Showing posts with label Christianity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christianity. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

God Knows When You're There

Because my father preferred going to the early morning service, and he preferred to sit in the choir loft of the chapel, we used to joke that only God and Clay Lee ever knew the Campbell family even went to church.  My Mother was more sociable and would have preferred the eleven o'clock service, but she was outnumbered and outvoted.  So, there we sat, the Campbell clan, Mary Taylor Sigmon playing the chapel electric organ, and sometimes a soloist, worshiping in anonymity,

My grandfather, my father's father, believed in sitting on the ground floor (a concession to my grandmother) but on the second to last row.  He believed you should save the last row for late-comers.  He believed in entering quietly and leaving expeditiously without any gossip or glad-handing.    My grandmother was equally averse to gossip, but oh, how she loved glad-handing.  When I was there with them, that often led to Grandaddy saying, "Stay with your grandmother; I'll pull the car around."  That way, they both got what they wanted.  He escaped quietly and quickly, and she got to visit almost as long as she wanted to.  

My oldest brother once asked a fairly obvious question: "Why even go if all we do is sit in the back?" My grandfather answered, "God knows when you're there."  

A lot of people probably thought I had given up on God, the church, and the community a long time ago.  Nobody knows when you watch church on television.  I don't know what I would have done if my church hadn't been on television.

I never felt like I had any business expressing my opinion on the progress of the United Methodist Church and no business getting involved.  Most of that, I think, is that I hadn't yet found my voice.  Even though I was constantly writing, it wasn't ever communication because I never let anyone see it.  I had to get pretty close to death before I became willing to let anyone see my words.  

I sometimes worried that people might think I had forsaken them, that my silence made them think I no longer cared.  My father taught me to worship in silence, away from the eyes of men, because it wasn't the eyes of men I was praying to.  In all those years of silence and my lack of involvement, there was never a time when I wasn't intently aware of what my church was doing and what became of the people in it.  God knew I was there.  

Now that I've found my voice, I'm still not entirely sure the best way to use it, but I feel much more confident in using it now than I ever have.  

Monday, February 19, 2024

The White Stag

In high school, my very favorite person was named Paige.  She had joined our tight-knit little class pretty late along the way but fit in really quickly.  We took biology from a man named Dan, and we sat at one of the lab tables in the back.  Paige would hold my hand and press her knee against mine under the table.   

Another girl was calling me every night at home and talking to me about how her family was coming apart, so I never pursued Paige, who would have been a fantastic girlfriend, but the other girl might have felt betrayed at a time when the world was turning against her, so Paige and I reminded just friends, no matter how much time we spent together or how much time I studied the way her eyes moved or tried to copy the shape of her lips in the margins of my notebook.

One day, Paige said, "Look at that!" and she pointed to a person in one of the classes under ours.  They were a little shorter than Paige, unnaturally thin, dressed in baggy khaki pants, a short-sleeve collar shirt with buttons, and a wide, striped tie, not our school tie, which we didn't have to wear to class anymore, but a regular men's tie, but not a new one.  It was almost as if they'd gotten the tie from Goodwill or snuck it out of their grandfather's closet.  Their hair was cut shorter than mine and parted to the side with some sort of pomade to help keep its shape and an Alfalfa cowlick sticking up in the back.

"That's a woman, but she wants to be a man!" Paige said with a girlish laugh.  "Isn't that funny?" She said.  There wasn't a thread of hate or fear in her voice.  She was delighted to be so near something as unique as a girl who wanted to be a boy, and she wanted me to share in that delight, almost as if we'd seen a shooting star or a white stag together.  

"Go introduce yourself." She said, nudging me almost hard enough to push me off the bench in the quad building at school.  I'm not big on introducing myself, even now.  I especially wasn't then.  With my stutter, an attempt to not only introduce myself to a new person but a new kind of person would have probably meant that no words came out at all, or if they did they wouldn't make much sense.

