Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Boxing Day

Yes, a few days late. I actually forgot I'd written something about this holiday...
(News-Herald, December 2002) Today, Thursday, December 26, is Boxing Day. Well, at least in some parts of the world it is.
Nobody knows exactly when Boxing Day began, and historians offer a variety of theories about why it developed.
Some say that because servants were required to work on Christmas Day, they would have the following day as their holiday. As they headed out to celebrate the holiday, their employers would give them gift boxes.
Another tradition says that it was the day on which churches opened their poor boxes and distributed the contents to the poor.
Both of these ideas fit reasonably well, as December 26 is also the Feast of St. Stephen. St. Stephen, for those of you who are not up on your saints, was the first Christian martyr, one of the original deacons of the church, ordained by the apostles to care for widows and orphans.
There is, in fact, a Boxing Day carol. Remember—“Good King Wencelsas looked out on the Feast of Stephen.” If you have ever actually sung more than the first verse of the carol, you might recall that the song tells the story of the good king rendering assistance to the poor.
Boxing Day is celebrated in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Canada. The tradition includes a variety of raucous sporting events and has broadened from helping the poor to giving a gift to any of those who have rendered a service in the past year—tradesmen, doormen, mail carriers, porters and others.
It’s not hard to see why the holiday never really caught on in the states. It is very much a class-driven holiday; the whole purpose is to set aside one day on which the upper crust folks deign to share a little something with the underlings of the world. It’s not at all in keeping with the idea of America as a classless society.
Still, I can see some advantages to an American version of Boxing Day.
First of all, any holiday that can be commemorated with a sporting event deserves our attention. Granted, some of the celebratory events, such as cold-water swimming, have a certain lunatic quality about them. But we already play more football games on New Years Day than we know what to do with. Another easily memorable holiday on which to schedule a pigskin romp or two certainly couldn’t hurt.
More than that, though, I support the idea of a holiday that requires us to personally honor the people who do all the grunt work. Labor Day ought to fill the bill, but most of us just enjoy the three day weekend without pausing to consider what the day off is about.
Besides, Labor Day is abstract. Boxing Day American style could be much more direct. There are many people on whom we depend for the daily maintenance of life. The city water doesn’t magically appear in the sink, the mail isn’t delivered by enchanted gnomes, and garbage doesn’t fly off the curb by itself (well, unless it’s left there a really long time). Our roads aren’t self-clearing, electricity doesn’t feed itself into self-repairing cables, and groceries do not grow on the shelves of stores.
All of these things are taken care of for us by real live human beings. We are able to go about our business, take care of the daily stuff of our lives because other people keep the wheels moving for us.
It wouldn’t hurt us a bit to say thank you, not in a vague, abstract way, but as a real gesture to an actual person. Do it not as a sign that you are so much better than they are, but because you appreciate what they do for you.
Sure it’s their job, but they could always do something else. And if nobody was willing to take on the job of hauling away your garbage, you’d be in a terrible mess.
If you can thank Aunt Grizelda for the matching puce and eggplant colored pot holders, you can certainly thank the guy who spent his day today slogging through the slush so that you could get the late Christmas cards from your cousin Beulah in Lake Tahoe.
So we’ll make this year the year we start the American version of Boxing Day. Start slow. Pick someone to thank today. Write him a nice note, or give her the extra fruitcake that’s sitting in your kitchen. Thank someone whose hard work makes your life a little easier. Happy Boxing Day.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Shopping Eve

