Thursday, January 31, 2008

“Drag Them Down and Drug Them Dumb”

Often when Christians observe the time of year we call Lent, we intentionally give up something we normally enjoy in order to enhance the important rigorous examination of our souls that is called for here. Generally it is a favorite food or perhaps some other habit, like too much TV. One year I gave up playing computer solitaire, something I will often do to relieve tension when I’m writing or working on a message. That was an eye-opener, to be sure.

This year, I’m suggesting another possibility: that we give up attitudes and ideas and dogmas that end up causing harm to ourselves and others.

And here’s a great place to start: let’s quit listening to those who label every human quirk a “psychological disorder” and then try to sell us expensive and often dangerous drugs to “fix” it. Look at this: According to psychologist Bruce Levine, a new “official mental illness” entered the vocabulary of things for which there is a drug which will fix it. That mental illness is called Oppositional Defiant Disorder, “ODD” for short. The definition? According to the American Psychiatric Association, it is a “pattern of negativistic, hostile and defiant behavior.” The official symptoms of ODD include these things: “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.”

Oh my. They just described about every teenager I’ve ever met. And guess what? We can now drug them to complicity! We can drag them down and drug them dumb. Wow—all parenting problems solved by loading our teens with psychotropic drugs. Now that’s progress. Think about it! No more sleepless nights waiting for them to come home. All homework assignments will be done on time, neatly ordered in bound folders and sweetly handed to their teachers, hair will always be at the proper length, bedrooms neat, no more towels left on the floor, and with enough drugs, these kids will probably start cooking dinner and cleaning up afterward.

OK, tongue out-of-cheek now. I’m appalled. Instead of the “Stepford Wives” we now are going to have the “Stepford Teens,” a group of nice, compliant young people who will make no waves, never question authority, and set their self-absorbed parents free to never have to be concerned about them, or put an extreme amount of energy into good parenting and possibly even cleaning up their own acts for the sake of their families.

What is the matter with us? Do we not know that those rebellious teen-aged years often bring about powerful and glorious creativity and birth new ideas? That young people must push the boundaries around them as they begin to find their own maturity and build their own inner resources so they can enter adulthood somewhat tried and tested and able to stand up for themselves? Do we wish to destroy creative and critical thinking just so our lives are a little easier?

I reared one of those classic “ODD” boys. My brother was also one, and so was his son. Yes, each of them caused their parents and loved ones a lot of despair. Can’t count the sleepless nights, the worry, and the anger we all experienced when facing these intelligent, creative minds who insisted on questioning everything, including their parent’s authority. I’m grateful we didn’t even have the option of dragging them down by drugging them dumb. Parenting them did drain much, much energy and caused a lot of self-doubt. It took a lot of help to get them through their teen years. In despair, my parents sent my brother to live with his grandparents for a while. My brother eventually sent his son to live with my parents for a year. I hung onto my son, but there were several other families that helped rear him, just as I helped rear several other rebellious sons from families where communication had gotten too tense for emotional health.

They all got through it. Sure, they left some scars in their wake. I never have caught up on my sleep again! But who ever said that parenting was easy? Where did we get this idea that good child-rearing means our children walk compliantly in lockstep? Is this really what God wants us to do as Christian parents and grandparents? Or are we given the holy responsibility to rear creative, vital, challenging children who have the guts to question injustice and do what they can to bring the world to rights again—to bring about the will of God on earth—as it is in heaven.

