The Children of Strangers. How Batkid Shows Us the Best and Worst of Ourselves.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was chaplain intern.  One of my wards was children with brain cancer.  Two of the kids, both girls about ten years old, had wished for a trip to Disney World.  Disney has a strong history of granting wishes.  In Orlando, there is  the Give Kids the World Village, which works with various wish-granting organizations and has served over 122,000 families.  They give the kids a truly magical stay including, I believe, having Disney characters tuck the kids into bed at night.

Both girls I met had amazing trips.  But it wasn’t just a nice memory.  For these kids who went through so much on a regular basis, who called the hospital a second home, these experiences carried them for a long time.  They kept their scrapbooks with them at the hospital, had souvenirs from the trip decorate the hospital room. The parents were eager to talk about what a wonderful experience it had been for the family, how wonderful it was to see their kids happy, and well, getting to be kids.  And how touching it was to have strangers interested in the well-being of their child.

I love, love, love the Batkid’s story.  Whoever organized it did an amazing job of getting the word out and getting both powerful organizations and ordinary citizens involved.  Miles Scott’s life has been changed forever, in ways he can hardly imagine today, so soon after it happened, and as young as he is.  Can you imagine knowing that so many perfect strangers were touched by your story and wanted to be a part of it?

Miles as Batkid

Every kid with leukemia should get to experience that. Every kid with a disease should get to experience that.  In fact, every kid should get to experience strangers being interested in their health and happiness.

We’re not great at that, as a nation.  We just cut food stamps providing the basics to kids, healthy or sick.  We are just now, very belatedly for a “developed” nation, moving slowly and painfully towards universal healthcare.  Our minimum wage isn’t high enough for full-time employed parents to make a living wage.  And if you’re the child of a single mother, well, you’ve pretty much been branded as all that is wrong with society.

Would Batkid have had as many supporters if he were the son of a single mother, or his parents needed foodstamps to get by?  I’d like to think so but I’m not certain.

The difference between Batkid and children on foodstamps is partly that he is one kid, with a particular story.  We do individual tragedy better than large-scale.  It would be hard for a lot of people to look at Miles Scott and say “no” but its easier to say no to a policy that would provide for many more but nameless, storyless children in the face of competing interests.  And we are drawn into personal narratives, especially when tragedy and innocence or helplessness are intertwined.

There are 16.4 MILLION children living in poverty in the US. Food insecurity affects 21.6% of all American children.  Not having enough to eat affects health, ability to benefit from school, ability to handle stress, and much, much more.  But these numbers can be hard to feel for.  So picture an elementary school full of Miles Scotts, dressed up in their Batman uniforms, so excited about their day.  Picture a quarter of them not having enough to eat.  Picture us voting to do away with aid to them.  Picture Miles Scott not having enough to eat and having a hard time at school.  One of the reasons to have government policy is precisely to protect people in large numbers, because we find it hard to as individuals and to apply in a consistent manner.

Organizations like Make-a-Wish are filling an important niche in changing the lives of individual children.  While we may not be able to make every child feel like Batkid – not even every child with leukemia – we should be ensuring that every kid has access healthy food, medical care, and education.  The story of Miles Scott shows we are capable of caring for the children of strangers.  We just need to get LOT better at it.

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The Disney Princess and the Good Girl

The Miley Cyrus – Robin Thicke performance was the perfect storm. The failure of the Disney Girl to turn into a Disney Princess, combined with the rapey mysogyny of Thicke’s song served, despite everyone’s vocal horror, to uphold the exact sexist tendencies we projected on to both of them.

Does that seem extreme?  Let’s start with Miley.   At the age of 12, Miley Cyrus was cast in Hannah Montana, where she would play a dual role – the girl next door with a secret double life as a pop star. For most of the series, the main character – named after Miley herself – was able to transition between her two identities rather seamlessly, with manageable problems.

Metaphorically, this is what Disney Girls are supposed to do.  They are supposed to be innocent girl-next-door types during their lucrative shows, then seamlessly transition into their sexier adult selves, in a perfectly contained way.  This transition is completely different from what is expected of Disney Boys.  They are expected to turn into Princes, to be sure, but they get to wear the same amount of clothes they did as boys and aren’t expected to be as flexible.  Literally.

