Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Crèche at the Courthouse

Restraint is not a quality I exhibit well. The fact I am writing this now – after Christmas – is proof that I have a measure of restraint. But the holiday is over. Waiting is done. And, please  note: If you are someone uncomfortable with contemplating faith expression or why people do what they do, please stop reading. Your time will be better spent elsewhere.

I have wanted to write about seeing the nativity on our courthouse lawn since a few weeks ago when I drove past and saw it there. It sits where it sat last year. And one more Christmas season has brought one more year of people asserting they have the right to place it there.

I am not certain when this practice began; however, I am certain I am not alone in my annual distress over it.

I am also certain that I am not the only person who believes it is inappropriate to place a religious symbol that favors one faith expression on public property that is to serve all citizens regardless of faith. At least that’s the indication I got from others during various conversations these past few weeks. I am also confident that those who share my view feel it is futile (or folly?) to complain or to do what I nearly did a few weeks ago – write a letter to the editor of the local paper. To a person, each friend in my Bible study of 14 years advised against a public display of discord.

“What will that do, Joy? What do you hope to accomplish? You will only tick people off.”

There are historical grounds for their predictions for that’s what happened in 2007 when someone – not me – complained and alerted the ACLU. People got ticked off that a complaint about the crèche had been filed, yet as a result of the complaint county officials removed the crèche, donating it to the local ministerial association.

Undaunted, a group identified as “Christian Congregations of Winnebago County” affixed a sign to the manger and placed it back on the lawn. This time – because of the sign – the crèche was able to remain as a sponsored placement, enabling the county to adhere to our government’s separation clause.

Details of what happened in 2007 and also last year when the crèche was left on display for three months after Christmas are recorded here (Winnebago supervisors say Nativity scene issue is settled, ACLU disagrees).

Four years later, these questions remain: What is the point of having a crèche on a courthouse lawn? Why does our county need to display a crèche at Christmastime when not even all of the 26 Christian churches in the county do?

I anticipate this answer: To celebrate Christmas and the birth of Christ.

I also anticipate this response: If people of other faiths want to place something on the courthouse lawn, they are welcome to do so.

But I doubt that.

I doubt that Wiccans, Buddists, Muslims, Jews and others are truly welcome to display items of faith on the courthouse square in recognition of their high holy days. I also doubt that members of those faiths want to do it. Overt displays are typically part of the Christian witness and not usually the way that people of other faith expressions publicly share.

Government holidays, retail sales promotions tied to holidays, movies and television shows with holiday themes – even boycotts of businesses accused of not honoring holidays with the respect some believe appropriate. In our nation, Christians have a monopoly on all of the above. County governance is no different.

According to a 2000 report on Congregations and Membership in the United States, only 1 person in Winnebago County named a faith expression that wasn’t aligned with Christianity. The faith listed was Baha’i. Full report: Congregations and Membership in the United States 2000. Nashville, TN: Glenmary Research Center.

Yet, I know people who have lived or who currently are living in my county as permanent residents that claim Judaism, Buddhism, and atheism as their faith expression. (And I don’t mean to offend atheists by labeling atheism a faith expression.) Evidently these individuals fell outside the scope of such a report.

But what would it matter? Those who live in this county are aware they live in Christian territory. Should there be any doubt during the month of December, all they need to do is look toward the courthouse. The lighted crèche marks the courthouse lawn for Christians as effectively as our neighbor’s dog has marked our lawn.

As a person who spiritually identifies as a Christian, I am grieved that plastic figurine symbols have displaced the good news they profess to proclaim. Being a Christian has become the right to display a crèche on a courthouse lawn rather than individuals displaying acts of mercy and grace and unconditional love – behaviors that should be the most reliable identifier of a person’s chosen belief.

Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans named this inclination to stake out Christian turf through overt signs of celebration as “entitlement.” This week she reposted her December 8, 2010, blog “Blessed are the entitled?” Her thoughtful dispatch provides context for her provocative conclusion:
Don't tell anyone, but sometimes I wonder if the best thing that could happen to this country is for Christ to be taken out of Christmas—for Advent to be made distinct from all the consumerism of the holidays and for the name of Christ to be invoked in the context of shocking forgiveness, radical hospitality, and logic-defying love. The Incarnation survived the Roman Empire, not because it was common but because it was strange, not because it was forced on people but because it captivated people.

Let’s celebrate the holidays, of course, but let’s live the incarnation. Let’s advocate for the poor, the forgotten, the lonely, and the lost. Let’s wage war against hunger and oppression and modern-day slavery.

Let’s be the kind of people who get worked up on behalf of others rather than ourselves.

That’s exactly it.

Let’s not fight for our right to display a crèche on the courthouse lawn. Let’s become the good news the crèche represents.

Figurines are figurative. Faith is real. Faith is love in action. It has nothing to do with a crèche on public display unless you are feeding the hungry from its manger or sheltering the homeless in its shadows or advocating for those of all faiths alongside the angels of your own.

Only 11 months remain before the advent of Christmas 2012. I need to get busy. If I don’t become the change I seek, I will be but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal; for if my faith is real, I must move beyond symbols as well.

So here’s to a new year filled with provocative questions that are answered through acts of abundance.

Let’s start with this one: What do I have that can be given to someone in need?

And guess what? Good news. No restraint is required.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Hope for the Soul

In August I participated in a Circle of Trust Retreat led by staff from the Center for Courage and Renewal. The mission of the center, founded by Parker Palmer, is "to nurture personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it." They accomplish this by leading activities that help people reconnect who they are with what they do. It's an individual activity done - amazingly - in the midst of others who are busy doing the same thing.

I had hoped my time at the retreat would be as as productive as a deep house cleaning. Instead, I took first steps toward such. I had not considered the condition of my soul and its lack of readiness until - in the noisy solitude of thought - it tentatively presented with dings, dents, and stains. Fully intact, yet worn and tired.

It was wounded. It had been waiting. It needed more than a rest and refuel.

I had to wrestle with the concept of a chronically wounded soul - a life lived amid conditions so overwhelming that role and soul exist in a perpetually entwined state. Not life-giving like the interwoven roots of giant sequoias but entangled like a sapling grown into barbed wire.

Attempting to diagnose the severity of my woundedness became my priority.

Had I been wounded beyond my capacity to heal? Had my soul been so constricted that it could never again fill with regenerative life? If I was able to heal, did I want to?

No. No. Yes.

A soul - I discovered - is resilient beyond a human's capacity to comprehend, but it needs help.

Time and tenderness.



This week encouragement arrived in the form of a card from the Center for Courage and Renewal. Tucked inside was a quarter-fold paper with a piece by Victoria Safford taken as an excerpt from "The Small Work in the Great Work" in The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear edited by Paul Rogat Loeb, © 2004.

I read it word by word, feeling the crescendo of a wildly exclaimed "Yes!"

Victoria Safford knows my soul. She understands the loneliness of truth-telling and the paradox of joyful struggle.

She gets me. See sees what my soul has seen and what it hopes to see again.

I offer her words to you. May they resonate with truth and joy and light. And, in them, may your soul - like mine - claim hope.

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope-not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of "Everything is gonna be all right." But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truthtelling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we're seeing, asking people what they see.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Boys, Baseball and Barbie Dolls

The summer my dad’s high school baseball team went to the state tournament, I learned that high school boys didn’t act like the men I believed them to be. I have my Barbie® dolls to thank.

I was five years old and had my Barbies in various states of undress (none fully dressed) on the floor of our living room when our doorbell rang. I looked up and saw through the glass of our large, lace-curtained window the figures of about three or four high school-aged boys, all wearing baseball caps.

They must be my dad’s players, I thought.

My mother, making the same assessment, headed to our front door while calling an announcement to my father that he had “guests.” Too young to adequately interpret the slight inflection in my mother’s voice as she said “guests,” I got excited that my dad had some other men coming to visit our home. They were the young men I watched playing baseball when my dad coached, and from what I could tell, they acted just like the Dodgers my dad liked to watch on TV. I also understood them to be grownup versions of the boys I played with during recess and in our neighborhood after school.