I'd heard of a tennis player who went somewhere in Europe to get a "sex-change" operation, but that was a few years before and quite a way away from St. Andrews Episcopal Day School.  The idea that such a person was at my school seemed impossible, but thanks to Paige, it also now seemed magical and something I could learn from.

Paige wanted me to introduce myself to this person so that she could talk to them as well, and then they wouldn't be as lonely as they appeared.  I wish I'd done it.  It's bothered me quite a bit through the years that I didn't.  There were a lot of times when Paige knew the right thing to do, and I didn't.

Once I knew who this person was, I watched them intently in their odyssey through school life.  Some of my teammates said very cruel things about them, but even though these boys had a reputation as bullies, they never bullied this person, my white stag; he was too alien, even for them.

People who struggle with verbalization learn to read emotions from people's faces.  What I learned from watching the White Stag was that they were never very happy, lived in constant fear of being judged, and were in a constant state of readiness to defend their existence.  From what I could tell, they had no friends and no one to talk to.  They ate lunch alone, which is the ultimate sign of isolation in high school.  

I'd read so many stories about creatures who were the only ones of their kind and how unhappy they were.  Often, they were described as monsters, even the ones with no destructive powers like Quasimodo, who was named a monster by the world, even though he was purer of heart than anyone else in the book.  Although we had some classmates who acted like monsters, the only people in the entire school who were treated like monsters were the White Stag and a girl named Laurie, who had pronounced autism.  

After high school, I didn't see the White Stag for many years until one day, I went to my wife's church, and as we were sitting on a bench talking, the White Stag came out of a car and walked into the sanctuary.  "That's a woman who wants to be a man," she whispered in my ear while holding my hand.  It haunted me how, twenty years later, these words came up again and again from my favorite and most trusted person.   In all those years, our White Stag still walked alone, without a smile, with a look on their face letting you know they were ready to defend their existence.

Transgender high school students have become a political hot topic.  I have absolutely no education on the subject.  I'm not a doctor or a psychologist.  I'm also not a parent to a transgender child.  With that in mind, I don't really have an opinion on the best way to handle this situation, except I feel pretty strongly that it should be up to the doctors, psychologists, and families involved, not politicians.  If it were your child, that's what you would want.

What I do know is what I felt very strongly every time I encountered The White Stag.  No one should be forced to live in isolation like a monster.  Everyone deserves friends; everyone deserves a seat at the lunch table and someone to talk to.  Nothing led me to believe the White Stag chose to be the way they were.  Even though they didn't choose it, they still had to live with it, and it's up to people of faith to make that life as full and as loved as they can make it.  



Monday, February 5, 2024

Margaret Key Volunteer Award

I've been thinking of writing a Christmas story.  When I was little, this really remarkable woman gathered artistically leaning people at church to craft Christian-themed ornaments for a giant tree that would sit in the sanctuary at Galloway Memorial.  Her name was Margaret Kea, and she was always especially kind to me.  She was the one who encouraged me to make a painting to enter the Jackson Arts Festival.  I painted a tiger using the grid method to copy a photograph.  It won first place in my age group, but in all the putting together and taking part in the Arts Festival, the painting was lost, but I was given the ribbon.  

Part of my research for the story led me to find this article from 1988, where Mrs. Kea was given an award recognizing her volunteer work at Mississippi Methodist Rehab Center.  Many articles mentioned her being involved in arts oriented things, but I found this story, by Rebecca Hood-Adams, particularly revealing of her character.

I'm always learning things I don't know.  In this article, she mentions that there was a skating rink at the Livingston Park by the Zoo.  In all my studies about the Zoo, this is the first I've heard of a skating rink.

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REBECCA HOOD-ADAMS Columnist The Clarion-Ledger Aug 28, 1988 

One Mississippian gets paid for time in blessings shared A walk in the park led Margaret Kea to the halls of Mississippi Methodist Rehabilitation Center, where she helps others stand tall. ; Eight years ago, Mrs. Kea encountered Peggy Bowland. Both women were walking for exercise, and as they fell in step, they found common ground. 