This transition from Virginal Girl to Sexual Woman is expected of most women, I believe.  And most experience it a little more locally, or religiously – they should remain pure until a certain date that society decides – probably marriage – then turn into a sexual tiger.  Traditionally, sexuality is forbidden until the moment society decides it should be obligatory, though only for the appropriate party, the husband. Everyone else knows, but can’t fully see, the transition.

This dynamic plays out in celebrity life, but voyeuristically.  How many headlines say that a women is flaunting her bikini bod when the fact is that the paparazzi were hiding in the bushes a hundred yards away taking the picture while she was trying to enjoy some time off? (I’m looking at you, Huffpost)  She’s flaunting it….we’ll come back to that later.  For now, let me summarize the first sexist projection by saying that the public expected Miley to grow into a sexpot but expected her to do it in a way more comfortable for us to watch and allow us to be proud of little Hannah Montana.

But in addition to the being the demure sexpot, Miley was also supposed to be a mom.  Witness the many, many comments today about how people hope her younger fans weren’t watching. She was supposed to be an example of how to go elegantly into adulthood.  That’s what she agreed to at the age of 12, right?

Turning to Mr. Thicke.  There is the same theme of virginal girls waiting to be turned into sex fiends at the hands of the right man.  She’s not making it clear – hence the blurred lines – but that must mean she really wants it.  The bitch.

Thicke could have made a perfectly reasonable song about how its hard to read people sometimes because of conflicting signals and emotions, but hoping for certain results.  This wasn’t that song.

Miley was the perfect choice to pair with Thicke.  She can be labeled as the good girl who wants it.  She’s asking for it – you’ve seen the video right?

And so Thicke struts calmly around the stage, just a guy trying to sing while Miley begs him for it.  She’s flaunting it…And thus gets what she deserves, which is condemnation by the audience who can’t believe how Hannah Montana turned out.  And little comment about Thicke, who has seemingly proved that good girls want to get nasty.  He’s merely an observor to her embarrassing act.

So – the performance was merely sexist expectations taken to their logical VMA extreme.

The take-away?

1.  Miley is not a princess.  She is rather awkwardly trying out different forms of sexuality and identity.  As most people do, but without handlers and lots of money to make videos of it.

2.  Miley has no responsibility to lead your kids morally.  Any parent who bought a Hannah Montana back-pack with Miley’s face on it should have explained to their child that Hannah is fictional.  And that Miley is only human and thus prone to doing stupid things.  And a 12, or 14, or 18-year- old does not have the life experience to have any idea what being a good role model is.  At best they are imitating what someone else told them.

3.  That being said, Miley does have responsibility.  She is choosing to stick her tongue out an annoying number of times and masturbate in front of a video camera. She is old enough to be making her own mistakes, which I believe she is in fact doing, and hopefully she will learn.  Especially if she realizes that while she might have been rebelling at the VMAs, she was also being used by others to prove the opposite of the point that she was trying to make.

4.  Blurred Lines is just one of a thousand stupid male songs that both casts women as innocent and a little bit scared, yet also wanting nasty sex and to be completely controlled.  Yawn.  I wish I could just make some sort of Napolean complex joke and move on, except the ramifications of this kind of thinking result in the real-life problems of rape culture and blaming the victim.

 

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When Words Fail Me. Literally.

The fact that I went to seminary but have left the beaten path is often a good conversation starter.  I can pull it out at cocktail parties or meeting icebreakers because a lot of people have their own stories they’d like to tell.  And in the Big Apple, which makes “diversity” look like a weak word to describe the spectrum of ways to be human, these kinds of conversations can seem common.

The truth is I still think about religion all the time.  It tends on to be online but offline – talking with people who are on the same page as I am.  We don’t need to discuss our hermeneutical approach to the Bible, or discuss how doctrines were constructed through history.  We can skip straight to teasing out things like how language about gender is used in specific social contexts, or the role of specific theological traditions in politics, or how evolution or cyborgs or capitalism or racism or guns relate to religion.  I still help edit papers for my professional theologian friends.  They know I haven’t been to church lately, I know they go every week.