To any teens who might possibly be reading this column, I implore you: Do NOT let yourselves be talked into these drugs. Fight for your lives, my young friends. The future of the world is at stake—and I’m deadly serious about this. And parents . . . maybe, just maybe, a little repentance is in order. It’s time to step up to the plate and take seriously your responsibility to rear a healthy, secure, creative and defiant next generation. They’ve got a big mess to clean up, and they need clean minds and strong characters to do this. Don’t drug them up and drag them down. Please.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


“HDTV”—a pretty familiar acronym to anyone who watches TV or follows progress in the world of electronics. It stands for “High Definition TV,” a way of broadcasting that produces a significantly superior picture for those who have the kinds of TV sets that can receive the HD signal. I personally don’t have one, but was at my sister’s house a few weeks ago shortly after they had purchased and installed one. I spent a few minutes watching a football game with them and found it really mesmerizing. Spectacular detail—it really did seem much more as though we were actually present. In truth, even better than being present since we could pause, replay, take a bathroom or snack break, watch in temperature controlled conditions and never miss a play. So, besides the cost of purchasing and installing one, what’s not to like about it?

Apparently a lot, if you happen to be a performer rather than a viewer. Because it shows EVERY DETAIL, ordinary stage-makeup no longer works to keep actors, newscasters and other on-air personalities looking good. On HD TV, the usual make-up looks awful, almost Frankenstein-like. According to one observer, we can now “gaze not just at a news anchor’s eyes but deep into his or her pores, lip creases and telltale face-lift scars.”

All of this, naturally, will lead to a new industry in HD make-up, a new standard of beauty, and a lot of money for certain entrepreneurs.

It also leads me to start thinking about the Christian season of Lent that begins on February 6 with a day called “Ash Wednesday.” For much of the Christian world, many will enter into a specific time of fasting and self-examination for the forty day period preceding Easter. This is an intentional time of walking with Jesus as he neared the end of his physical life, endured the shameful and awful death, and then surprised everyone by the resurrection.

Done well, observing the discipline of Lent can be the equivalent of putting your face onto a “HD” TV screen. In other words, just like HD TV shows all the little flaws in skin tone that everyone has, a careful engagement in the practice of self-reflection can help us to see our own flaws a little more clearly. In the HD TV world, the appearance of those flaws means a dash to the latest make-up counter. In the grace-filled Christian world, the appearance of those flaws means a deeper gratefulness for the love of God who invites us into the heavenly places of holiness by the transformation of those very flaws into life-giving hope.

I know way, way too many people who don’t go to church because they don’t think they are good enough to be in church. In fact, the opposite is true: those who are sure they are really good really don’t need to bother with church. Church is for those who are seeking to become more aware of their flaws so they can be wrapped in the honest, forgiveness-filled and reconciling love of God. It is our flaws that open our vulnerability to this movement of all-encompassing love. While the HD TV viewer may recoil in horror when the flaws of his or her favorite TV personality are exposed, God instead says, “Glad you figured it out—now let’s see how we can use those very flaws to they become strengths and means of grace to others.”

One of the hardest concepts for many of us to understand is this simple one: “God is not angry.” God is not angry. God is NOT angry. God is overflowing with love and the hope of reconciliation with humanity. Yes, God is a God of justice, and so there must be wrath toward those who perpetuate injustice against others. But the seeking of justice is overlaid with transforming love that says, “Come, enter in and know that I am good.” “Come with all your flaws and imperfections and hidden areas and angers and hatreds and intolerances and let’s see how we can turn those into joy and hope and reconciliation and a world filled with justice where the Kingdom of Heaven looks like a beloved community.”

If you’ve never tried engaging in the discipline of Lent, I encourage you to consider it this year. We’ll have the traditional “Service of Ashes” on Wednesday, February 6 at both 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at Krum United Methodist Church, McCart and Second Streets. This service marks the first day of Lent and gives instruction and shape for the season. Let’s see how NOT to be afraid of HDTV together! Anyone is welcome—church member or not. We’ll guide you through the liturgy, and offer a safe space for your own HDTV experience!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Religion and Immigration

It’s time to talk politics. As a pastor, and as one who fully respects the separation of church and state, I will not endorse a particular political candidate. I will say, however, that one’s convictions must enter the political arena and guide decisions. The idea that we should leave religion for the private sphere only and ignore religious convictions in public discussions is simply ridiculous. That is like saying that our personal circumstances should be ignored in when making political decisions. If we were to do so, most of our debates would simply disappear, for most involve personal circumstances in some way or another.

