It isn’t generosity when it’s required

Once again I was prepared to discuss the Higgs-Boson particle, which is essential to the mystery of Jesus (at least according to some blogs). But then Ann Romney spoke up. In the wake of the controversy about her husband's falsifying records about his stint at Bain Capital, she said Mitt was one of the most generous men she knows. Her example? Mitt gives ten percent of their income to the Mormon Church.

First of all, let me explain to Republicans and members of the Christian right why Romney's record at Bain is so important in an election that will be primarily about the economy. First, he lied to the government about when he ran Bain. When you lie to the government, you are officially, on the record, lying to the American people who are the government.

What did he lie about? His economic record as CEO. This should send a warning flag when he says that he will do as President what he did as CEO.

It should also send a warning flag since he oversaw massive layoffs and outsourcing to maintain profitability. This is the clearest indicator of his economic policy's effects since his policy is pretty much to cut corporate taxes and let them create jobs elsewhere.

It's hard to be upset about the lying part since we already know the Christian right has pretty much struck that off the ten commandments to make room for their abortion plank.

But I'm interested in Ann Romney's claim that giving ten percent to your church is generous. Jesus pretty much said the opposite. Tithing is not an act of generosity, it's an article of faith. You aren't being generous until you give more than asked.

Romney may be generous (even though his employees might not feel that generosity). But it isn't for paying his bills to God.

My family had a hard time getting a handle on this, but I was raised Baptist Preacher's Kid (BPK) so it may have come with the territory. My family loved to ask us to be generous with each other, so much so that we twisted each other's arm until the spirit of generosity overwhelmed us.

It would begin simply and innocently. With a suggestion like, “Wouldn't it be nice if you…?” Innocent to people who don't speak Baptist (or Stephens). To those of us who speak the language, it meant “You will.”

Nor was a gift really a gift so much as an obligation in its own right. The master of obligatory gift giving was my grandmother, who wan't Baptist but a conservative Presbyterian raised in the heart of John Birch country in Ohio. My sisters and I learned to keep our gifts still wrapped in our closets so we could return them whenever she said, “How can you be this way when I gave you such a wonderful present.”

Perhaps the best example of this was the fifty dollar gift an uncle gave to a family in need who were also in his employ. He had just hired the dad, so he floated him fifty dollars to get by until the first pay day. We learned about this gift at the next family dinner when he complained that he spotted the family at Kentucky Fried Chicken that very evening. Even worse, when he saw his employee in the grocery store later in the week, he was buying beer.

That ungrateful lout. It seems my uncle expected his employee to spend the money on baloney sandwiches and milk because that's what poor people should eat to stay on budget.

I thought it might be useful to touch bases on a few tips that you might not be a generous as you think. From what I read in the Bible, you aren't being generous if:

  1. You have an obligation to give.
  2. You give but you don't want to.
  3. You give less than you tell people you do. (This actually got some people killed by the Holy Spirit.)
  4. You do it because someone twists your arm.
  5. You complain about it.
  6. You have to tell everyone how much you gave.
  7. You have to remind them constantly that you gave.
  8. You have a plaque with your name mounted on the gift.
  9. They have to wear it or put it on display whenever you're around or you make them feel guilty.
  10. You expect something back.
  11. You expect it to be used differently than the recipient wants it to be used.
  12. You claim it on your tax returns

By my calculation, Romney's tithes aren't really generous by counts 1, 6 and (most likely) 12. Oh, and, by the way, it isn't generous if you feel you're being generous. That's pride. (So maybe we should add 13 to 1, 6 and 12).

And my hyperactive dog Pearl tells me it isn't being generous to give your dog a ride on the roof so she can share your vacation.

I don't claim to be a generous person myself, by the way. Generosity is difficult by any measure. Grace allows us to slide when we fail to be generous, and we shouldn't jeopardize grace by proclaiming our generosity.


Where should Christians mingle?