I have realized lately, though, that I have completely forgotten, or never knew, how to vocalize what I think to people who have a completely different frame of reference about religion, and specifically Christianity.  I think I usually just avoid talking about these things in the public square of daily life, and reserve it for the spaces where I know its safe to be exactly who I am.  This came to my attention because lately I realized I could still have my feelings hurt when someone disapproved of my religious leanings.  I thought I was past all that.  Two examples.  One woman, who I didn’t know, on hearing about my changed perspective in a group setting, came up afterward to say “That’s so sad.  Your parents must be so disappointed.”  More recently, another responded with a disappointed sigh and remarks about how I must’ve been using my head rather than my heart in my approach to God.  Or that something bad must’ve happened to me, but I needn’t worry, they weren’t judging me.

42,000 thoughts entered my head with second situation.  The only thing I managed to do was mutter that I didn’t like being patronized while steam blew out my ears.  I was really disappointed with myself because I studied for so many years and so intensely, and I ought to be able to frame complete sentences.  This has bothered me for a number of days now.  Perhaps I could have started by remarking that the head and the heart belong to the same self in one body.  Perhaps I could have said that the head is pretty effing amazing thing, that the cognitive skills of humans, especially when trained to think, analyze, and create, are part of what any God I could worship would value.  Perhaps I could have said that my heart has known things you can’t possibly imagine, especially since you didn’t ask.  But here’s my problem:  as soon as I start to think about religion in that adversarial conversation the following thoughts all crowd into my head at the same time – not entirely coherently, but rather jumbled and battling to be at the front:

First the analytical thoughts that start clashing around in my head: Did you know that the Bible is made up of a wide variety of genres, and it makes a crucial difference when interpreting everything.  Did you know the first 12 chapters or so are a saga and Adam and Eve aren’t real – without even getting to the scientific difficulties of that?  Do know how many authors and editors were actually involved in the creation of the Biblical text, that it took generations to come together and its almost impossible to find a full ancient text? Did you know that Abraham is the first actual historical character in the Bible?  That the words about him were written, what, 1000 years after he actually stepped on the earth?  How well do you remember political events from just yesterday? What do you make of the rape of Tamar?  Why doesn’t it kill you that Lot threw his daughters out to be raped?  Why do you criticize a government for oppressing its citizens and worship a God that is fine with the slaughter of every man, woman, child, and animal to give a parcel of land to a particular tribe?  Did you know its an abomination to the Lord to wear clothing made out of more than one kind of material?  Or to have a tattoo (mine is awesome)?  Does it matter to you that Egyptian records don’t look like the Old Testament story about Moses?  Why is ok for God to kill all the eldest children instead of just freezing all the Egyptians so the Hebrews could walk away?  If God were human wouldn’t God be charged with a number of felonies?  The Book of Job is my favorite – did you know that the happy ending was tacked on later?  I like the earlier version, I think its more true to life.  Why is it ok that the Old Testament is polygamous?  And the New Testament is about single celibate men, but we look for a Biblical view of marriage?  In an evolutionary universe, death and destruction are part of the process of creating more complex life.  That means any definition of God has to take that into account.  God did not create a perfect death-free world but one where horrible things were definitely going to happen – simply in order for species to survive, much less become more complex.  The traditional attributes of God come from a different time.  Did it ever occur to you that our ideas about God bear an uncanny resemblance to our current political structures, and cultural values? Original sin doesn’t make any sense in an evolutionary universe and neither do any traditional views of salvation as atonement by blood.  Have you heard of process theology?  I kind of like it but its too optimistic for me.  Did you know earlier theologians thought the Bible had multiple layers of interpretation but in America, following the Enlightenment, people started treating the Bible as a piece of data about God, and then assumed inerrancy was the way the text had always been interpreted?  Do you know Greek philosophy and cosmology, particularly that of Aristotle?  Because you need it to understand Reformation theology’s context, and then you need to add afterwards an understanding of the Enlightenment and the modernist project to understand where society is today.  Did you know the book of Revelations is not about an end-times prophecy that will end the world in fire?  Did you know there were female apostles?  Do you know why they weren’t included in the text once it came together after years of infighting and discussion about what should be in the New Testament?  Did you know that language helps shape our mental universe, and that using only male language about God teaches everyone that the universe and God have a strong masculine bent?  That the male experience is normative?  