In the particular issue I seek to address here, I find myself informed both by my religious faith and my personal circumstances. The issue? The status of those, especially from Mexico, seeking to immigrate to the United States in order to create better lives for themselves.

How does the Christian faith inform this? By a simple reading of the Bible. Over and over again, God’s people are urged to show hospitality to the sojourner, to the foreigner, to the one who is not part of the accepted in-group or those in power. This message is central to the Christian Gospel: God in Christ offers welcome and salvation to everyone, not just a chosen few. And how will all hear about the hospitality of God if they don’t see the hospitality of God’s people? Just can’t happen.

For me, the issue is also personal because of the huge issues my daughter-in-law faced as she has sought legal status in the United States. Their complex situation came to mind strongly again when I read this note on the editorial page of the January 19 edition of The Dallas Morning News on January 19: “Let’s play immigration trivia. Ready? How many low-skilled Mexican workers were granted U.S. work visas last year? The answer: 418. (No, that’s not a typo.) That may help explain why more people don’t wait in line.”

I wonder if many of us who enjoy US citizenship have any idea how complex it is to “wait in line” and wade through the immigration maze to gain legal status. Jonathan, my son, and his wife, Adriana, who is from Bogotá, Colombia, have been working their way through the system since 2003. They’ve hired an attorney. Twice, appeals have been made to members of the US Congress for help. As each deadline approached, Jonathan and Adriana would make sure that all their required documents were sent way, way in advance of due dates. In response, their paperwork has been lost, misfiled, and mis-numbered. She was assigned multiple case numbers, greatly complicating the matter. Forms that were supposed to be attached to letters sent by the US governments were not actually sent. Letters and phone calls have gone unanswered, or with responses to questions not actually asked and therefore unhelpful.

I was with them this past summer when they were finally granted their interview with the Department of Homeland Security after a very scary period when it looked like Adriana, pregnant again, would have to leave the US and not be able to return legally.

Since they didn’t know how long the interviews would take, I flew to New York to take care of their child so they didn’t have to deal with a tired and hungry toddler during the day. Just an FYI: for these all important interviews, no set times are given to those who will be interviewed. Those scheduled for appointments each day are all told to show up first thing in the morning and just wait until their names are called.

They spent several days preparing for this interview. Adriana compiled multiple photo albums, showing each of them with the families of their in-laws, along with wedding photos, honeymoon photos and baby photos. Jonathan printed off hundreds of pages of documentation, including all their travels, all phone calls, all correspondence concerning the situation. I grilled them with the kinds of questions interviewers used to trap those who had made a marriage of convenience but had no intention of actually honoring the marriage covenant. Each could recite the extensive family histories of the families they married into, name the brand of toothpaste the other used, and speak of multiple intimate details that married couples just know about each other.

On the morning of the interview, they groomed themselves into what I call their “magazine cover” look. They are both spectacularly beautiful—Jonathan the traditional tall, dark and handsome, and Adriana with her golden olive skin, slim, elegantly pregnant with son number two and lovely with her exotic Castilian Spanish heritage.

I send them off with my prayers, not expecting to see them for at least six hours, and got ready for a good day with my grandson.

Two hours later, they are back, faces joyful and relieved. When they were ushered into their interview, the official took one look at them and began to stamp their application “approved” before even asking a single question. The only documentation actually requested was their apartment lease. And so, Adriana, Green Card approval in hand, could finally begin working on achieving US Citizenship.

I tell this story knowing that these are two people of privilege. They are educated, sophisticated, fully bi-lingual, and motivated. Neither is willing in any way to do anything illegal. They had funds to hire an attorney. They had access to cameras, computers, printers, good records. They had huge family support and those in the extended family who knew some members of Congress personally. And they barely made it.

So I asked: what do our immigration policies say about us as a nation? Let’s face it, almost all of us come from immigrant stock unless we are full-blood native Americans. Many of our ancestors came over here desperately looking for a better life. Others were forced to this land by the practice of slavery. Most came in poverty, worked hard and lived frugally in pretty awful conditions, sent money back home, and in time brought other family members here. They came, holding onto their native languages as long as possible, while their children discarded those languages quickly while becoming fully Americanized.