I’ve been thinking this week about how easy it is to miss the obvious. The sports section in the local Austin American Statesman does this all the time. Just yesterday, for instance, the editor gave an entire first page column to the first Rangers/Tigers game, how well Detroit does against the Rangers and forecasting pitching match ups.

Since I’m a die hard Tigers fan (I spent many evenings with my son Bryan at the old stadium when they won the Series in 1984) and a Rangers fan as well, I actually read the entire column. When I finished, I noticed a small box at the bottom of the page with a picture of a Phillies pitcher.

The caption described how the Phillies ace only gave up one run and then went on to mention, as an afterthought, that the Phillies lost 1-0. As an after afterthought the next sentence said the Cardinals, who won, would advance to the NL Championship. Then, as an after after afterthought, they added that the Brewers advanced to the championship series as well.

Sorry, Statesman, but in order of importance the real stories should have been “Cardinals and Brewers win their divisions, advance to Championship Series,” and then run a story about the first game between two teams that had already won their divisions a few days earlier. I’ve heard of burying the lead in a story, but never burying the story and the lead as well.

And, yes, if you hadn’t guessed, I will be rooting for the Tigers in the ALCS, but I’ll be happy with either team in the series.

The press made a big deal announcing that Sarah Palin wouldn’t run for the Republican nomination. But wasn’t it already obvious that she wouldn’t run? She doesn’t finish anything. She’s been not campaigning long enough to get bored with that by now.

On top of that, I heard three ads on TV this morning for the Christian Mingle dating service, a place for young Christian singles to go to meet the mate God intended for them. I finally looked them up out of curiosity.

Christian Mingle promises to find your true love if you’re a good enough Christian. Backsliders need not apply.
Click on image to see full size

The message on the splash page couldn’t be more clear. Faith pays for love across state boundaries.

First, the verse over the photo of an irresistibly cute couple: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” The implication being that faith will get you laid. Which, of course, is not what that verse is about at all. The psalm is about the desire for justice to prevail over evil and being rewarded for righteousness.

The caption with the photo explains how two Christians had to fly from the east to west coast to find love. The subtext seems to imply that Christians don’t have to search the world to meet other single Christians and can only do it online.

What about church? Can’t you meet the love of your life in the next pew? After all, if God is really all powerful and plans for you to marry that special someone, he can move that someone to your town and guide them to your church.

And if you can’t be bothered to switch pews and say, “The peace of the Lord be with you, and by the way, my name’s Phillip and are you free for coffee after prayer meeting,” do you really think you’re going to suck less at romance on line?

I hate to sound like a curmudgeon, but that seems like the obvious place to meet someone to date, and if your church doesn’t have anyone datable, there are always other churches.

Furthermore, if God was really going to give you the desires of your heart, would he make you pay a monthly matchmaker fee? I thought you could go to gypsies for that.

Christian Mingle feeds the same idealized vision of romance that pundits blame for all the divorces ripping families apart. The romanticized version of romance is that we can find the perfect spouse by finding someone with a computerized checklist.

“I want someone who worships God as we walk hand in hand along the beach; is willing to cuddle up with scripture, non-alcoholic wine and Amy Grant music by the fire; will share the housework and daily devotionals, and isn’t afraid to be moved to tears by the spirit.”

Why would anyone think an online Christian dating service is any different than the miserable failures in the secular world? Even if you do get to pray before you fill out your computer checklist.

Do you ever wonder what really goes on in those chat rooms? It seems just as likely people will cheat on their spouses with righteous sexting as they would with regular sexting: “I feel the spirit moving. The Lord wants me to rise to this occasion. That’s a big verse you sent.”

Only now it’s okay, because you’re not really cheating, you’re counseling.

The irony of all this to me is that when I went to church I didn’t do it to meet girls. In fact, I avoided romance with Christian women like the plague. Being raised Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK), I learned that the love of Christian women always masks a hidden agenda. Sure, they say the love you, but they really love the man they know Jesus wants you to be.