Doesn’t it ever bother you that America’s social and political layers bend over backwards to wrap themselves around religious ideas that the propogaters don’t understand?  Don’t you ever feel like we’ve given the politicians scalpels and clearance to perform brain surgery without inquiring whether they’ve had an anatomy class?

So all of these thoughts render me speechless.  I feel like I want to converse fluently but my mouth feels full of marbles.  So let’s turn to emphasize my heart, that organ that is supposed to reach past my brain and love God.

My heart led me to seminary, both because I love religion but also to work on loving a God I didn’t always like very much – and worse, worried that God didn’t like me.  My heart led me to change my views on gay marriage because I met wonderful gay friends at seminary.  My heart was working at a church in NYC on 9/11 and witnessed the crowds gathered in desperation at the church hoping for someone to tell them it would be ok.  My heart was with me when I worked at the children’s hospital and the children with brain cancer. My heart was there when one of the girls died and I had to escort her body to the morgue. When I watched the autopsy of a 3-year-old.  It was there when another child survived a long, dark night of emergency cardiac surgery.  My heart was with my fellow female theologians when we gathered in the bathroom at breaks to discuss our real thoughts because we weren’t treated the same way as men in many seminars – “Bathroom Theology,” we called it. My heart hurt that most women I know in seminary experienced severe mental distress due to gender discrimination.  My heart was broken when my former best friend rejected me because I was getting divorced, a sin in her eyes.  My heart was lifted by complete strangers during that time who showed amazing grace.  My heart burst completely open by having a child.

Perhaps I sound like a complete mess.  But I have to believe that whatever God is, its a God beyond anything we’ve written down.  Not in power and might, but in complexity and in having both creation and destruction inside.  A god beyond tradition, and texts.  Not that these don’t have their value but they are so, so small when you think about trying to capture existence in any of these things.  And if the world needs redemption, well, the most redemptive thing I have experienced in my entire life is my love for my son.  If that kind of raw love isn’t redemptive, then I really don’t care what is.

But I do care if the seriousness with which I not only approached religion in the past but still do are minimized.  And if my inability to provide a response suggests that I’ve given up.  Because that’s not the case – its just that I don’t know how to invite people to visit my playground if they don’t already know such things exist, or at least are looking to visit.

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Rick Perry, the Death Penalty, and Christian Cognitive Dissonance

There was once a man, I’ll call him Joe, who was sentenced to death by the state.

Joe was of a questionable character.  No one was sure who his father really was.  He ran away from home when he was 12.  He was a loner.  He brought alcohol to the parties and hung out with prostitutes.  He was a blue-collar worker when he was employed, which wasn’t constant, and at other times lived on handouts.

He criticized religious leaders for taking advantage of their members, and let his anger out on these people to the point of physically damaging their property.  He started a gang of men who roamed the territory with him, condemning the powerful and wealthy.  He would have been called a socialist if the media knew about him, because he kept saying those who had should give to those who did not have, including prison inmates.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that eventually Joe was arrested and put on trial.  He wasn’t a citizen, and the road to the death penalty was easy.  The religious leaders cheered at the death of this traitor.

Joe, is of course, Jesus.  In the recent GOP debate, there was a noticeable celebration of Rick Perry’s declaration that the death penalty was ultimate justice.  Perry tries to succor Christian extremists (not all Christians are extreme) and proudly defends authorizing the death of 234 people in the state of Texas.

There doesn’t seem to be any cognitive dissonance for certain Christians to celebrate the death penalty, despite the fact that the hero of the Christian faith was not only executed, but you could also argue that he was wrongfully convicted, as is argued about many of today’s death row inmates.

