CONFESSIONS OF A “BANDWAGON” FOOTBALL FAN

Everything in Philadelphia is colored green this week. In case there are any Philadelphians reading this blog who have not been paying attention, the green-clad hometown Eagles football team captured the NFC crown in the National Football League on January 21. That victory over the Minnesota Vikings qualifies the Eagles to proceed to next Sunday’s (Feb. 4) national, if not international, intemperate saturnalia known as the Super Bowl, this one the fifty-second edition. It’s been thirteen years since the Eagles were at the Super Bowl, against the very same opponent, the dynastic New England Patriots.

Locals are pretty excited about the game and their team, to say the least. Sales of Eagles’ jerseys, T-shirts, and miscellaneous memorabilia have gone through the proverbial roof. The Eagles’ fight song reverberates everywhere. Even our pastor, a native New Englander, has offered to sing it at church next Sunday if more than five congregation members donate to the ELCA World Hunger Appeal this week. The news department of every local television channel has sent a team of reporters and photographers to Minneapolis to relay reports and video back to the City of Brotherly love. The television ratings for the NFC championship game last week set a record.

Even I watched the game, or at least a nominal part of it. That’s news around my house because almost twenty years ago, I vowed to limit my attention to sports exclusively to two: hockey (my first love), and baseball. I would swear off football, soccer, tennis, basketball, NASCAR and the Indy 500, the World Series of Poker, and even the Olympics. With the introduction of the internet and television networks committed to 24 hours of sports content, I was finding that I wasn’t getting anything else done other than studying player statistics and or watching Morgan State and Lower Southwestern Idaho State University play each other in the annual tiddlywinks tournament. Besides, I woke up in a lousy mood each morning because, with that many sports to follow, it was inevitable that at least one of the teams I cheer for had lost badly the night before.

I may watch more than just a small portion of the Super Bowl game next Sunday, I don’t know. I’m not quite sure why I would break my vow to fast from watching sporting events other than the Toronto Maple Leafs or Philadelphia Flyers hockey teams, or the Toronto Blue Jays or Philadelphia Phillies baseball clubs. I guess its just because everybody seems to be talking about the upcoming game even more than the changeable winter weather. I confess that I am one of those whom really thoroughly devoted enthusiasts for all things sports love to hate: a bandwagon fan.

 

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In other words, a fan who cheers for a team either because everyone else is, and he or she doesn’t want to look uninformed or not appropriately civic-minded; or joins in the cheering in an opportunistic way when that team is seen to have become successful (although I think the latter may be called a fair-weather fan.)

Back in the nineteenth-century, the infamous Phineas T. Barnum (the subject of a current box-office blockbuster movie, The Greatest Showman) packed circus workers and a colorfully-decorated brass band onto a bright red horse-drawn wagon and paraded down the main street when the circus arrived in a particular town or city. It caught the attention of people for whom watch the grass grow and paint dry were the highlights of the week. The children especially would be drawn to the “bandwagon” and run home to beg their parents to let them go to the “big show” that evening.

Bandwagon

            Ever the opportunistic copycats, nineteenth-century politicians adopted, or rather co-opted, this same form of attracting followers during their campaigns. Switching allegiance to a particular candidate or party became known as “jumping on the bandwagon”. Personally, I hope for such a rush to jump on a different bandwagon in the November mid-term elections.

If the Eagles do win the Super Bowl (they are currently 6-point underdogs), I don’t think I’ll go down to Broad Street for the victory parade. For one thing, the commuter trains will be so crowded that they may not make a stop at the Jenkintown-Wyncote station at all, a repeat of the situation when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008.

 

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But more importantly, as a bandwagon fan who is barely holding on to the running board on the bandwagon because I got on so late, I don’t think I deserve to participate wholeheartedly in the exhilaration of a victory celebration the way the die-hard fans do who have cheered their team faithfully through some futile and depressing seasons since their last playoff appearance in 2010. In all generosity, I’ll be happy for the players, and for the true fans, and for the city of Philadelphia, but I have not merited the right to indulge in the merriment for myself.

 

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            However, I think worse than being a bandwagon or even fair-weather sports fan is to be a bandwagon participant in life. In my case, it’s my Christian faith (I know that for some readers, it’s another faith, or perhaps none at all) that impels me not to stand on the sidelines, but to jump in head-first and relish each moment of every single, unique, God-given day. Or, unlike a fair-weather fan of life, not wait until I feel like a “winner” and everything in my day goes as planned or as I wish it to go (it seldom does, in fact), but know that even in the temporary setbacks, there is the benefit of something new to learn and celebrate.

            OK, in honor of my adopted city, I’ll say it. “Fly, Eagles, fly on the road to victory.”