I had enough of that with the family I was born into. I didn’t need to add another one by marriage.

My experience with my first wife should have given me a clue that approaching marriage with such clearly drawn presumptions rarely works out. We were fine until Bryan was born, and then she turned into a righteous woman. Bryan had to get baptized. So we joined a Presbyterian church, took Presbyterian lessons and finally got confirmed so Bryan could get baptized.

We never missed a Sunday, never missed a lesson. Until the day came and Bryan was baptized Presbyterian. After that she never woke up on Sunday until football started. After we got divorced I had to take Catholic lessons, so she could get the marriage annulled and the church would allow Bryan to get baptized when she remarried a Catholic.

I also learned you didn’t have to be raised BPK to have religion make you nuts.

Ironically, I met Carol in church. I had no intention of dating her because she looked so holy and so righteous. She served on the altar guild and everybody she walked by could see the halo over her head. I knew she was bad news.

Then, for some reason, we ended up sitting next to each other one Sunday and had to share a hymnal because Episcopalians encourage that kind of thing. I heard this voice say quite clearly, “You need to marry her.”

God never spoke directly to me before. Ever. Or since. Even during my fervent days in the Jesus movement when everybody had visions and angels dropped in like bad acid trips, God answered with silence. So I figured I was having my first schizophrenic episode.

But later, at a pot luck, I thought I should at least say hello and cover my ass with God. Just in case.

The voice wasn’t wrong. Carol is such a catch that my own mother still asks her if she wouldn’t have been better off marrying someone better.

And while I don’t think everyone will have God shout out who they should meet, I’m not sure they need an algorithm either.

Cows, car bingo and catolicism

I find it amazing how technology has reduced families to collections of people living under a single roof. Between HD TV in every room, cable boxes that stream four different shows to four different TVs, desktop computers, laptop computers, iPads, iPhones and iPods we never need to talk to each other.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology. Carol and I hardly ever argue anymore because we’re too busy online to talk. Even when we’re driving, when Carol used to tell me everything I’m doing wrong, she now spends all her time on her iPhone talking to her Siamese Rescue
buddies. She never notices when I speed through a yellow anymore, drive too close to the curb or slow down to piss off tailgaters.

Gary and my sister Aimee have a DVD player in the back of their minivan and each of my nephews has his own Nintendo DS. You would think that would keep them from interacting with Gary and Aimee when they drive.

It doesn’t work, of course. As soon as they pop a DVD in, the kids argue about which DVD they should really be watching. Hopefully that will be solved when savvy car dealers decide to offer a separate DVD player for every kid in the back seat. Give each of the kids his own iPad too, and they should be able to make it from Dallas to Waco before the fighting starts.

Or maybe, at least, from North Dallas to the center of town.

I thought of this because I had been looking at car bingo apps for my column

Car bingo involved spotting objects on a list. If you saw one you could cross if off your bingo card. Just like bingo. You held your bingo card in your lap (think cheap piece of paper with cars, stop signs, planes, gas stations and mailboxes printed in different places on a five-by-five grid) and the cheapest possible pencil in your hand.

Only we didn’t play actually car bingo. My family played “cows” instead. Bingo was Catholic and gambling and Baptist Preacher’s Kids (BPKs) were’t allowed to associate with either. By extension, car bingo was just as shade below dancing on a very long list of sins.

In “Cows” the first passenger who spotted 25 cows won, but black cows wiped your count back to zero. You could only count the cows on your side of the car and you couldn’t make them up because you had to announce right away so mother could check (even BPKs cheat).

The other advantage of cows over car bingo was that you didn’t need bingo cards or pencils, which meant Dad wouldn’t get pissed when we lost yet another (and here his voice would lower so we couldn’t hear the adjectives) pencil under the back seat. You could start a game of cows with no preparation at all.

Of course, once Beth and I turned ten, we were on to their trick. The whole game was a ruse to shut us up. And even when we were younger, the game ended as soon as one of us decided the other was cheating or had the better side of the car and leaped across the cooler with a fistful of hair already firmly grasped.