This is our history. This is part of our greatness as a nation. A knee-jerk reaction to current immigration problems will only hurt us in the long run. Let us be both Christian in our hospitality and faithful to our national heritage in offering open borders and reasonable ways for legal status. That is how we stay a great nation. I implore you to keep these things in mind as we face this politically-charged and crucial election year.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Gathering Place

There’s a really good story in one of the more obscure books in the Bible about people coming back from years away from their homeland. When they get home, the first thing they begin to re-build is their place of worship, which had been destroyed many years before. They started with the place to gather and get to know God. Not houses, not stores, not banks, not even gas stations (or in their case, hay stations for their horses and donkeys). Nope. They started with the central place where they could learn more about God, offer their gifts, and come away knowing they had been blessed by the presence of God when they came together with others in their community.

After the foundation was laid, they began to sing and shout with joy. The older members of the community, who still remembered what it had been like to worship in the temple before it was destroyed, began to weep. While some of those tears may have been sadness for their loss, mostly those tears were ones of joy for renewed hope in the future.

For most of human history, people centered their common life in the place of worship. Generally, it was the only real gathering place in the community anyway, and it served many different purposes. Above all, it was the place to offer transcendence, i.e., a place to ponder eternal things, become more aware of the holiness of God, receive mercy as was needed, and find strength and encouragement to go and build just societies.

These are almost strange concepts in a world that is driven by consumption and personal satisfaction. But without time taken to worship God and seek both mercy for ourselves and a more just society for all, we risk losing one of the defining points of being human: an awareness that the world is much larger than we are and that we have responsibility to live faithfully to a larger moral order. Otherwise, we forget God and our world collapses into the horror of pure selfishness. That, my friends, is one definition of hell. And it is horrible to contemplate.

Now, here in this area north of Denton, there are numerous gathering places. Some are churches, some are not. So what we are Krum United Methodist Church are getting ready to do does not make us unique. But for us, as we celebrate our groundbreaking this Sunday on our long-dreamed for new worship and gathering facility, we do say this: Come, gather with us. Come, learn about God and things that are holy. Come, find a place to help rear your children with love and supportive instruction. Come, find a place for your teens to be safe and encouraged in their movement to adulthood. Come, engage with us in the beautiful cycle of the receiving and giving of forgiveness, the joy of being reconciled with God and with each other, and the delight of rich friendships and meaningful service.

This Sunday, January 20, we will officially break ground on the lovely 10 acre plot of land between NorthStar Bank and Blanche Dodd Intermediate School. We’ll dismiss the 11:0012 noon. Everyone is invited to join us, and bring your own shovel when you come. Let’s dig the hole that will be the start of the foundation for this space of holy gathering and community action. Just like those folks in that obscure book in the Bible, we’re going to shout with joy and laugh and perhaps even weep as a long held dream starts to come true.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Just for Fun

I was looking through some old computer files for something and came across this piece I had written several years ago to my three sons, who, shortly before this was written, had awarded to me temporary custody of their dog, an exuberant Chesapeake Bay Retriever. The "little dark one" is me, and the "big white one" is my husband, the Rev. J. Keith Cupples. My sons got a great kick out of this and it also serves as a reminder that we all look things very differently. And perhaps, if we can be theological for a moment, that "God's ways are not our way." Thank goodness.

Chessie's Viewpoint

OK, big brothers, just let me tell you my story before you hear from that dark one. I really didn't mean to get into trouble. Honest.

Here's what happened. For a long time now, just that little dark one has been taking me for a walk. She's OK, but I really don't pay any attention to anything she says and she won't let me run very far on that nice grassy place we go with these funny little holes that have flags sticking out of them. But a couple of days ago, the big white one started taking me for my walk and, let me tell you, that was a different experience. He's definitely the pack leader and I do whatever he says. Really, I'm kind of in love with him. I follow right at his heels when we walk on the hard stuff before we get to the grassy stuff. He doesn't even bother with that thing that connects me and tightens around my neck. The little dark one won't leave home without it.