JAS

 

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BOOK REVIEW This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World By Sophfronia Scott and Tain Gregory

Every now and then, I read a book that I would be remiss if I did not spread the word about it. Novelist friend Sophfronia Scott invited me to write a review of her newest book, which she co-wrote with her young son, Tain Gregory. As I say in the review below, I wish I had had it on my bookshelf during my days as a parish pastor to give to all those parents who came to me seeking advice as to how to instill faith in their child or children. As a matter of fact, I wish I had had a copy when my wife and I were raising our own two sons. Sophfronia and Tain tell the story of his initial growth in faith as a young child.

At the same time, the book is an account of Sophfronia herself grew in her own faith while talking about God with Tain. The book deals with Christian faith specifically, but I am sure that Jewish parents and those of other faiths will find inspiration and assurance here as well. A shorter version of this review can be found on http://www.goodreads.com:

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It has been said that any of the world’s religions, including Christianity, is always just one generation away from extinction. As an ordained clergyman, I was approached innumerable times by parents who felt one degree of urgency or other to help their child or children develop religious or spiritual faith to guide and direct their lives, and especially strengthen and uphold them with life’s challenges and inevitable disappointments and tragedies.
I sincerely wish I had had copies of this excellent book on my office bookshelf to give to such parents. Novelist and essayist Sophfronia Scott (All I Need to Get By, Unforgivable Love) has recruited her young son, Tain Gregory, to co-write a sensitive, insightful and loving book. She is emphatic that it is “not an instructional how-to book”; rather, she describes Tain’s journey of faith formation, the genesis of which is Tain’s own questions to her about God as a pupil in a pre-school housed in the local Episcopal church.
That, in fact, is what makes this “coming of age to faith” book so refreshing to read and so helpful for parents and families. Scott is wise enough to understand that as a mother, she cannot simply fill her son with faith as one would an empty vessel with a liquid. Rather, she would have to “be in a place to recognize the truth” when her son asks questions and “makes requests that come from a place of authentic desire or even divine guidance.”
Interestingly, Tain’s first questions related to God begin as queries about death. Why did his grandfathers die? “What does that mean?” And then, he utters the statement that launches him on his journey of spiritual and religious discovery: “I don’t want to die.”
It turns out, to be Sophfronia’s spiritual journey as well. Each of Tain’s questions and experiences takes her back to her own childhood and wonderings about God. She relies on such memories and her own feeling as invaluable resources for insight into her son, and his readiness for answers to his questions. Sophfronia describes her few experiences of church during her nominally-churched childhood and youth, which makes for interesting enough reading in itself. But after each narration of events in Tain’s and the family’s life and developments in his spirituality, she inserts a short section entitled “Tain’s Take” in which he describes and reflects on his new experiences in worship and church school.
Though Scott doesn’t quote the verse herself in the book, as one reads, one is made to recall the biblical verse, “A little child shall lead them.” One chapter is entitled, “Who is the Teacher and Who is the Student?” That applies to the whole book, in fact. Because Sophfronia and her husband Darryl make the decision to accompany their son on the journey of spiritual and religious discovery rather than simply abdicate the task to their church and its pastor, each of Tain’s breakthroughs along the way sparks insights and spiritual growth in Sophfronia herself.

 

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The authors live in Newtown, CT, which ought to ring an ominous bell for readers. At the beginning of his third grade in 2012, Tain asks to transfer from his private school to the local public school, the name of which is Sandy Hook Elementary School. That reality, though unnamed until the ninth of ten chapters, affects the reader deeply much as moviegoers were forewarned of an impending shark attack by John William’s hauntingly menacing oscillation between two simple notes in his soundtrack for the movie Jaws. As a gifted novelist, Scott has given the book the structure of a page-turner novel.
Indeed, disaster does strikes at Sandy Hook School on December 14, 2012. In the years before 12/14, Tain had grown substantially in his faith and understanding when he and his family endured the death of the father of one of his close friends, Scott’s sister, and Darryl’s mother. While grieving herself, Scott treated each instance as a “teachable”, and equally significantly, a “prayable” moment. Then, Tain experiences news of the violent death at Sandy Hook of the first-grade son of his godmother, Ben, whom he calls his “godbrother”. It turns out that all the conversation about death between mother and son prior to that were a source of strength and hope for both of them in the wake of 12/14.
This Child of Faith is not a “new-agey” tract about a generic spirituality. Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown plays a vital role in both Tain’s and Sophfronia’s spiritual growth and health. The congregation is particularly helpful to them in providing emotional and spiritual support in their grieving, especially after 12/14. Sophfronia and Tain discover that the journey of faith is not taken alone, but in community.