Most games lasted fifteen minutes and ended, not with a win but with one of us (okay, me) climbing across the barrier. But even fifteen minutes rest between bouts must have seemed like heaven.

If my dad had been smart he would have let me pile all my books in the back of the car and read. But dad didn’t believe in reading on vacation. He would rhapsodize on the purism of vacationing in the car. “Just take in this vast panorama of nature,” he would say. “God’s beauty on display everywhere you look.” (He didn’t say this when we drove through cities.) “Just relax and enjoy the view.”

So we would sit back and enjoy the view, which meant that within five minutes I was climbing over the ice chest barrier to defend my honor over something Beth said under her breath, she would be punching back, I would have a fistful of hair in my hand and mother would have to start another game of cows.

It’s a shame my sister Aimee was too young to travel with us. She came along when I was in high school. And her husband Gary was an only child, so neither of them were prepared for life with two children in the back of the car. That’s why they installed a DVD player and gave my nephews Nintendo games.

I’m sure mother still tells them how much more fun it is to play cows whenever she takes long trips with them. And even though Aimee is her third child, I imagine she still hasn’t figured out that her children are no more likely to take her advice about childrearing than she was.

My version of cows for children was the quiet game. It was much more effective than cows. In the quiet game children had to stay quiet as long as possible and the first one to speak was the shameful loser. As soon as I heard a peep coming from the back of the car, I would remind Bryan and his cousins, “We’re still playing the quiet game. Do you really mean to tell me you can’t win a simple game like that?”

Of course there was a token reward for the winner and the game started over as soon as someone lost. And it usually worked for half an hour or more.

It should be no surprise to readers that when my first Catholic girlfriend (who my parents didn’t know about) took me to mass I was astounded to learn that Catholics had footrests and ash trays right there in the sanctuary. She knuckled my arm as soon as I propped my heels on that prayer pew. I figured out right away that the ash trays must serve another purpose.

Ironically, it’s okay for BPKs to play car bingo now because conservative Baptists have made up with conservative Catholics. The ice chest between them—a big box of indigestible theological cocktails that included Papal infallibility, transubstantiation, birth control, purgatory, limbo and thousands of Catholic and Protestant martyrs killed in hundreds of years of war (and gambling/Bingo)—has been set aside to protect unborn babies.

This is the modern political version of cows. Conservative Christians pretend to get along in order to play the game. The problem is, neither group has really made the effort to resolve hundreds of years of theological divide. The issues are still there.

While liberal churches (read “secular heathen churches”) tried to create true ecumenicalism, they were forced to tackle some really important questions. They are building bridges that will allow them to worship in peace even though some worship Christ, some pray to Allah, some still believe the only God is the God of Israel and some practice in the belief that the the eightfold path (and others) requires no God at all.

These are tough obstacles to overcome, but the objective has always been to overcome them. The tenuous alliance between conservative evangelicals and Catholics, however, is not forged with a desire to bring the two closer to God, but to pursue a political agenda. The upside of this alliance is that both may come to soften their stance on other issues and embrace a broader vision of God after all.

There is, however, a real possibility that when they’ve driven the last liberal from office, they will have to face the fact that they never resolved the far more important questions that divided them for all but a decade or two. And when they do, the holy catholic church of the Apostle’s Creed will become as fragmented as before.

So my advice to both conservative evangelicals and Catholics is to stop dwelling on politics and start addressing the many Christian beliefs you have in common. Try to build bridges past the issues that still divide you. I say this in the hope that once you resolve those questions among yourselves, it will become easier to accept that Jesus embraced a larger church than you previously recognized.

How to send the wrong message

One of the things I loved most about growing up Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) was that I learned so many things I wasn’t supposed to learn.

