths, but to live with them in all their fullness. What could I possibly learn about Islam from a Muslim who’s pretending not to be one?”

I’m sure that every time I speak to someone, either publicly or privately, my words could be interpreted as offensive by someone. Increasingly people who do speak publicly are having to be more and more careful what they say, because someone somewhere is sure to be offended. As a result, we are saying less and less. We are not dialoguing with each other about anything important; we are monologuing at each other about nothing at all. We are not learning from each other, because we’re too afraid to say anything. So we’re all retreating to our own safe little enclaves of like-minded people and becoming more and more isolated from each other, and entrenched in our own positions and beliefs, and stagnant in our growth as people, and ignorant in our knowledge of the world.

Back in seminary I was asked to lead a devotional for the Wartburg Association of Students. I’d found a poem inspired by a verse from John’s Gospel, written about a hundred years ago. The poem used masculine pronouns for God, which was contrary to Wartburg’s gender-neutral language policy, but I didn’t want to rewrite the poem in the name of political correctness. So before I read the poem I explained the age of the piece, and that it did include these pronouns, and that I hoped everyone would be able to look past that and hear what the poem was saying. As far as I could tell, everyone did, and it was clear that despite the presence of the pronouns some in the room found offensive, by choosing not to be offended by them they were able to hear the beauty of the sentiment the poet was trying to express.

We can do it. Something else seminary taught (drilled into) me was this: it’s not about you. Next time you hear someone saying something you don’t agree with, don’t assume it’s an attack or a judgment on you. Instead, try to hear what they’re saying, and understand what it means for them. Don’t demand that everyone else be inoffensive; work a little harder at not being so easily offended yourself.