The authors are featured in the film documentary Midsummer in Newtown, available on Amazon Video and iTunes. The documentary deals with a creative artist’s project of helping survivors of the school at Sandy Hook heal from their trauma.

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PRAYERS AND VIOLENCE

Hi again, dear readers.

I’ll state up front that as I sit down to write this blog, I’m out of sorts

For one thing, I’ve come down with my first cold of the season. You know the drill: stuffy head, runny nose, achy muscles. an overall feeling of lethargy and irritability.

Current events have also led to my being out of sorts. The little boy in me lost one of his heroes this week. Roy Halladay, one of the best pitchers in the major leagues in the past two decades, died in a solo airplane crash in the Gulf of Mexico. Roy was only forty; the husband of his high school sweetheart, Brandy; father of two young teenage sons, Braden and Ryan. I was fortunate enough to follow his award-winning career while he played for both of my “hometown” ball clubs: 12 years with the Toronto Blue Jays, and four with the Philadelphia Phillies. He was a hero of the adult in me, too. Rarely does a great athlete come along these days who deflects glory from himself, shares it with his teammates, is abundantly generous with his time and money, particularly with children with special needs. I confess that in reflecting on Roy, I have wept tears of sorrow…and gratitude.

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We know that over 25 people of faith were gunned down in First Baptist Church in Sunderland Springs, TX. I admit that mass slayings have become almost the “new normal” so that they don’t make as deep an impact on my heart as I should allow them to make. However, I recognize that these victims are brothers and sisters in Christ with me as well as fellow humans.  I didn’t know a single one of the victims, of course, yet still, I feel a deep kinship and mourn their loss in a particular way.

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The holocaust at First Baptist itself was bad enough. But the President of the United States made my grief and anger deeper (he never fails to do so) by saying, “This was a mental illness problem, not a guns situation.” Isn’t it almost a cliché after such shootings to attribute the event to some “deranged loner.” Are such statements aimed, as I believe they are, to ease our fear and salve our corporate conscience as a people? It’s a cop-out, I truly believe. It distracts us from looking closely and in a spirit of repentance at the culture of violence, particularly violence inflicted by guns, which we have allowed to thrive, if we have not actually encouraged and applauded it.

Besides, I would like to ask the President, “If you truly believe mass shootings are a mental health issue, why did your administration block the Social Security Administration from reporting mentally impaired recipients of federal aid to a national background check database?”

To top all that, a Lutheran clergy colleague, the Rev. Hans Fiene, polluted the discussion with some simplistic, distorted theological claptrap. The title of his post in his The Federalist blog was, “When the Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers.” His argument is based on the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil.” His only understanding of deliverance is to be “saved” from this world (that “God so loves”, mind you) and transported to the transcendent realm of glory “where no violence, persecution, cruelty or hatred will ever affect us again.” He thus concludes that Devin Patrick Kelley “only succeeded in being the means through which God delivered his children from this evil world into an eternity of righteousness and peace.”

Talk about putting the ultimate “good spin” on a tragic violent event which I believe breaks the heart of God! Following his ludicrous theological logic, couldn’t we argue that Mohammed Atta and the other 9-11 terrorists were serving God by delivering however many Christians were killed in the World Trade Center towers to their eternal peace and rest? Wouldn’t that or any other such act of violence please the heart of God in that God would be joined in heaven by a whole new slew of children while their time in this evil world was shortened?

It’s not that I don’t believe in that eternal realm. As a matter of fact, I rather look forward to it. But there’s plenty of evil right here in this world where we have been planted by divine design from which we need to pray to be delivered, and that I believe we are called to address and combat the best we can.

There. I’m not so out of sorts now at the end of my post. Oh, I’m still blowing my nose constantly; I still can’t believe Roy Halladay is dead; I continue to mourn the 26 brothers and sisters in Sunderland Springs; I’m not any better disposed toward President Trump’s explanation for the tragedy than when I began; and certainly Pastor Fiene’s misreading of Christian Scripture is a burr in my theological saddle. But as I said in my previous post about why I write, I knew that the exercise of simply sitting down and writing would be enough to make me feel better. And, it did.

Until the next time, cherish this unique and finite day.

 

JAS

WHY DO I WRITE, ANYWAY?

              My next-door neighbor, Janet Benton, author of the excellent novel Lilli de Jong, asked that question of the readers of her blog a few months ago (https://janetbentonauthor.com/blog/.) I’ve been pondering it at red lights, grocery store lines, and waiting to be reconnected to the internet ever since. Today’s post is an attempt to take a stab at an answer.