Anyway, when we get to the grassy place with the funny little holes, the big white one says, "go" and I'm off. So many wonderful new smells and things to discover! We went out today when it was still dark and I found even more exciting things. One of them was a little black creature with a white stripe and a long bushy tail and I had the most fun chasing him. The big white one did call me to come back, but I was having so much fun that I didn't pay any attention. Suddenly, I tasted something really awful and spat and drooled and rubbed my face in the grass trying to get it off, but just couldn't do it. Both the big white one and the little dark one seemed kind of upset with me and when we got home, they wouldn't let me in the house! Can you believe that?

Then, and you are not going to believe this either, the little dark one came out and poured some red stuff all over me. It tasted kind of like those little red balls that I used to find in this space they call the "garden" this summer, but sure didn't look like it. The little dark one rubbed this stuff all over me and then squirted some oily stuff on me and then sprayed me hard with the hose! She even has the gall to tie me up so I couldn't get away. And then she threw away the nice mat I sit on when I'm out here. And if that wasn't enough, she did that all over again-more red stuff and more oily stuff and then poured some stuff all over me that smells like flowers!

The insult! The indignity! And SHE STILL WON'T LET ME IN THE HOUSE!

My big brothers-won't you rescue me? They are really mistreating me here. Up to now, they were pretty nice. Made me eat healthy food, but I finally learned to like it. I can still get on the couch during the day because, even though the little dark one yells at me, I told you I don't pay any attention to her anyway. If the big white one is around, I just stay off until he goes. Sometimes he fools me and comes right back in and I get in a little trouble, but it really doesn't matter because, as I told you, I'm kind of in love with him anyway. But even he WOULDN'T LET ME BACK IN THE HOUSE TODAY even after all that nasty stuff the little dark one did to me.

Do you think this is fair? I DEMAND TO BE LET IN. I'm going to sit out here and whine until the little dark one changes her mind.

Your devoted little sister,
Change and Likeability

I’ve been watching the political campaigns with a great deal of interest. I know our political system is cumbersome, expensive, tedious, complex and not overly fair. Nonetheless, it is free and open and everyone can express their opinions. I find this liberating and hopeful for us as a nation.

Two words keep coming to mind as I watch what is going on: “change” and “likeability.” Clearly, many if not just about everyone are unhappy or frustrated with something going on at a national or international level. The very real crisis in the housing industry, scarily high gas prices, a ridiculously expensive and not particularly effective health care system, and an unpopular war coupled with the need to be very supportive of our troops overseas add to much tension, fear, and need for significant change. It’s an ideal time for a leader to come forth who can lead the nation through this.

And that brings up the second word, “likeability.” Some people just have it. They have warmth, friendliness, connection, and the invisible but knowable quality we call “charisma” that pulls people in. It was one of the reasons that former president Bill Clinton won his presidential election in 1992. He’s got it. Unfortunately, that charisma, that powerful ability to be liked, often brings people into office or leadership without the underlying character or skills to support the hard work of integrity filled leadership. Happens in the church all the time. The rising star who packs ‘em in on Sundays way too often turns out to have a fatal character flaw that ends up destroying many as it becomes more and more evident.

The best leader is one who does indeed have the kind of charisma that encourages others to follow, and manages to wed that important likeability factor with extreme self-honesty, integrity, and a willingness to be held accountable for both public and private actions. Someone with strong internal character strength has the ability to stand alone when making unpopular decisions, but also works to hear the voices of those who radically disagree with those decisions. It’s a complex balance, and few do it well.

As a pastor, I keep thinking about Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection changed the world, and still does. He was both wildly popular, i.e., charismatic in the best sense of the word, and so completely unpopular that his death was arranged by those who were threatened by the light of his integrity and willingness to live, lead and speak faithfully out of that.