(December 24, News-Herald) I am done shopping. Seriously, I’m done.
I am one of those people who suffers from severs shopping disorders. I have trouble gearing up to shop, but once started, I have real trouble stopping. And I don’t improve with practice. So far this week I have made four trips to the grocery store. And I’m not counting the time I went to the store, realized I didn’t have my wallet, drove home to find it, couldn’t find it, realized it was in the car, and drove back to the store.
Meanwhile, my daughter is home and in baking mode, so I have been on ingredient patrol (since my home is usually only occupied by a single guy, it is ingredient-free). I take lists. I still have to go back. Four trips so far this week. And I am writing this column on Monday night.
It is the Christmas shopping that pushes me over the edge.
I work hard to shop locally. I do not think less of people who cruise to Pittsburgh or Erie to do some big time shopping. But every penny I make as a teacher comes out of some taxpayer’s pocket, so I feel an obligation to put back as many as I can.
This year a new national initiative emerged called the 3/50 project, tooting the horn for local independent businesses. Pick three local independent businesses you would like to see survive. Spend fifty dollars. It’s an excellent thought. Here’s a way to take care of our own without turning to big government for a cure. Lots of folks worry about the local economy, and this is a way they can put their money in the same neighborhood as their mouths.
But local shopping has challenges. In the later stages, I can make fewer trips because I have the stock of many stores memorized. Some stores have clearly tightened their belts by sending salespeople home (but no, I will not use the self-check-out—if you want me to work for you, then hire me).
And memo to local business operators: Nobody wants to support you more than I do, but sometimes you make me feel that I want to give you my business way more than you want to get it.
I shop only for family. My family of origin was once five people large, but continued expansion and recruitment has swollen the ranks. To me, that means an ever-enlarging list of people to get Just The Right Thing. A well-chosen present says, “I like you.” I want to make sure the gifts I give speak up clearly. If I start buying presents for every friend, co-worker, and Person I Just Generally Like, I will enter a prolonged anxiety attack, worrying that I shortchanged someone. Overlooking ALL my friends and co-workers lets me feel I’m at least being evenhanded.
I blame this gift-giving anxiety on my mother. She begins Christmas shopping in June. You would think that would make keeping the secrets difficult (our presents are traditionally unknown until unwrapped), but she rarely spills the beans. What she does do is call the beans names. She has already told me that she is giving me what she gives me every year—a Lousy No-good Present.
I have also stimulated the part of the local economy involved in package delivery. It’s not just the wonders of amazon.com—there are, for instance, lots of good books that are no longer in print, but luckily I’ve found alibris.com, a massive used bookstore on line. And I can present fret any hour of day or night.
I know there are people who find gift-buying heinous, viewing it with the same glaring eyes that our Puritan forefathers used when they banned the holiday entirely. Those folks can go sit with the people who carp about the imaginary War on Christmas.
I think there is something sweet and commendable about indulging the desire to do something nice for the people we love; the fact that such giving involves a sacrifice of ordinary mortal money is a fine echo of the larger immortal sacrifice that Christmas foreshadows.
I like getting people stuff, and Christmas is a fine excuse to do it. But I will be glad to sit back later tonight, take in a Christmas eve service, go to bed while my grown children have their traditional slumber party, sleep until my son harasses me into wakefulness, and enjoy a day tomorrow during which I need do nothing but enjoy the day.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Race to the Top (Education reform #42187)