 

              If you ask me, “Why do you write, Jack?”, you might as well ask me why I eat, or why I breathe. I can’t help myself. I don’t know what I think until I have written the thought down on paper. The notion of making up stories and chronicling events has been a part of my make-up since early childhood. Like many of you, I published a neighborhood newspaper, however short-lived) on an old black Royal typewriter rescued from someone’s trash when I was seven or eight years old. I must have been less than nine-years-old when I wrote a “play” based on a Classic Illustrated comic book version of The Tale of Two Cities, as I recall. I asked my mother for the fare and took the streetcar down to the local CBC affiliate station on Jarvis Street in Toronto. Shy, introverted, self-conscious little Jack handed it to the receptionist, who kindly told me that she would pass it on. As far as I know, it never appeared on the CBC! 🙂

              It was in high school, though, that I fell in love with the inestimable power of words. I can still remember the day, as though it were just yesterday when I was transfixed and transported to Long Island as I read the last paragraphs of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…and one fine morning–“

              “God, I want to write like that!” I exclaimed to my fifteen-year-old self. “I want to put words together like those that move readers, that make them believe in the green light and stretch their arms farther.

The Great Gatsby

              After that, the seeds of a novel, or actually, of many novels, were germinating in my fevered mind every time I read one like To Kill a Mockingbird; Johnny Got His Gun; Look Homeward, Angel; Franny and Zooey; or The Power and the Glory, among so many others.

         220px-To_Kill_a_Mockingbird         Look Homeward, Angel     Johnny Got His GunFranny and Zooey          

 Retirement turned out to be the occasion for some of the seeds to sprout finally and emerge as my first novel, Beginning Again at Zero (http://www.lulu.com/shop/jack-saarela/beginning-again-at-zero/paperback/product-22899604.html) about which many of you have said kind words. The seeds of that project were sown back in 1971 when Diane and I saw the movie version of Wilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants and Unto a Good Land.

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              The late, great sportswriter Red Smith is purported to have said, “Writing is quite simple; all you have to do is sit down at your typewriter and open a vein…” Frederick Buechner adds to that, “For my money, the only books worth reading are books written in blood…” My newest project is a second novel, Accidental Saviors, about which you will be hearing perhaps more than you wish in the next few months. Reading and seeing movies all these years about the horrendous plight of the Jews in Nazi Europe during World War II, like Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice, is what opened my vein to write that book. The pain I feel for them in my own blood I will try to transfuse into my readers’ veins.

              The novel won’t be all blood and pain, however, I promise. My two protagonists are based on two actual Finnish historical figures, Felix Kersten and Algot Niska, who happened to be in Germany just as the war was erupting in 1939. Though they didn’t set out with this in mind, each became an “accidental savior” of the lives of countless, perhaps thousands by the end, of Jews trapped in Germany.

              One writing mentor advised me that a writer’s aim is to make a similar thing happen inside the reader as happened to you in writing. Though by no means 100% admirable, Kersten and Niska inspire me to be more courageous, more cognizant of, and possibly more willing to advocate for, those in my world today who are oppressed or marginalized.

              When they get to the last page, I hope that to make the readers of Accidental Saviors be that way, too.

 

Until the next time, dear Reader, cherish each moment of this unique and finite day.

JAS

 

 

TIME TO STEP UP

I was very near Charlottesville, VA this past weekend, at the Massanutten Resort in the nearby Shenandoah Valley, in fact. I was enjoying the company of five valued former colleagues who comprised the Churchwide Campus Ministry Team of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Together, we oversaw and serviced the 140 or so ELCA ministries on college and university campuses across the nation. We were together as a unit for the first time since the CCMT had been disbanded in 2009 because of the acute fiscal condition of the ELCA.

We were reminded of our mortality by the conspicuous absence of the one colleague who had died since 2009.

We drove to Monticello, the plantation owned and designed by the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Monticello is located less than 10 miles (much less as the crow flies) from the august institution of higher learning which Jefferson founded, the iconic University of Virginia.

As the six of us enjoyed wine tasting at a local vineyard, good food in local restaurants, and much laughter and reminiscing over more wine back at our digs, the University of Virginia was in the news once again. We were blissfully unaware of the happenings in Charlottesville just a few miles away until we got to our various homes.

For the first time since August 12, several dozen torch-bearing white supremacists gathered to vent their hot air near the UVA campus. Thankfully, there were fewer of them this time, and no counter-protesters [present as a couple of months ago to inspire even more hatred in their polluted hearts.