I myself am generally opposed to the death penalty for a lot of practical reasons, but I’ll admit that I certainly would be the first to pull the trigger if someone hurt my kid.  Yet, that’s also why we have the law, to keep up from pulling the trigger, to find out who is really guilty, and what the circumstance were.  For those Christians who do support the death penalty, there should at least be a sense of somber necessity, not a sense of righteousness vs. the guilty.  After all, the Jesus that was executed by the state is also said by many Christians to have experienced that in the place of others.  But can those Christians take that belief, that Christ died the necessary execution, at face value?  Do they believe it?  Or do they really believe he died for the innocent?  In which case, why did he need to die?

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The Right to Derail America’s Future? Why Supporting Evolution Should Be a Requirement to Run for Office

In hiring a new employee, employers usually state specific requirements – level of education, years of work experience, specific skills. To get the job of ruler of one of the world’s leading powers, the United States, there are only 3 requirements – that you are a natural born citizen, that you have lived here for at least 14 years, and that you be at least 35. The qualifications for Senate and Representative are variations of that, except that you don’t have to be a natural born citizen, just have held citizenship for a certain number of years.

My current low-level administrative position has more knowledge and skill-related requirements than that. While there is certainly something attractively democratic about the idea that almost anyone can run for office, it’s not good for America. The issue of evolution is a case in point, and not a trivial one.

According to a 2009 Gallup poll only 39% of Americans support evolutionary theory while 25% opposite it and 36% simply don’t take sides. Unsurprisingly, accepting evolutionary theory correlates with level of education and with church attendance (the latter is shame, because opposing evolution is bad theology, not just bad science). Rick Perry’s recent statement that Texas teaches creationism illustrates yet again that opposing evolution is viewed as a great way to coddle voters in the attempt to become President of the United States. It also illustrates his lack of knowledge about his own state, which does not teach creationism as a part of the standard curriculum, although undoubtedly it happens in some classrooms anyway (12% of classrooms across American, according to this study) .

According to the most recent U.S. DOE National Assesment of Education Progress in Scienceless than half of American students reached the level of proficiency.  A paltry 1% of fourth-graders, 2% of eigth-graders, and 1% of twelfth-graders performed at the advanced level. The DOE Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (2007; a 2011 study was just performed, results are not out), American 8th-graders lag behind 9 other countries, and are roughly equal to four others.

Providing a high-quality science education for American students should be a priority. We need it to be competitive in the world market, to churn out citizens who innovate and create – and thus, bring in jobs and money and a competitive global economy. Those who are opposed to evolution may have the right to that erroneous belief, but they should not have the right to derail public education and the future of America.

We simply cannot afford politicians who ignore and oppose accepted science. I don’t know how to solve this problem, when the constitutional requirements for politicians are at such a low bar. While I believe everyone should have a vote, regardless of beliefs, I do not think everyone should have the right to run the country. At the very least I think there should be a civil service exam for anyone who wants to run, showing they understand the basics of the government. And if I could wave my magic wand, we’d create a job description and list of required knowledge and skills. We’d treat the jobs of Representative, Senator and President like we are employers with performance expectations that must be met.

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Holy Matriphony

Yesterday my son came home from daycamp with a “Certificate of Holy Matriphony.” Apparently the daycamp leaders arranged day-long marriages for the 7-year-olds. Kind of cute. Kind of creepy. The more I thought about it, the creepier it became.

My ex-husband and I finalized our divorce about two months ago, and he gets remarried in October. There are already a lot of issues around marriage for my son, and yet he is also being exposed to the idea of marriage as a wedding, as a fun and perhaps inevitable ceremony he should participate in. And there’s a lot implied, even in a fun little kid’s activity, about what marriage looks like on the outside.

This raises something I have thought about for awhile, concerning what to teach my son about relationships. In America, there is certainly a strong current that suggests that marriage is a life-long monogamous relationship between one man and one woman, and other variations are failures, or abominations, or just not quite right. That view is changing, but only very slowly.

The function and definition of relationships and marriage have changed greatly in human history (even just since recorded history), and have varied by culture. Americans of the Judeo-Christian tradition ought to know that the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible was filled with polygamy – and nary a divine slap on the wrist, because marriage had a lot to do with being certain of your property (including women) and your lineage, and also making sure everyone was under someone’s umbrella of care. The New Testament stars single celibate men.