"We became each other's psychiatrist," Mrs.Kea says of her friend who died this past spring. "We'd talk about whatever was on our hearts as; we walked together." ; 

They exchanged histories with Mrs. Kea, 67, '. Reminiscing about her girlhood in Jackson. "It was like a small town then," she says. "We never locked our doors, and we spoke to everybody on the street. We knew everyone by name." 

Mrs. Kea recalls her Claiborne Street home in a town "so quiet at night that you could hear the lion roar from the zoo all the way to our, house." 

Sweet childhood memories 

There were jaunts to the Jitney to buy Banana Kisses, two for a penny. Afternoons at the skating rink in Livingston Park, where the big pipe organ filled the air with music. Evenings when the gang gathered at her home to make fudge and dance on hardwood floors.

Life in Jackson between the Depression and World War II was filled with simple pleasures. "On Saturday night we'd park the car on Capitol Street and watch the people come and go," Mrs. Kea says.

 Graduation from Central High School. A year at Belhaven College. A job as a telephone operator and then as a secretary with Mississippi Power & Light Co. 

The post-war boom brought change. A girlfriend arranged a blind date between Margaret Bridgers and Luther Kea, an agent for the Internal Revenue Service. "I was kind of leery at first," she remembers. But a six-month courtship grew into a 40-year marriage.

Life was not always easy for the young matron. She lost an infant son and then remained childless for five years. "I'd been praying so hard for a baby," Mrs. Kea says. "Finally, I got down on my knees one night and told the Lord that I'd never ask for a child again, that I'd accept his will." That's the month she became pregnant with Chip, 31, now a Port Gibson accountant.

The years flew by. Cub Scout den mother. President of the PTA. Sunday school teacher at Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church. Along the way, Margaret Kea broke her leg and vowed that if she ever got off crutches, she'd help somebody else.

"But I got busy and didn't do it," she says, remembering how she shared this need to aid others with her walking buddy. Peggy Bowland encouraged her and together they volunteered at Methodist Rehab. "A friend had told me that there were boys out there that couldn't even wipe a tear from their eyes," Mrs. Kea says. "That jerked something in me." 

But Margaret Kea has not found her Thursdays at Methodist depressing. "It's a place of courage and determination and hope," she says. "Patients establish deep friendships with everyone. Then when they finally are able to take that first step or lift a fork, there's a whole cheering section rooting for them."

Little deeds, big results 

Mrs. Kea's volunteer hours are spent in quiet service. She reads to patients, writes letters for them. Mostly she loves.

"My favorite thing is to just sit down beside somebody, put my arms around them and let them know they're cared for. I don't get paid, but I sure get blessed in return."

"Margaret offers spiritual strength and guidance to help patients through the long rehabilitation process," says Nellie Paul Farr, director of volunteer services at Methodist Rehabilitation Center. "She's not always recognized because her deeds of kindness are quietly given."

That will change Sept. 14 when Margaret Kea is one of 10 honorees at Goodwill Industries' 1988 Volunteer Activists Awards Luncheon.  She was tapped for her service at Methodist, although she could just as readily have been honored for her work with the Community Stewpot or Lakeland Nursing Home. And four Jackson women who've met for 12 years in Margaret Kea's home for weekly prayer already have had an opportunity to repay some of the spiritual strength she has lent them.

Two years ago Mrs. Kea developed cancer, the same disease that claimed her friend Peggy Bowland's life. 

"My prayer circle nursed me through like they were my own daughters," Mrs. Kea says. "You know, we're made strong by adversity. And you have to continually keep a problem in order to keep humble."

Courageous advice from One Mississippian whose heart is as brave as the lion roaring through Margaret Kea's memories. Are you One Mississippian who volunteers at least one hour per month to make Mississippi a better place? Send your name, address and telephone number in a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Rebecca Howl-Adams, The Clarion-Ledger, P.O. Box 40, Jackson, Miss., 39205.