Lots of kids learn things they aren’t supposed to learn. For instance, I learned things in fifth grade from Delbert Thrash that fifth grade boys shouldn’t learn. I learned why dogs sometimes climb onto the backs of other dogs, and I learned deaf signs for words I wasn’t supposed to know.

Of course, I also learned a lot of things from my uncle Phil, who, I now realize, learned them exactly the same way I did. He learned them because his BPF members told him he really shouldn’t know these things.

For instance, one time we were playing with cars and trucks and pretending to build a road. I said, “Let’s put a dam here.”

Phil, who was four years older than me, and who knew damn well “dam” was a perfectly good word, said, “You can’t say ‘damn.’ It’s a bad word.”

I said, “No, it isn’t. It’s a perfectly good word.” And I proceeded to say it over and over again. “Dam, dam, dam, dam, dam.” Phil, warned me that he was going to tell on me, but I just kept right on damning myself. “Dam. Dam. Dam. Dam. Dam.”

He warned me that I was going to get the switch. The switch, I should point out, was a huge branch cut from a mesquite tree which my grandfather kept hanging over the closet door as a reminder of what would happen if errant children crossed one line too many.

Let me segue at this moment, because many of my liberal friends and readers (and liberalism, I should point out, is far too conservative for my tastes) would be horrified by the image of my grandfather switching children with a mesquite branch—which can have thorns as long as two inches.

Those readers clearly don’t understand the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) which was prevalent in American politics in the fifties when I grew up (as, I might point out, were TLAs or Three Letter Acronyms). The grandfather variation of MAD was that a child threatened with a mesquite switch would immediately cease to misbehave once warned that a switching was imminent.

And, for the most part, this was true. But I should point out that, when pushed to the test, my grandfather was very good at sleight of hand. He would replace the mesquite switch with a normal one which, since we couldn’t see behind us, still felt as though we had been switched with thorns.

Even this image would horrify some readers, but I survived. And while I would never advocate switching myself, and certainly would never advocate indiscriminate punishment, sometimes time outs and kinder/gentler punishment simply doesn’t work with children determined to push the limits.

Ask my mother.

I should also point out to conservative readers, who feel vindicated that I just gave what they perceive to be a blanket endorsement to corporal punishment, that in my experience to children who believe the rewards of misdeeds outweigh any possible punishment, no punishment is effective.

Ask my mother.

And now back to the story.

Thinking he had me dead to rights, Phil went to my parents and grandparents to tell them about my cursing spree. I knew he was ratting me out, but I had nothing to hide. So I picked up a truck and drove it back and forth across my new building block dam while still saying proudly “dam, dam, dam, dam.”

To my surprise, both parents and grandparents were horrified when they entered the room and heard me saying “dam, dam, dam….” And that’s when I discovered that I was not as immune to judgement as I had believed.

“Phillip,” my mother cried, “what are you saying? At your grandparents’ house?”

So I asked what was wrong with the word “dam.” Didn’t we, in fact, travel to Hoover Dam on one summer vacation?1

That was when I learned there was a bad word, “damn,” spelled with a silent “n.” But were it not for everyone’s overreaction, I would never have known about the word and I would never have spent the rest of our trip silently practicing the ways I could say “damn” when I was out of hearing range. (Damn it, damn you, damn, damn, damn.)

At least not until I met Delbert in the fifth grade. But that’s an altogether different story.

You see, BPFs have to make sure to bring to children’s attention every inappropriate thing that would otherwise pass right over their heads. Sometimes they tell you outright. Some stranger will let a word slip in conversation, or make an inappropriate gesture and they will tell you that, under no circumstances, should you ever do that.

Soon, however, body language is all you need to tip you off that something deliciously forbidden is transpiring. Parents tense up, cast each other meaningful glances, and sometimes even steer you quickly out of the room.

My mother continued these practices with my own son and nieces. If we watched a movie where something inappropriate occurred, she would be sure to rush to the VCR and turn it off, or put her hands over their ears. As a consequence, as soon as she left the room they would rewind to the exact spot to see what had disturbed her.