A pint-sized feminist of the 70s with a tinge of tomboy, I found boys absolutely fascinating as future men. I loved competing with them on the same kickball team or against them in foursquare. I especially liked the challenge of their counter play and their mysterious mannerisms.

I already knew I wanted to marry a boy one day – but a day long into my future - after I had learned to bring home bacon and how to fry it in a pan. I had even picked out the kind of boy I would like to marry: a real-life version of astronaut Tony Nelson on “I Dream of Jeannie” or the real-life Bobby Sherman or David Cassidy should either of those gentlemen be willing to wait for me.

With that doorbell ring, I now had high school versions of men almost inside my home. The last place I wanted to be was sitting on the floor playing with Barbies when my mother opened the door to greet our testosterone-driven visitors.

I only had time to scurry down our hallway, taking sanctuary just inside my bedroom doorway – the closest position I could maintain while listening without being seen. I also knew I would be able to peek unnoticed from there. So, after my mom left them alone in our living room to see what was keeping my dad, I peeked.

The young men filled our couch while one perched in a chair. They looked uncomfortable. Nervous. Then they saw my neglected Barbies, and one of them quietly said something that made them all laugh.

I was horrified.

Then the one that had said something picked up a naked Barbie, grabbing her by her stiff, tight thighs. He rotated his wrist so that she appeared to dance in front of the boys on the couch. The other boys started to giggle and talk funny, and one more Barbie was picked up by a boy on the couch, and he forced the Barbies to pose breast to breast. Then they spread the Barbies’ long, unbending legs.

I didn’t want to keep looking, but I was afraid not to. What was happening to them- the Barbies and the boys? Why were they laughing? And why did I feel that something naughty was going on?

I was scared for those Barbies and their Barbie friends on the floor. I was also scared – somehow – for me.

Those boys were not the men I thought. Or were they? Is this what grown boys were like? If so, they had a dark side I had not encountered during kick ball or foursquare.

I thought about stepping into the hall to see if they would act like the men on the ball field again. I wanted to rescue my Barbies – to see if I could make the boys stop. But fear outweighed the passion that palpated my heart.

I remained frozen. Fearful.

The boys heard my dad coming the same time I did. When they quickly dropped the Barbies, my fears took on fuel. Those boys didn’t want my dad to see what they had been doing. It had felt wrong to them too, and yet they had done it anyway. That left me more afraid.

I stayed in my bedroom while they talked to my dad, my heart beating faster than it had before. I thought about my abandoned Barbies, wishing the boys away. When they finally did leave, I headed straight to the living room and dressed each Barbie in a complete outfit – dress, shoes, hair accessory. Each ensemble restored a bit of my courage. I wanted my Barbies to know I was sorry. I hoped for inanimate forgiveness.

With the last artificial woman fully clothed, I approached my dad – only 10 years older than his players – with accusations of abuse. He heard how I had watched the boys manipulate my dolls with as much detail as I could muster. Then he looked at me, and then at the ground, and then back at me. I knew he was trying to think of words to say. I couldn’t understand why it took so long.

His slight pause held my anger. His chosen words dissected my passion for justice into measured pieces.

“Boys can be like that,” he started. “I’m sorry.”

Then he shared more words about boys and how they get goofy about girls and girl things. He acknowledged that what his ball players did was not right. But somehow I understood my dad didn’t regard what they had done as punishable. He wasn’t as worried about those boys and their futures as much as I was. Or was he? I couldn’t tell.

Maybe he was worried about something else. Maybe my dad – in that moment – began to worry about the grown up version of me. Now a parent myself, I can imagine that as possible.

Girls playing with dolls. Boys playing with dolls. Girls playing with boys who played with girls as if dolls.

Maybe Tony Nelson had a dark side too.

Fortunately, I never had to find out. My high school suitors always behaved as the gentlemen I aspired them to be, and my husband – even as a future husband – far exceeded my Barbie-shaped imaginings of life with a husband and a home of my own.