I don’t have some kind of neat and tidy ending to this series of thoughts here. Wish I did. Someway to wrap up what real leadership is both within and without the church that can lead to healthy and holy change. We’re a flawed people with a flawed system doing the best we can. Yet we also have a holy and unflawed God, our Creator and Sustainer, who calls each of us to live intentional lives leading to greater and greater Christ-likeness. That’s much more than just being likeable, and being able to lead to change. It’s a willingness to die for one’s beliefs, trusting in the resurrection on the other side. Definitely not neat and tidy; definitely ultimately transformational.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Power of Names

Starbucks and MacDonald's are going to duke it out over coffee. Apparently, MacDonald's is testing the installation of gourmet coffee bars is some of their stores and installing their own barristas to staff them. For those who are not Starbucks aficionados, a “barrista” is the person who takes your coffee order and prepares it exactly to your liking. If you have real status in the status coffee-drinking world, your barrista knows you by name and can begin your special brew when you walk in the store.

Makes me think of the well-loved TV show, Cheers, a bar in Boston where “everybody knows your name.” There really is something comforting about walking in a place where your name is known and where you know everyone else’s name. Our names are very personal, and to have someone use it properly usually means a connection of some sort.

Names are very important to us. When my husband and I married, nearly 10 years ago, we had a long discussion about names. Most women do take their husband’s name upon marriage, and I had done so at my first one. But after the devastation of divorce and the necessity to rebuild my life, I took back my birth name as a way of recognizing my own re-birth through a time of great darkness. I wasn’t all that eager to lose it again. I suggested to my husband that he take my name. When he received that suggestion with something akin to horror (and I think it opened his own eyes to the power of our names), we agreed that we would just keep our names as they were. I’m so used to us going by different names now that I don’t think about it much, but every once in a while I realize that people who know both of us professionally have no idea that the two of us are married to each other.

I have an earned doctorate, and when someone wants to use my most formal title, I am addressed as “Dr. Thomas.” Those who know me as a pastor but don’t know about the doctorate would use “Rev. Thomas” for the formal title. Many people at the church call me “Dr. Christy” which is nice way of using the more informal first name with the hard-earned title that goes with it. Every once in a while, someone will refer to me as Mrs. Thomas. That one really throws me. Because Mrs. Thomas is my mother. Not me. Really, I am NOT Mrs. Thomas.

I’ve always gone by “Christy” as my given name, but my actual birth certificate name is “Mary Christine.” I remember always having to correct teachers on the first day of school when they called the roll the first day by saying “Mary Thomas.” No one ever called me “Mary” and I simply don’t respond to the name, so I would try to listen carefully through the alphabet until they came to me and I would say, “I go by Christy.”

So what is it about our names that when used well, bring a sense of connection, and when used less well, seem discordant or even extremely uncomfortable? Even when they are misspelled, it can be bothersome. “Christy,” for example, can be spelled: Christi, Christie, Kristy, Kristie, Krysti, Chrysti, and probably another half-dozen ways I’ve not yet seen. And not one of these identically pronounced names is really mine. I find myself asking more about the power of knowing names when I’m at a point in my life when I’m having more and more trouble remembering them.

I know that when this life is over and I see God face-to-face, I want to hear my name pronounced as one of those who has been given the gift of eternal life and the joy of real intimacy with God. I want God to look at me and say, “Christy, you are my beloved daughter. Come in, come in, my dear one.” It may be that we all have that longing, and that our name represents our very being, the core of our soul. When it is misused, even inadvertently, something is violated. And when a name is misused intentionally, as when people are teased about their names—something that so often happens in childhood, the wound goes deep.

I don’t know of any way to use other people’s names flawlessly, or to remember them well. However, I am aware that at least making an effort to learn and use them is a way of showing to others that they are valued. Assigning a number to someone works to dehumanize them. Calling them tenderly by their names reminds them that they are precious in the site of God. It’s worth the effort.