In this way I learned from my family that “a bun in the oven” is not being served for dinner, that 69 is not just a number, “playing doctor” was not about thermometers, and that there was something bad about looking at girl’s bodies (especially girls in shorts or swim suits). As a consequence, I began to examine girls’ bodies long before I would have otherwise because I needed to see what I shouldn’t be seeing.

I would have discovered this all on my own, mind you. But I did learn them well in advance of peers whose parents simply went about their business without calling these things to their children’s attention.

I also learned things that were completely false. For instance my parents assured me, as I approached my teens, that I should’t hang out with Catholic girls because they were “fast” or “loose.”2 Needless to say, once I understood why that was important, I dated every Catholic girl who would go out with me.

And, you know what? Mom and Dad were wrong. The Jesuits could put the fear of God into Catholic girls in ways that Baptist preachers never dreamed of.

Try as hard as we can, we can’t lock morality onto our families like chastity belts, as hard as we may wish to. And often, pointing out the sources of temptation, will actually show the paths to temptation that the innocent might never have seen before. This is something the Christian Right misses in their determination to bring everyone’s sins into the light but their own.

When Christian groups protested The Last Temptation of Christ, they drummed up audiences who would not have gone otherwise. Banning books makes people want to read them to find out why they’re banned.

Then, when people discovered the terrible evil isn’t so terrible, those same Christians are perceived as children crying wolf. They end up preaching to the saved, who don’t need their warnings.

We even end up burying ourselves in triviality and contradiction. I was told that the phrase “god damn it” when stubbing your toe was evil because it took the Lord’s name in vain. And, yes, it does. But doesn’t saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes also take the Lord’s name in vain? Both invoke the name of God with no real thought or intent to damn or bless.

Maybe we need to remind ourselves, as Paul did, that many things are sinful only because we perceive them to be so. This means we should not do them, not that we should correct others when they do. Or tempt people to try them out by telling them over and over again how deliciously evil they are.

1This last detail is pure fabrication. My family never visited Hoover Dam, or any other dam that I can recall, although we may well have driven over Mansfield Dam or Canyon Dam (if they had, in fact, been built by then). But I certainly wouldn’t have known their names.
This fabrication is merely included as a poetic device to truncate a needlessly complex explanation of what I really said (and cannot actually recall) in an already complex story. I am, however, making full disclosure here.back

2Notice that I didn’t make a big deal explaining “fast” or “loose.” I simply tossed them off casually so that you’re child, should they be reading this blog when you aren’t looking, won’t even be aware the words have double meanings.back

BPK in parking mode

Since I originally began planning this blog I decided to change the name from Grace Notes to “Righteous Indigestion.” Why? Because it’s far more catchy and because I think it pretty much sums of the face by which the most vocal elements of American Christianity present themselves.

They’re always pissed about something, or so it seems. America, the exceptional country, the best country in the universe, God’s country is always (ironically) doing them wrong:

  • Stealing Christmas
  • Giving gay people the keys to the kingdom
  • Making that Muslim black guy President

No wonder people like Bill Maher think Christians are crackers.

The truth is, I realized while working on my other two blogs, that:

  1. I love to reflect on my childhood as a Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) in my other blogs.
  2. This sometimes generates discussion in my own family none of whom remember events the way I did.
  3. This makes me grateful that the good Lord gifted me with heightened powers of observation and memory.
  4. My versions are not only more accurate than other versions, each time I tell them I find ways to improve them, and
  5. Sooner or later I’ll get bored with my other blogs and will probably focus my attention to this blog.

I don’t know when I’ll get around to writing this blog, but if you stumble across it by accident, at least you’ll know it will be here in the future.

If you want to subscribe now, you will get notices when I go on line or announcements of any preview articles I may post based on BPK riffs from my other blogs.

See you sometime.

In the meantime, you can catch some of the stuff that will probably end up in this blog at iPad Envy, or We Rule: The Hidden Grimoire.