And Coming in 2016....

"She-Bear in the Beautiful Garden," to be published by Cranberry Quill... an allegory for children of all ages, beautifully illustrated.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Freedom Of, Not From

On May 2, our nation will celebrate, to one degree or another, National Day of Prayer. In years past I have participated in gatherings in Fort Pierce and elsewhere.  As Toastmaster for a club meeting of Fort Pierce Toastmasters this week, I’ve chosen prayer as the theme and will hand out a copy of the prayer to be used at gatherings around the country. We’ll talk about what prayer is  (conversation, thanksgiving, worship, supplication)  and what it is not (a wish list for the celestial Santa).

We are no longer a Christian nation. Some would say we never were, that our founding fathers were deists, not theists, and certainly not that increasingly politically incorrect animal known as Christian. We are still, however, a Christianized nation. Although each generation seems to move a little further off the mark, we are for the time being awash with a Judeo-Christian heritage generally, and a Christian one specifically.

Our elected officials, whether swearing or affirming, place a hand on the Judeo-Christian holy book, the Bible. Our laws, taken from the best of various codes throughout history, give more than a nod to the Decalogue or Ten Commandments in that it is, in our society, considered wrong to murder, steal, and lie. The Puritan work ethic of industry, frugality, and prosperity has not been liberalized out of the national conscience just yet, and most of us recognize what the phrase means, even if we do not consistently use it as a personal mantra.

We are a young nation, but in such a short time, we have seen incredible changes. We have fought for independence, seen the end of slavery, expanded from one coast to the other and beyond, exported our goods and services throughout the world. From a fledgling upstart to a world leader, the story of the United States of America has been an exciting one for all to read. And at no time in our history, has the acknowledgement of God been completely absent.

From the prayers of thanksgiving by the writers of the Mayflower Compact, to George Washington’s prayer toward the end of the Revolutionary War, to the Declaration of Independence, to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s D-Day Prayer, to the Serenity Prayer now used by thousands of self-help groups, to this month’s National Day of Prayer suggested prayer by Greg Laurie, we have as a nation not only known what it meant to pray but to whom our prayers were directed. We have, as a nation, acknowledged the existence of one Supreme Being, one God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent.

My generation grew up in Sunday school and church, or in synagogue. We grew up with a brief prayer at the beginning of the school day. Our children, while they may have started out that way, began drifting as they got older. Their children may or may not have traditional religious training, and prayer has been formally taken out of the public school system.

Oh, there’s prayer – as they say, there will always be prayer in school as long as there are tests, and no law prohibits our thoughts. Yet. But the daily acknowledgement that there is something beyond what we find inside our textbooks and laboratories has been removed. Does this matter?
Certainly there has been a significant rise in crime, teenage pregnancy, violence in schools, divorce, All Things Bad, etc. since 1962, but hearing a short Bible verse and woodenly repeating the Lord’s Prayer was not the proverbial ounce of prevention. It was just a small particle of prevention, like the inclusion of “under God” in our pledge of allegiance…still, thankfully, allowed by our government, but an important part nevertheless.

In the third book of C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, the protagonist realizes that the very effort to quash all religious thought and practice proves its importance and validity. Otherwise, he surmises, why not just ignore it? If there is nothing to God or prayer or scripture, if it is truly foolishness and myth, why all the uproar? It made no sense. It still doesn’t.

Great evil has been done in the name of God, in the name of religions of all flavors. Christianity has not escaped this in the past nor in today’s America. Hatred and intolerance still hides behind the face of faith. The answer is not in distancing ourselves further, lest we be mistaken for those who twist and manipulate truth for their own purposes, but to edge ever closer to the truth so that the difference is clear to all.

Our Constitution mandates freedom OF religion, not FROM religion. It’s an important distinction. Should we bring prayer back to school? I fail to see how taking a moment of silence, in which those students of faith can center themselves privately, would be harmful. They would pray to God, Allah, Krishna, the Lords of Flatbush, for all anyone else knew, but it would be a tiny, tiny reminder that it isn’t all about them. That there is more.

Maybe it would help. Couldn’t hurt. Prayer has been proven (i.e. statistically, medically, documentably) to help physically. I believe our country, whippersnapper that it still is in the Bigger Historical Picture, could use all the help it can get.

If you would like to see prayer back “officially” in schools, fine – speak up, vote, write letters to the editor or a blog like this one. But don’t just complain and not be willing to do what you CAN do to share your faith. Don’t wail and gnash your teeth that schools are going to hell in a handbasket because they took prayer out, and then fail to provide godly training to your children and grandchildren at home.