Over the past two years, Donald Trump has almost single-handedly mainstreamed racism, tribal hatred, xenophobia, and suspicion of anyone or group different from the white majority in the United States. (There are echoes of the same in Canada, as well, the country of my citizenship.) Formerly fringe organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other overt hate groups have been emboldened by the President’s insensitive speech and mindless tweets. One mother I read about said that her South Asian adopted daughter had never heard a fellow student harass her because of her ethnicity and skin color before the last presidential election campaign. But since then…

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It’s not enough for me to simply point my finger at an uninformed and unprincipled President or express my rage at the white supremacists. That’s too easy,  and ultimately unproductive. I must, rather, seek some way to build bridges to those different from me.

That bridge-building begins with self-examination. We Christians call it “confession”. What racial prejudice, for example, still finds a dark corner in which to exist in my own heart?  In what ways do I make judgments about persons, their actions or attitudes, with the self-righteous assumption that my own unexamined actions and attitudes form the standard by which to make those judgments? Why is it that I allow myself to feel discomfort whenever I must travel through a primarily African-American neighborhood, and then feel a sense of comfort as soon as I reach my destination in a primarily white neighborhood?

I confess I feel profound anger and downright disgust whenever I see photos of the white supremacist mob in Charlottesville.  My stomach begins to turn whenever I hear even a faint hint of the President’s voice from the television in the other room. Are these feelings themselves, in fact, telling symptoms of hatred within me?

After confession comes “repentance”. Not just feeling or manufacturing remorse for my sins. More than that, a “turning” towards new attitudes and behaviors. To see whoever is “other” in some way as more similar to me than different. To see the struggles of “others” as my own, and their successes as mine, as well. To remember that the “other” is, like me, a child of God. To remind myself that there is dignity, beauty, and truth in every human life. To dare to venture out of my liberal, “progressive” bubble and talk with—or more importantly, listen to, someone who is in a conservative, regressive bubble of his or her own. Who knows?  We may discover that we strive for the same goals, only by different means. Would I have the courage and love to do so over a cup of coffee with one of those white supremacists carrying a torch or wearing the white KKK bedsheet?

Suddenly, we may hear a wall between us begin to crumble and rejoice that we’ve started to build a bridge of love and understanding.

Until the next occasion, live this day to the fullest.

JAS

BORROWED ADVICE AND WISDOM when our own wisdom fails

Hello again, dear reader. It’s been a while.

During that time, I have been rehearsing, writing, and re-writing in my mind what I might say as a response to the recent rally of white nationalist and their counter-protesters in Charlottesville, VA. But it seems that the words I come up with seem trite, and do not bear the weight of the gravity of the situation and the hatred, racism, and white supremacy revealed there.

I’m also aware that in my visceral reaction to President Trump’s statement in the wake of the events, I may so something I regret later.

Therefore, I am going to borrow the words and wisdom of songwriter and storyteller Courtney Ariel. My blog post this time consists of an almost entire reproduction of her essay For Our White Friends Desiring to be Allies published on the website of the Sojourners Community in Washing ton, DC-www.sojo.net. In this essay, she gives some sage advice to white people (most of the readers of this blog are, indeed, Caucasian) as to how to express our support for and alliance with African-Americans, Jews, Native Americans and First Nation Canadians, other marginalized groups, and others targeted by the white supremacists.

 

FOR OUR WHITE FRIENDS DESIRING TO BE ALLIES

“I’m not going to do much coddling here; I don’t know that I believe that love requires coddling. Here are six things you can do to be stronger allies.