You will be sent a One Mississippian button. Rebecca Hood-Adams' columns appear Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.



Sunday, January 21, 2024

What I'm Reading: The Question of God

 Next week, I'm beginning to read "The Question of God" by  Armand Nicholi.  The book is a series of fictional conversations between CS Lews and Sigmund Freud.  

Armand M. Nicholi Jr. is a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor.  The novel discusses the difficult and painful relationships that both Freud and Lewis suffered and how their experiences in life might have shaped their concept of God.  Both, having survived World War I, were said to suffer PTSD for the rest of their lives.  The book takes place shorter after Freud was diagnosed with cancer, but before he took his own life and before Lewis adopted children who were war orphans that became models for the children in the Narnia series of books.

The book was interpreted as a play by Mark St. Germain, which in turn was made into a film directed by Matthew Brown, starring Anthony Hopkins as Freud and Matthew Goode as Lewis.  Hopkins played Lewis in the 1993 film, "Shadowlands."

The Question of God by Armand Nicholi on sale at Amazon

Saturday, January 20, 2024

How We Pray

 I see a lot of talk about people praying for help or hoping that God "hears their prayers."  In Christianity, we've cultivated this idea that if you need something, and if you've been good, then you should pray for it, and, like Santa Claus, God will give you what you asked for.

I've always wondered if it worked that way.  Jesus said that God is like the shepherd looking to rescue his lost sheep, so it's clear that when we're in trouble, God knows our needs and begins working on what we need long before we ask for it.  

Sometimes, people use prayer to thank God for the blessings we've already received. Do you think that's necessary? I'm sure God knows that once you admit you're aware of him, that makes you about as grateful as you're capable of being.  

Maybe the best use of prayer is a time to pause in life and willingly and consciously try to connect with the higher power.  Just for a moment, you're like the limp and lifeless Adam in the Sistine Chapel painting, reaching out your feeble finger to touch the omnipotent finger of God.  All your needs, he's already noted.  He's already noted all your gracious thoughts.  Prayer is a moment in time when you can recharge your life's batteries by touching the infinite source of power, and you can do it as many times, every day, as you need it.  

Friday, January 19, 2024

Washing Our Feet

Like many cities in the South, by 1963, Jackson, Mississippi, closed all of its public swimming pools rather than integrate them as required by the Civil Rights Act.  The city argued that closing the facilities didn't violate the Civil Rights Act because closing the facilities impacted both races equally.  The Supreme Court upheld this view.

In 1969, Fred Rogers's television program, "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood," had a huge impact nationally but still had a very small budget.  Realizing the impact his program had on people, Rogers wanted to say something positive about integration, but since his program was for small children, he didn't want to do it in a confrontational way, and he needed it to not cost very much money to produce.

In "Mr Rogers Neighborhood," actors portrayed the characters children might recognize in their neighborhood.  They were postal workers, police officers, shopkeepers, handymen, and others.  In May 1969, as the issue of integration and public swimming pools grew, Rogers had an idea for a segment involving Officer Clemmons.


Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Fran├žois Clemmons was a black singer.  By the time he began working for Fred Rogers, he had spent time singing in the Harlem Spiritual Choir and the Metropolitan Opera.  Fred Rogers knew Clemmons was a gay man but hired him anyway for his program, a move that was, by itself, very controversial at the time, especially considering that Rogers was an ordained minister.  Clemmons played the neighborhood policeman, which was somewhat controversial as Mr. Roger's Neighborhood appeared to be white.

Without making any sort of confrontational statement, Rogers thought that Mr Rogers and Officer Clemmons could take off their shoes and dip their feet in a cool plastic wading pool together on a hot summer day.  The taking off or changing of shoes was often used to represent a time of relaxation or intimacy, a letting down of defenses, on the program, as Mr Rogers changed his leather "work shoes" to cloth loafers to begin every show.