(News-Herald, December 17) I’m sorry. I didn’t think we’d be talking about this sort of thing during the pre-Christmas rush. My cynical side suspects that certain people were kind of counting on that.
As part of the federal initiative to stimulate everything that walks, crawls and breathes by throwing money at it, a giant dollar pile has been set up to throw at education. It’s called “Race to the Top,” and apparently the first part of the race is to the top of that mountain of money.
States are being given the chance to compete for educational stimulus money—many are called, but only a few will be paid off. Only a few states can win a slice of pork pie by showing their willingness to scrap their own educational visions and do as Washington wants them to.
The feds have four goals they want to see states pursue:
1) Adopt super-duper standards and assessments.
2) Get big-time data crunching systems in place.
3) Recruiting, retaining and rewarding top teachers.
4) Fixing low-achieving schools.
Noble goals, though DC also has very specific ideas about how to pursue them. Goals 1 and 2 translate into more high stakes testing and centralized control of local curriculum, with lots of sophisticated bean-counting. In Pennsylvania, that will mean the PSSA, Keystone exams and PVAAS boondoggle will be given fresh coats of paint and set in cement.
Goal 3 would require some of the biggest shifts in local focus; there isn’t any school district in Venangoland that makes even a token effort to recruit and retain the tops in the teaching field. Most depend on a hiring technique known as “Hope We Get Lucky.” The troubling part of Goal 3 is that it appears the feds would like to see merit pay (and de-merit pay) based on student test results.
Goals 1-3 require camouflage and paperwork. Goal 4 has real teeth. In the Pennsylvania version, a school that is deemed too under par has three choices—replace the principal and at least half the teachers, convert the school to a charter school, or simply close the school and ship the students out.
This is particularly exciting when you remember that under current No Child Left Behind goals, every school in the state will fail (or cheat) within the next four years.
States will compete for free federal money by racking up points based on various criteria, most measuring how willing the state is to submit federal demands. One of the criteria is how well the state can guarantee that local school districts will go along, and so each school district is being asked to sign a letter agreeing to follow the state’s plan. The local school districts hand the keys to the store over to the state, who in turn hands them over to the feds.
Everybody remotely serious about education knows that accountability is absolutely necessary. We should be able to tell you what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how successfully it has been done. But everybody remotely serious about education also knows that the way to get there is not with one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter programs poorly measured by a handful of high stakes tests.
So why are so many people who ought to know better lining up to declare that yes, indeed, the emperor’s new clothes are beautiful?
You remember that mountain of money. Some of the promotional material for RTTT notes proudly that half of the federal money will actually makes its way to local districts. The rest presumably will stay in Harrisburg to buy really nice, shiny bean counting machinery.
The program is complicated and still-changing, but it is worth noting that many of its details are not supported by a shred of the sort of data these reformers claim to revere. Even if you think a bureaucrat in DC is the best person to design curriculum for our local school districts, I believe in my heart that some of what’s being pushed here is bad educational policy.
Harrisburg has been asked to sell off our schools and sell out its educational principles. The state could say no. So could local districts.
And while you may think that such a sweeping retooling of American public education might be accompanied by discussion, you’d be wrong. In the tradition of great Harrisburg initiatives (midnight pay raise, property tax “reform,” I-80 tolls) this is being handled like a greased pig in a wind tunnel. Your local district must make its decision and let Harrisburg know by December 18. Tomorrow.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Son of How the Church Lost Me

(News-Herald, December 10) Last week’s column about leaving the church generated more response than any column I’ve ever written, more emails than I can keep up with. So I’m going to break two of my rarely-broken rules—don’t write about the same topic two weeks in a row, and don’t discuss mail.
Many correspondents guessed that I would receive many invitations to various churches in the area, and they were correct. The invitations came with varying degrees of charm and concern, and while I probably won’t accept most of them, I sincerely appreciate each one.
Some folks will be surprised that I received not a single solitary note calling me names, speculating on how much I will enjoy roasting in hell, or recommending that I be thumped soundly for my wandering ways. Even people who mostly disagreed with me were kind and friendly about it.
It reminded me of something I’ve suspected for a long time, which is that people inside and outside of the church don’t generally understand each other very well.
These days, few people know how to discuss differences opinion without slinging mud and calling names.
Some folks object to being evangelized (i.e. “fixed”), and some believers can’t sit idle when they see someone who, they believe, needs their spiritual help. Unchurched folks can be overly defensive, hearing themselves called names and rejected even when it hasn’t happened yet, and might not happen ever. At the same time, some folks in the church sit silent while a wide variety of wingnuts wrap their personal political and social agendas in an ill-fitting suit of faux Christianity. Those wingnuts make it easy for intellectually lazy unchurched folks to dismiss the whole package.
Churched and unchurched folks are way more complicated than they give each other credit for.
I heard from a wide variety of drop-outs (and nearly-drop-outs) who shared that they felt a church had failed to meet their needs and felt that they couldn’t stay in a place where they were spiritually starving. And I heard from a wide variety of church people who wanted to remind me that the church is not a fast food drive-through where you motor up, order what you need, get it, and then drive away.
I agree with both. In broken relationships the blame, if we have to call it that, is usually shared by both parties. But here’s the thing—in this particular broken relationship, the church is the party that’s being left.
Imagine one spouse is walking out. Pat says, “Why are you leaving me?” Chris explains, revealing heart and hurt and motivations. “Oh,” says Pat. “Well, let me explain why you are wrong to feel that way.”
This conversation does not end with Pat saying, “Oh, well, since you’ve explained why I shouldn’t feel the way I do, I’ll just stop feeling that way and stay here.”
Last week was not meant as a personal plea. I am working through my own issues in my own way. But people who abandon the church rarely explain why, leaving the church to fly blind on the increasingly common issue of “Hey! Where did everybody go?” I wanted to add some data to the conversation; folks are free to use the info, or not, as they wish.
But my mail has led me to one more suggestion.
The most universal comment in my mail, from all sides of the pews, was that I was brave to write last week’s column. On the one hand, I get that. Talking about religion in Venango County is like complaining about the Pope in an Irish bar – some kind of argument will certainly break out.
But on the other hand—really??!! Is it really that hard to talk honestly about a subject that is so critical? Religion is one of the few issues that is so pervasive, so important to us as a society, that it shapes the lives of even those who choose not to be involved in it.
The emails, from believers and non-believers, churched and unchurched (need I really explain that those distinctions are not the same?), moved me and reminded me of how much I missed simple, honest discussion of the matter, with people sharing what they really think and not what they think they’re supposed to think. And I’m told that some of these conversations have spilled out into the real world. In this season, when it’s so easy to go through motions without remembering why, that can’t be a bad thing.