  1. Listen more; talk less.You don’t have to have something to say all of the time. You don’t have to post something on social media that points to how liberal/how aware/how cool/how good you are. You are lovely, human, and amazing. You have also had the microphone for most of the time, for a very long time, and it will be good to give the microphone to someone else who is living a different experience than your own.
  2. For one out of every three opinions/insights shared by a person of color in your life, try to resist the need to respond with a betteror different insight about something that you read or listened to as it relates to their shared opinion. Try just to listen and sit with someone else’s experience. When you do share in response to what someone has shared with you, it can sometimes (not always) feel like “whitesplaining” — meaning to explain or comment on something in an over-confident or condescending way. This adds to the silencing of the voices of people of color.
  3. Being an ally is different than simply wanting not be racist (thank you for that, by the way). Being an ally requires you to educate yourself about systemic racism in this country. Read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowand Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and so many other great books and articles that illuminate oppression and structures of white supremacy and white privilege. Use your voice and influence to direct the folks that walk alongside you in real life (or follow you on the internet), toward the voice of someone that is living a marginalized/disenfranchised experience.
  4. Please try not to, “I can’t believe that something like this would happen in this day and age!” your way into being an ally when atrocities like the events in Charleston, S.C.,and Charlottesville, Va., happen. People of color have been aware of this kind of hatred and violence in America for centuries, and it belittles our experience for you to show up 300 years late to the oppression-party suddenly caring about the world. Don’t get me wrong, I welcome you. I want for you to come into a place of awareness. However, your shock and outrage at the existence of racism in America echoes the fact that you have lived an entire life with the luxury of indifference about the lives of marginalized/disenfranchised folks. Please take several seats.
  5. Ask when you don’t know — but do the work first. This is nuanced. Some marginalized/disenfranchised folks will tell you not to ask them anything; don’t be offended by that. Folks are tired, and that is understandable because it is exhausting to be a marginalized person in this world. However, there is something special that happens within human connections and relationships. In a nutshell, don’t expect for people to educate you. Do the work to educate yourself. Ask questions within relationships that feel safe, and do so respectfully.
  6. And finally, stop talking about colorblindness.It’s not a thing. Colorblindness is totally impossible in a nation whose land was taken from the indigenous inhabitants through an attempt at genocide and horrific colonization. The same nation that enslaved humans and exploited them in every way imaginable built a nation on their backs, hung them, hunted them, and for centuries kept them from their basic inalienable rights and still does. The same nation that exploits and deports immigrants who were promised refuge within the American Constitution. The same nation that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II and continues to promote bigotry, exclusion, and violence against LGBTQ/gender non-identifying folks. This nation that allows swastika-wearing, Confederate-flag-toting, anti-Semitic racists to have a platform for their hate. The same nation that promised religious freedom, yet targets those who do not believe in a white, capitalist Jesus.

I love Jesus. And promise, Jesus was not white (literally brown, and wonderfully Jewish) and would have never been a capitalist.

It will never be possible for us to be colorblind, and we shouldn’t ever want to be.

I heard a saying once at an Al-Anon meeting that offered me liberation: “We are only as sick as our secrets (and our shame).” Shame can only live in the darkness; it can live within the systems of denial and defensiveness that we use to cover it up. We have to name these things, acknowledge them, and begin to do the deep work of transformation, restoration — and reparation.”

Sage, thoughtful advice, indeed, Courtney. Readers: until the next time, live today to its fullest.

JAS

 

 

 

I must begin this post with a confession of sorts: for the last week and a half, I have been living with another woman. Oh, to be sure, I continue to cohabitate with Diane, my wife of almost 46 years. She actually knows this other woman, in fact, perhaps better than I do.

There’s a lot to admire in this particular woman. She’s unmarried, for one thing, and just turned 23 years of age. She’s been characterized as “feisty”. She has sensible religious instincts. She ponders life rather than merely living on the surface. Once she saw her employer’s bounteous library, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the leather-bound books on the shelves. She surreptitiously got her hands on a copy of a book by the philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill and fed her mind. I’ve always been drawn to women like that.

Above all, she is fiercely loyal to her infant child, a daughter, Charlotte.

Lest, dear reader, you misunderstand and drawn an erroneous conclusion, allow me to explain. This particular woman is a figment of imagination (aren’t all crushes and infatuations?). Not my imagination, however, but that of my next-door neighbor, Janet Benton. Lilli is the title character of Janet’s excellent debut novel, Lilli de Jong.

            There’s a lot to admire in this particular woman. She’s unmarried, for one thing, and just turned 23 years of age. She’s been characterized as “feisty”. She has sensible religious instincts. She ponders life rather than merely living on the surface. Once she saw her employer’s bounteous library, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the leather-bound books on the shelves. She surreptitiously got her hands on a copy of a book by the philosopher-economist John Stuart Mill and fed her mind. I’ve always been drawn to women like that.

 

Above all, she is fiercely loyal to her infant child, a daughter, Charlotte.

 

Lest, dear reader, you misunderstand and drawn an erroneous conclusion, allow me to explain. This particular woman is a figment of imagination (aren’t all crushes and infatuations?). Not my imagination, however, but that of my next-door neighbor, Janet Benton. Lilli is the title character of Janet’s excellent debut novel, Lilli de Jong.

 

Lilli’s is a harrowing yet inspiring tale. She is a Quaker in 1883, growing up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia Lilli is educated enough by the Quakers (Society of Friends) to become a schoolteacher. Her mother dies when Lilli is still living at home, and her widowed father romances another woman, which earns him, and consequently Lilli and her brother Peter, not just censure, but expulsion from the Quaker Meeting as well.

 

Lilli has a one-night encounter with Johan, the good-looking, smooth-talking guy mothers warn their daughters about. Wouldn’t you know it, but Lilli gets pregnant. Johan pledges his intention to marry Lilli, and promises to send for her from Pittsburgh once he finds work there and is settled. Of course, Johan is gone with the restless wind.