Before coming to television, Fred Rogers was a minister.  In the Christian faith, the idea of washing one's feet has a deep spiritual meaning, one he hoped would be evident to adults watching the episode.  For children, he hoped to gently instill the idea that black men and white men could swim together and be friends with nothing to worry about.  When the two finished washing their feet and quietly talking, they shared a towel to dry their feet, reinforcing the "washing of feet" theme while also making it evident that sharing a swim or a towel wasn't dangerous.  He feared that hearing adults argue about integrating swimming pools might make children afraid of it, so this was his gentle means to show them there was nothing to worry about.  

In Mississippi, where much of the argument over integrated pools originated, children like me never saw this episode when it first aired because the Mississippi legislature refused to fund public broadcasting for fear it would spread a communist, race-mixing message, even though the funds for it had already come down from the federal government.  (Sound familiar?)  It wasn't until late in 1969 when the Mississippi Legislature voted to create the Mississippi Public Broadcasting System, which wouldn't go into effect until 1970, almost a year after the pool episode of Mr. Rogers.

In 1993, when Clemmons made his final appearance on Mr Rogers Neighborhood, Rogers and Clemmons recreated the pool scene, where they sang "There Are Many Ways to Say I Love You" together.  After soaking their feet together, Rogers used a towel to dry his own feet and then used the same towel to dry Clemmons' feet, mimicking the moment in Christ's life when he washed the feet of the apostles.   

Fred Rogers understood that gestures are often a far better way to teach than words.  Trying to mend the wounds of the world in the minds of children, he invoked a gesture he knew well from the life of Christ.  Humility creates an environment that breeds love.


Sunday, August 20, 2023

Third Graders in the Light House

Because I'm old, I take a diuretic to make sure my body doesn't retain water because my body works about as well as a 1982 Ford.  It's a tiny dose, and I split it in half, but even then, I still gotta pee for two hours when I take it.  

Normally I just make sure I don't have to be anywhere for two hours when I take it.  This morning, because I make bad decisions, I decided that I was a grown damn man, and I gotta go to church in 30 minutes, but I can still take this tiny little half pill and not have any problem.

I hate having to leave a room with something going on for a latrine break.  Once you've done it, there's the awkward business of retaking your seat.  About two-thirds of the way through Sunday School, it hit me.  I wasn't going to make it till the end, which I hated because it was a really good discussion about how we decide what morality is.  

After visiting the cis-gendered, handicap-enabled little boys' room across the hall from what most of my life had been the fourth and fifth-grade Sunday school, I decided there were only five or six minutes left in class, so rather than facing the walk of shame back into the room, I decided to find a spot in the sanctuary for the eleven o'clock service.

Getting settled in the sanctuary early, I got to see our youth minister working with her third graders as she explained to them the ritual of the church, presenting them with bibles.  I knew this was coming because I actually read the church bulletin email, but I wasn't really ready for the wave after wave of memory watching them produced in me.

Fifty-eight years ago, it was my turn to sit on the front row to receive a bible with my name stamped on it.  Five or six of my readers were there too.  They're much, much younger than I am, but we were third-graders together.  In the congregation were my parents and grandparents, who can't come anymore, just like Eudora Welty, Lance Goss, Ross Moore, and others, but there were some people there today who were also there fifty-eight years ago, Kay Barksdale, TW Lewis, Red Moffett and more.

None of my classmates were there.  Some are current members of Galloway, but they either attended the 8:30 service or didn't come today.  Others don't live in Jackson anymore.  Some are not even in Mississippi.  One runs the most famous restaurant in Oxford.

Membership in Galloway isn't a comfortable kind of Christianity.  As I study our history, I'm learning how many times Galloway was the steady ship in a bad storm with a hull thick enough to break the ice in uncharted waters delivering its cargo to calmer seas.  Yesterday, Galloway helped host over six thousand people for the Mississippi Book Festival.  Galloway is uniquely suited to do this, both because of its physical proximity to the Capitol but also because of its historical connection to Mississippi writers.