And while we’re at it, since prayer is not currently, formally sanctioned in school, there is absolutely nothing to stop believers of all persuasions from adding more acknowledgement of God to their places of business. In North Carolina, the buckle on the Bible Belt, it is not uncommon to see placards with Bible verses in peoples’ yard or taped to cash registers.

Tiny particles of hope and truth. In some countries, that would be against the law, but not here.

Not yet, anyway.

(c) Ellen Gillette, 2013



Friday, April 12, 2013

Follow-Up


Last week it was my honor to have a guest column in the local newspaper. Years ago, I was a weekly columnist. A PAID weekly columnist. It was pretty heady stuff. I loved getting cards and letters from readers, phone calls, being stopped by a reader in the grocery store -- even if it was to chew me out. For a newspaper columnist, feedback is gold, whether it is positive or negative.

My column was dropped shortly before we moved to North Carolina in 2005. By the time we returned to south Florida in 2011 -- has it been that long? -- other people were in place, for the most part. (Newspapers have a very high turnover rate.) I made the calls, introduced myself. No need for more columnists at this time, no budget for freelancers, I was told, but you're welcome to write guest columns. So I did just that.

Periodically, I submit items to the editorial page editor. That being the venue rather than, say, the front of the local section (where my weekly column had appeared at one time) I'm more prone to submit something on subjects of tri-county interest or beyond, offering my opinion on matters of local or national interest, weighing in on some of the debates we see routinely on Facebook or on the nightly news.

The column last week was about California's Proposition 8. Prop 8 passed several years ago, adding language to that state's constitution which limited marriage to a union between individuals of different sexes. My column suggested compassionate compromise that recognizes committed long-term same-sex unions. If the word "marriage" is a problem, then go at it obliquely, but let's use common sense. The attitude of California and the entire nation has changed in the last 5 years, and state laws should reflect that. BUT Prop 8 legally passed, and the highest court in the land shouldn't be troubled with it. Go back to the voters. Change it that way.

I sent the column first to a friend, a former editor who has had great influence on me over the last 20 years, and not just in the area of newspaper writing. Knowing him, and knowing some of the things with which he and his family have been involved has gone a long way toward modifying some of my thinking. Not the only influence, but a major one.

He made, as he usually does, some technical suggestions and added that perhaps in the future, I might think about a follow-up column dealing with how and why my views had changed.

Maybe I will write that piece for the newspaper, but for now, I'll do it here.

In years past, I was a very black-and-white kind of person. I led a sheltered life. My life was home and church and not much else. For years we didn't own a television, even! This was before the Internet exploded onto the scene. Before I became involved with community theater. Before I went to work outside the home. Before I became a professional writer. My moral plumb line was straight as an arrow and allowed no leeway. Right was Right, Wrong was Wrong, and never the twain could meet.

And then I had some of my own personal crises. I saw things I thought would never happen, happen. And the sun continued to shine.

I discovered that the only thing that is the end of the world is, in fact, the end of the world...and it hasn't happened yet. I met people outside the safety zone of church. My children grew up and didn't depend on me as their sole source of wisdom and direction. I grew up too, looking beyond what others had always told me and forming my own opinions. I met gay individuals, gay (gasp) couples. I developed friendships with people who were not of the same faith, or of any faith at all. I listened to differing political views. I observed people who were intelligent, decent, productive, caring...and who disagreed with me on almost everything, yet freely acknowledged that I, too, was intelligent, decent, productive, and caring.

A friend told me about his brother coming out as a gay man. Their sister responded with the familiar adage that "God hates the sin but loves the sinner," to which my friend countered, "This is our brother. That's not good enough." Over the years, the family embraced their own and supported him, even if they did not share or completely understand his way of life. When he passed away, his partner of many years instantly became a family member, another brother forever.

I've laughed with and teased other gay couples, seen how they genuinely care for one another. When I posted the equality flag during the Supreme Court deliberations with some of my views on Facebook, it surprised me who was offended, and who wasn't. Bible verses were quoted. I was chastised, albeit fairly gently, by some of my Christian brothers and sisters who sounded very much like I might have sounded some years in the past. I understand where they're coming from. I just know I'm not where I used to be. I don't understand homosexuality, but I understand sexuality as a God-given need and a God-given joy, and I don't think it's up to me to decide who gets to have that need met and with whom, who has a "right" to experience that joy.

There are ideals set forth for the maximum health of mankind, but how many of us, in any area of life, manage to live up to ideals? Dare we pick and choose which ones are okay (for us) to slip up on, and which ones we can righteously bash people over the head with?

I'm so glad I'm not God.

There is a quote by a Persian philosopher named Rumi that says, paraphrased here, that beyond Right and Wrong there's a field where we can meet. I love that. Christians enjoy quoting the Law, spout things about ADAM AND EVE, NOT ADAM AND STEVE but they don't think, perhaps, about the circumstances of Adam and Eve's initial existence. God never intended them to eat of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil...without which, there is no concept of Right and Wrong, just God, who is Love incarnate.