 

There weren’t a whole lot of choices for unwed pregnant women, either in Philadelphia or anywhere else, for that matter, in 1883. Jodie Foster will have a much easier time of it in 1997. For a fleeting nanosecond, Lilli considers the option of abortion, which in the late 19th century was a crude, primitive and eminently perilous procedure. Besides, it violates her deep Quaker principles. Instead, she finds respite of sorts at the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants.

 

She was to surrender her infant within three weeks of its birth to the well-meaning staff of the charity, who would then find adoptive parents. However, Lilli develops such an almost unhealthily boundless bond of love for Charlotte, that she is determined to keep her. Not an easy decision, by any means, in Victorian society. Lilli secures one of the only forms of employment available for an unwed mother: she becomes a “wet nurse” for the child of an affluent family. Meanwhile, she is forced to “farm out” her own daughter to an anonymous wet nurse elsewhere, with almost disastrous results.

 

That’s as far as I have gotten so far in this riveting novel, however. But I can tell that my literary neighbor has set me up to witness more heartrending hardship for Lilli, and undoubtedly for little Charlotte as well.

 

Having attended a book talk Janet gave at the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, I got the distinct impression that most of those present who had already read Janet’s novel, or who lined up to purchase a copy after the talk and have Janet sign their copy, were women. That’s to be expected in a way. I’d wager many of those women in attendance were mothers, or were hoping to become mothers, and certainly had their own, undoubtedly often ambivalent relationship with their own mothers.

Lilli de Jong cover

But I have to say, that reading Lilli de Jong as a male, a husband, and a father of two sons, has been very enlightening. Much of the prejudice that Lilli encounters in her society, and the judgment she endures from religious leaders, was not new to me. By her decision to keep Charlotte, Lilli is rendered impoverished and powerless. The self-serving phenomenon of blaming the poor for their own situation remains with us today. Just listen to Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania talk derisively about Medicaid and its recipients.  I came to see in the course of the story, however, how even her mistress, her boss, Clementina, although wealthy and privileged, has only very limited choices and is virtually powerless in her own right. Powerlessness is a woman’s thing in the 1880s, not just a poor woman’s thing – even today, to be sure.

 

I’m personally proud of my author-neighbor Janet Benton. The advice often given to budding authors (like myself) is to hang out with more established writers and absorb the wisdom. So, how fortunate I am to be able to talk books and writing with a skilled novelist from my front porch to hers ,whose debut novel wasn’t merely selfpublished like my own, but by a real grown-up publisher,. I feel a kinship with Janet because we both like to read and write historical fiction.

 

Kirkus Review concluded its review of Lilli de Jong, with the following assessment, and I end this blog with the same words: “Benton holds a mirror up to the past and in doing so, illustrates how far we have come as well as how far we have yet to go.”

Janet Benton portrait

Lilli de Jong is available as a e-book for $12.99 on http://www.BarnesandNoble.com. Barnes and Noble and Amazon websites sell the hardcover book at a discount. Philadelphia area friends: signed copies are available at local Barnes and Noble and Indie bookstores. If you are not near Philly, Janet would be happy to send you a signed bookplate. Let me know and I’ll shout your name and mailing address to Janet from my front porch.


Until the next post, live each day to the fullest because today is he only day that you are guaranteed to have.             JAS

 

 

A SOURCE OF ENLIGHTENMENT FOR A MAN

AN EVENING WITH A WOMAN WHO TELLS THE TRUTH

I had the privilege last week once again this year of attending the Frederick Buechner Writers’ Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary. We were a moderately diverse group of men and women brought together by our deep desire to write, our Christian faith (delightfully heavy on the progressive side), and our love for Fred. Buechner, now 91 and retired in Pawlet, Vermont, is a Presbyterian preacher, memoirist, and novelist who writes about life and faith in an inimitable way. People who have sat in the pews of congregations I have served have heard a lot of Frederick Buechner in quotes.

Older Buechner

            One of the keynote speakers was Anne Lamott. Among her other works, Anne has written several amusing, appropriately self-deprecating memoirs of her childhood in a dysfunctional family, her years of alcoholism and drug addition, her coming to Christian faith, and her honest reflections on the joys and heartaches of being the single mother of Sam, now also a published author. The first in the series of charming, witty, but at the same time biting, memoirs are Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and Grace Eventually. 

            Speaking to a room full of writers who aim to communicate faith and hope in their work, Anne pointed out that the most important item in the writer’s toolbox is “your butt”.