The idealized notion of courtly love in medieval Europe was based on the assumption that emotional and spiritual fulfillment would not be found in the marriage. Marriage still functioned as a guarantor of property and lineage, of political relationships, and more, but if you wanted happiness, find it elsewhere. This is not to say that no one ever loved their spouse, but that concomitant with any ideal has always been a very pragmatic reality.

Today, in much of America, there has been a hope that these things can be combined – that you can find your soulmate, make a public declaration, and keep things going for as many as 6 or 7 decades after that (many of our predecessors had a much short lifespan in which to love/suffer each other). But the reality is that with or without a marriage certificate, people usually experience a number of lengthy relationships in their life. Many of these are in serial order, but it’s all too clear that many occur simultaneously and that this is not new to our species. It’s also clear that the state definitely treats marriage as a property and custody issue. It’s very easy and quick to get married, very difficult and expensive to get out.

Now there is always the question of relationships that produce children. What’s best for the children? The problem is, you can never really know because no family is the same. The true control group would be to test a child’s life history against his or her alternate life history.

Ideal notions about relationships are dangerous, because they will not be realized by most people, leading to feelings of failure, anger, hurt, depression, compounded by external judgment from those who believe the ideal is a standard.  I certainly want my child to have a real, not phony, view of matrimony.

So here is my Relationship Un-Manifesto:

• Relationships are difficult because they involve people. People who are always still growing up and changing, are damaged in unique ways, and have very different expectations and communication styles. There is no standard person, so there can be no standard relationship.

• More than once you will probably be in a relationship with a person who has good qualities. That isn’t enough to sustain a relationship long-term.

• The best you can do in any situation is respect yourself and the other person involved. Respect doesn’t necessitate a particular outcome.

• There are worse things than being alone. Figure out how to be a companion to yourself as much as possible, knowing loneliness is a part of life for everyone.

• There’s no way to avoid pain and heartbreak, whether in a relationship or leaving one.

• Guiding principle: whatever works for the people involved. There’s not much more that can really be demanded – and yet “whatever works” is also a difficult journey and target.

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Are there any humans at Yahoo?

UPDATE:  Within hours of posting this to Facebook, tweeting it directly to @yahoocare, and posting links in a couple of sites, I got emailed, tweeted, and called – by real humans at yahoo.  The problem is now fixed.  Power to the peeps, y’all.

I’ve never written a blog post dedicated to complaining about a company or product. Circumstances, however, force me to seek alternative routes to get the attention of a human at one particular organization. Any human will do. Yes, Yahoo, I am talking to you.

I lost access to my yahoo account weeks ago. I don’t know if I had some kind of brain zap and lost the memory of both my password and security answer, or whether my account has been compromised. But weeks ago I began with the tips posted on recovering account information. I no longer have access to the alternate email address I provided when I signed up with Yahoo a decade ago. When none of the tips proved helpful, I filled out the contact form online and provided a new alternate email. I couldn’t find any phone numbers listed to make an old-fashioned phone call.

I received an autoresponse, directing me to the aforementioned tips, and adding that if that didn’t help I should response to the Yahoo email. I responded. I have now sent 8 emails in the past few weeks and have yet to get a response of any kind.

I finally located phone numbers for the Yahoo customer service, by – wait for it – googling it. I called several times and each time the automated voice said that I was being transferred to a customer care agent, the line cut off.

I started Tweeting to Yahoo Customer Care. After several tweets I finally got a tweet back directing me to send them a direct message through Twitter. I tweeted a reminder to the social media geniuses that you can’t send a direct message to someone unless they are following you.

So, Yahoo now follows me on Twitter. I sent the direct message, and was told that a service agent would contact me through the alternate email (the one I already used 8 times). I tweeted them a reminder about that history and asked them to make sure a real human contacted me. The result? Another auto-response was emailed to my account. I wrote my 9th email in response.

This isn’t just a matter of personal emails. I have financial and legal documents attached to emails in my yahoo account. Yahoo has now convinced me to complete my transfer to Gmail. Neverthless, I still need my property back. If you know anyone at yahoo, please send them this blog so I can recover my account. My confidence in their product, their technical services, and their customer care is blown to bits. But I still need my documents and contacts before leaving their disastrous company well behind me.

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