Only after the forbidden fruit was eaten, and hundreds of years later, was the Law given in order to show God's people a better, healthier, more righteous way of living. Ideals were laid out by a God who knewknewknewknewknew his people would fail to comply, would be unable to fully follow all the in's and out's, thereby laying the groundwork for the coming of the Messiah who would, once and for all, offer himself as the ultimate and final sacrifice for the sins of mankind, past, present, and future. That includes us, by the way.

People quote random verses and conveniently slide over others. Funny thing is, the verses that are quoted are frequently addressed to the behavior of OTHER PEOPLE. It's one thing to say, "I don't understand this, but it's not my business. God bless you and lead us both, in his love and grace, to the Truth." It's quite another to point fingers and say, "I don't understand this, so it must be wrong. You must be wrong, and it's my job to set you straight."

Same-sex marriage isn't the only arena in which subtle change has taken place. I used to be pretty cut-and-dried about divorce, for instance. God hates it, after all! The Bible says so! It must be wrong! At 55, I've figured out that it isn't to whom you're married, or with whom you are intimate, that secures your place in heaven. An unmarried, or non-traditionally married, couple who sacrificially and joyfully loves each other must, in some corner of heaven, give more  glory to God our Creator than many "righteous" unions in which there is no sacrifice, no joy, just two miserable people gritting their teeth. White knuckle marriages for the sake of being Right glorify God? Not necessarily. In this case, too, knowing people who have cried out to God for wisdom and felt genuinely led to divorce...well, you can't argue with experience. I may not always understand, but it really doesn't depend on my understanding, does it? No one died and made ME God, that's for damn sure.

Life is short. My thoughts have changed. I'd like to think they've grown, deepened, matured. If, when I stand before God's throne, he tells me that I was one messed up little puppy and had it ALL wrong, that's cool. I'm forgiven, loved unconditionally. I'm doing the best I can with what he's given me, and I know he understands me better than I understand myself. But since I'm NOT all-knowing, I am more comfortable erring in a few matters on the side of grace, inclusion, and compassion. I know that I need grace daily, hourly. I know that there are things about MY life that people on the outside looking in would question, misunderstand, disagree with, even revile. And that's okay. I'm not asking for their approval or permission for my life, and I heartily contend that no one needs mine.

For a long time (a very long time ago!) I thought I could be the perfect wife and mother. I would do everything Right, from marrying the man God led me to marry, to raising our children strictly by the Bible, to staying active in church, to submitting in all things, to serving all people in all ways. And because I did everything Right, my children would do everything Right, and they would be safe and happy and fulfilled at all times and in all ways! What a load of shit! (And having raised goats, I know of what I speak!)

Do you hear the pride in all of that? Me, me, me. Sickening, really.

NOTHING depends on  me. I tried to be a good wife and loving mother and I failed miserably. And you know what? My husband and children failed me too. And you know what? God loves us all any way. My marriage has lasted, with God's grace, 36 years, but if it ended next week, I know that it wouldn't be because...not just because...of me. There are always two sides to the story, and those I know and love who have sought a solution to years of unhappiness through divorce, well, I want to give them as much compassion as I would want in the same circumstance.

The same with friends who disagree with my politics, have wayward children, stopped going to church, or have come to grips with the fact that they are wired differently, etc. God is love. I may not understand a lot, but I understand that. If I am to be a carrier, a transmitter, a vehicle for that love, then I want to be very, very careful about demanding other people change their behavior so that I'm more comfortable with them. Maybe there is something God wants me to learn from them. Maybe he just wants to use me to be kind to them.

The Bible tells many stories about flawed, sinful, ordinary people being used by God in extraordinary ways. It's the ones who are so Right they feel they're God's little helpers that cause most of the problems. The rest of us know (have learned through painful experience) that we are, without him, incapable of anything good or loving or helpful. And we're okay with rubbing shoulders with the rest of the population on the planet that understand the same thing.

I'm rambling. Venting. Drinking a glass of chardonnay at the time, a shocking revelation to many who may read this! There are Christians who drink! And say the F word! And don't adhere to every jot and tittle of the Law...the Law that Jesus' death freed us from, remember? I want to live my life in such a way that I bring pleasure to the heart of God. The way that is worked out on a daily basis may not look, at any given moment, the way you think it should look. So stop looking! Take your eyes off me, and off same-sex couples, and off people struggling with life, and look at God.

You'll get so much more out of the view.



BTW, the link to that article is http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2013/apr/05/ellen-gillette-same-sex-marriage-compromise-in/