I was a little stunned by that, but having several of Anne’s books I should not have been distracted by her irreverence. What she meant, she went on to explain, was “keeping your butt in the chair, no matter how blank is the page in front of you. “You can’t take the easy way out and get out of the chair. You’ve got to stick to it, even if all you write that day are a few lonely words.” Goes for life in general, doesn’t it, as well as writing?

anne_lamott-e1496888007485

            A couple of other gems she shared with us:

I try to write the books I would love to come upon that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness – and that can make me laugh.

About her insistent self-revelation in her books, even of the painful times:

Nothing heals us like letting people know our scariest parts: When people listen to you cry and lament, and look at you with love, it’s like they are holding the baby of you.

Another remark that spoke to how we live our lives as well as to how we approach our writing:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.

 

Anne is a veteran of Alcoholics Anonymous, and much of her wisdom about life and God she gleans from A.A.:

My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way, I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear.

 

I am not writing to try and convert people to Christianity. I am just trying to share my experience, strength and hope, that someone who is as messed up and neurotic and scarred and scared as I can be fully accepted by our dear Lord, no questions asked. 

Thank you, Anne Lamott, for an evening of hearing the truth spoken, and for the years of being surprised by grace in your books as a reader who oftentimes, also feels “messed up and neurotic and scarred and scared.”

Until next time, friends, live each day to the fullest.

 

 

 

Hillbilly Elegy: People Who Look to Trump for Salvation

One of the more eye-opening books I have read recently is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly

Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The book club at my church read and discussed it. Some, like me, read it in the context of trying to wrap our heads around what to many of us was Donald Trump’s unexpected triumph in the 2016 presidential election.

Vance, now a Silicon Valley investment lawyer, began life in rural Kentucky a little over thirty years ago. His childhood family was what one could call a textbook “dysfunctional family”. He shuttles back and forth between his ne’er-do-well mother who is addicted to prescription pain medication and prone to hysteria, and his grandparents – Pawpaw and Mawmaw – plagued by alcoholism, rage, violence . . . and, it must be said, love.

After barely graduating high school, Vance enlists in the Marines, where he begins a life transformation. When he returns to civilian life, Mawmaw provides surprising encouragement for her grandson to continue his education. She feels he can transcend the “dead end” environment and lifestyle that his classmates embrace, thoughtlessly and almost by inertia. From Ohio State University, he proceeds to Yale Law School, where he succeeds despite feeling like a fish out of water. At the dean’s dinner in the first week of his Yale career, for example, he needs to be shown by a fellow student which fork to use first.

But Vance “made it”, despite what he calls “skyscraping odds”.

During his childhood and youth, his family relocated some 100 miles north to Middletown, OH. There the men take jobs at the local steel plant, which was going great guns in the 1950s (though not so much in later decades). With the generous steel industry wages at the time, the family achieves the material comforts of the middle class for the first time. Vance, however, discovers that the family had brought their Appalachian values with them into the suburbs. Some were wonderfully positive, like fierce family loyalty, profound love of country and respect for the military. But others, like a tendency towards verbal abuse and violence as the default method for resolving differences that were inimical to family life.

As he grows in years, Vance lives increasingly in two cultures: the hillbilly culture, for which he has a love-hate relationship, and the new upwardly-mobile worldview of white privilege in New Haven and San Francisco (more about my own white privilege in a future post).

It struck me in reading Vance’s tale that the “hillbilly culture” is not terribly different from that of blue collar working class and former mining communities in northeastern and northwestern Pennsylvania, the “Rust Belt” and poor, former mill towns in the South.  A primary quality of hillbilly culture is what Vance describes as a kind of “learned helplessness”: economic insecurity and poor self-image caused by an inescapable reliance on jobs in the mines, mills, and factories, which of course in recent decades have gone the way of 78 rpm records and manual typewriters. “My friends and relations are convinced that the mainstream media lies unabashedly; that politicians lie; there are no jobs; and the universities are rigged in favor of the city “elites” and against the likes of us.” “What’s the point of trying and making an effort when it’s useless? Nothing can be done to change our lot.” So those around Vance reason understandably.

Until Donald Trump, that is. Vance wrote his book before Trump declared his candidacy for president. But a reader in 2017 feels his presence, nonetheless.

You’ll recall that Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky were in the Trump column this past November. It seems to me that the populations of Appalachia, the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt are easy targets for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” contrivance. Though the private-schooled, Penn-and-Wharton-educated Trump is as “elite” as they come, somehow he has duped Vance’s people and others into looking to him to resurrect the coal mines, for example, and reopen the shuttered factories, make all the vanished blue-collar jobs come back from China, and like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the bursting dike, hold back the inexorable, decades-long swelling tide of globalization and mechanization in the workplace (robots).

False, cynical promises. False, naïve hopes.

Until next time, live each day to the fullest.  JAS