Friday, December 04, 2009

How the Church Lost Me

(News-Herald, December 3) In the last few decades, large numbers of Americans have dropped out of organized religion. I may know a bit about why, because I am one of them.
I was raised in the church. Went to Sunday School and youth group regularly. I was a youth delegate to Annual Conference (the United Methodist equivalent of state government, with more praying and less money-grubbing), and when I outgrew that, I joined a group of activists who pushed for young adults to have a place in the church’s ministry. I’ve been an usher, a choir director, and a youth director.
I tell you all of this not to brag, but so you understand that I’m a true drop-out, not a never-was. So how did the church lose me and, presumably, people like me?
First, I have no beef with God. I’ve been blessed with a life far better than I deserve—sometimes way far better-- and not a day goes by that I am not grateful for it. And I am well aware that faith exercised without community is incomplete. But for years, I’ve wrestled with the following:
No attitude of searching. For me, it’s a basic part of life to be looking for answers. I am amazed and alarmed by the number of believers who are looking, not for understanding, but for confirmation that what they already believe is true. What is the point of trying to be open to the voice of God if you have convinced yourself that you already know exactly what He has to say?
It’s Finished Christian Syndrome. They’re finished, done growing, done searching. They don’t need anything except another coat of varnish and a little polish, thanks. I can’t relate. How can anything be alive and not be growing?
No room for the wicked. It is one of the oldest clich├ęs in the churching world, the repeated reminder that we are supposed to minister to people who are dirty, grubby, unsavory or even (gasp) just plain wrong. And yet some church folks apparently did not get that memo.
Never mind the Great Commission (“Go ye into all the world etc ” which we memorized in Bob Shearer’s Sunday School class). Some believers think that a Good Christian should never consort with, talk to, work with, or share air with the Wrong Sort of People.
I knew a minister once who was happy to minister to anyone who was Right With God. But if you weren’t, he expected you to go off by yourself and work it out, and he didn’t really want to talk to you until you had Gotten Right. Never mind the arrogance involved in believing that you can judge who is Right With God; the total disregard for the Bible’s fairly clear instructions on the matter is disheartening. Too many churches have no more active ministry than a country club or a reasonably friendly bar. Too many churches spend too much time celebrating how their faith proves that they’re better than everyone else.
Tiny God. The Eternal Creator of All That Is, Was and Will Be has strong feelings about which political party to support in this year’s elections?!?! Seriously??
Traditions short-circuited. You know how upset Catholics become when the Vatican messes with tradition every hundred years or so? Protestant churches do that all the time. “That tradition that has always been comforting and meaningful to you? Yeah, we decided to chuck that last week.” I could go back to my old church, but beyond the bricks and mortars, it bears no resemblance at all to the church I grew up in.
Diversity? Pursuing diversity for its own sake is dumb. But in Venango County, if you don’t come as part of a complete traditional family unit package, many churches aren’t sure what to do with you.
My Own Fault. To be honest, I have to acknowledge my own role. I’m the one who put distance between myself and the church. It’s true that the last time a minister visited me was in September, 1979. But in all the intervening years, not one church has barred the door or refused to let me sit in a pew. Those of us who chose to walk away could also choose to walk back.
What might prompt us to do that? Hard to say. The shortest answer is for churches to be places that clearly offer something powerful and positive not found elsewhere. That might give churches and strays a reason to bother with each other.

From my Flickr