I now have two sons - boys of my own to raise. One whose notions of marriage may forever stay in the idyllic place I resided prior to the Barbie harassment incident and another who is the same age of the ball players who committed the Barbie abuse. The oldest is a man-boy, locked by disability in a place that will hold him forever young. The youngest is but a few years from becoming a man, as near as I can tell.

I remain uncertain about manhood – how and when this fascinating phenomenon occurs. I have heard it can happen to a boy when in he’s in high school or maybe only begin then but not take full affect until later. It doesn’t happen the same for each person born male and, for some, it might never happen at all.

Some boys cannot grow up.

Some boys choose not to.

Some boys grow into men at the cost of their childhoods.

Some boys grow as men by maintaining the best of childhood.

Some boys fight their way into manhood.

Some boys attain manhood despite themselves.

I still wonder if the boys in my parents’ living room that day became the men I had believed they were. I want to believe they did. And I want to believe that they got married and had little girls who played with Barbies, and that they helped those little girls dress their dolls when the outfits were unruly, using the utmost respect and tenderness.

That’s what men who once played a gentlemen’s game would do once they had grown past childish games.

At least that’s how I imagine it in my grownup Barbie world.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Forest Theater's Last Show

Our family said farewell to a community friend tonight: The Forest Theater. For 57 years, the Compston Family made it possible to watch first-run movies at a price everyone could afford. When we moved to town 18 years ago, admission was $2.50 per person and popcorn was $.50. Tonight our tickets were $4 each, and Gary Compston, the theater owner, was handing out popcorn for free.

In many ways, Gary was the theater. He set the tone - a collegial, neighborly atmosphere where he soon remembered your name and maybe even your usual order at the candy counter.

Going to a movie at The Forest Theater meant you would automatically attend with friends, because people you knew were waiting to pay for a ticket with you, standing in line for popcorn and candy with you, and sitting in seats around you as a small child (who Gary had chosen from the concession line earlier) started the movie by pushing two buttons inside the theater office. When the ads for local businesses began showing on the screen, you remembered why the town now felt like a hometown.

What I'll remember about The Forest Theater:

• Driving by the theater during the day to remind myself of what would be playing there that night.
• Being able to enjoy a date night for less than $12, movie munchies included.
• Being able to walk to and from that date night so the magic lasted just a bit longer.
• Listening to the change machine and watching the 50-cent pieces roll down its slide after handing Gary $3 for a $2.50 admission.
• Sitting in the cry room with my infant son, wondering why all movie theaters didn't provide such a gracious spot to watch a movie with a restless or tired little tyke.
• Hearing Gary tell patrons with a large concession order how to carry the items so they won't spill.
• Hearing Gary caution patrons not to spill when it seemed he doubted their ability to carry items to their seats.
• Joking along with Gary every time he told me I owed him $40 or $50 for the $16 admission for our family entourage.
• Watching children and youth (mine included) fight for spots in the front row.
• Listening to the paper popcorn bags nearly drown the beginning sounds of movies with quiet opening scenes.
• Listening to Gary and Mark talk after the show about changes occurring in the movie industry because of the digital revolution.
• Watching my oldest son glide down to his spot in the front row as his wheelchair coasted into position, and then rhythmically push his tires when it was time to ascend the full length of the aisle's incline after credits had finished.
• Wondering what six movies would be on the next flyer to grace our family refrigerator.

Thanks for the memories, Cathy and Gary Compston. You missed taking a lot of vacations so we could escape for a few hours - week after week, month after month, year after year. May you enjoy each of those trips you have planned as a way to launch into retirement. You have left our community quite a legacy. I hope someone dares to step forward and carry that legacy into our community's future.

You will be missed.

You will not be forgotten.

Note: I hope the video helps you feel like you were there on the last night. I particularly enjoyed having Gary show off the projector room one last time as the last movie rolled. Seemed incredibly historic. With the advent of digital film, that machine will likely never roll a film again. I loved hearing the tick of the reels. Pretty poignant.