Most of the people in my Sunday School have Ph.D., MD,  or JD after their name.  One is a judge, and one is the first boy to become a Rhode's Scholar from Millsaps.  My daddy always thought he'd be governor one day.  That never happened, but he did fabricate governors all over the country.  He'd probably object to my choice of verb here, but if you're in his party and you want to win an election, he's your guy.  We're readers.  We read in several languages and look for things to read to challenge our worldview.  I can't think of a congregation better suited to the broad spectrum of thought that makes up the Mississippi Book Festival.  

Christianity is ancient.  It is the conduit of so many of our cultural threads going back through the millennia.  It connects us to all the wonders and beauty and pain and regret of the centuries.  Galloway acts as a light-house through time.  There are rough seas ahead, there were rough seas in the past, but Galloway provided a beacon then, and it provides a beacon now.  

It hasn't been easy forging a culture in this country, particularly in Mississippi.  We've made horrible, painful mistakes, but if you build your house on solid ground, you can weather any storm.  Matthew and Luke both recount the parable of building on solid ground.  

Galloway is built on an ancient site.  Did you know there was a graveyard underneath it?  A small plot with the mortal remains of some of Jackson's earliest residents, the sanctuary was built over it.  The graves and the gravestones still stand undisturbed, save for decades and decades of organ music.  We are a light-house to history.  Their history sits with us every Sunday.

Generations and generations of eight-year-olds have been folded into and made a part of our congregation.  There's so much more to it than just accepting the Lord and learning a few bible verses.  At eight years old, you become part of something ancient.  You're eight, so you don't understand this, but the thread of culture going back to the pharos continues through you.

My diuretic stuck again, and I couldn't finish Cary's sermon, but I listened to it on Youtube.  

Driving home, I thought, the world is a confusing, sometimes frightening place.  Bringing eight-year-olds into this ancient battle seems like such a strange thing to do, almost cruel, but it's an ancient and honorable ritual.  Standing up in front of your parents' friends and accepting the gift of a book seems like an odd thing to do, but it's the start of something.  It's the entrance into something very ancient that struggles to find the good in life and fight for it and fight for you as you fight for others.  You're eight, but now you're a light-house keeper.  Even if you don't stay here.  Even if you move far away and transfer your membership out of Galloway, you take some of us with you, and we keep some of you with us.  Don't be surprised if you look at your books when you're sixty and say, "Wow, that's my third-grade bible."  



Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Per aspera ad Astra

 Nero ruled Rome from 54 to 68.  For those of us born in the sixties, that's quite a number.  He was generally considered a horrible person.  Besides feeding Christians to lions and setting fire to Rome, and blaming the Christians, Nero also ordered the suicide of his mentor, the philosopher Seneca.  Nero accused Seneca of taking part in a plot to overthrow and murder him.  To this day, historians argue whether or not the charges were false.  If Seneca had a part in the plot, it wasn't a large one.

In the first century, stoicism dominated Roman philosophy.  Stoics pondered such things as the nature of matter, happiness, virtue, divinity, and more.  Their influence on what was to become Christian thought is unmistakable; even though Seneca spoke about Christianity and Judaism, he was a pagan and a pantheist.

Seneca was known for his poetry.  He had a remarkable way with words.  One of my favorite thoughts from Seneca was "Per aspera ad Astra."  It's now part of official Star Trek lore, which is what started me thinking about it.


By "aspera" challenges, difficulties, struggle, effort, and resistance, we achieve "Astra" the Stars.  Through hardship, we reach the stars.  The Romans didn't have a very clear idea of what the stars actually were, so, like many cultures before them, "the stars" became an idea, the highest accomplishment, or the greatest goal.

We get the word "exasperate" from "aspera."  Considered a Southern expression, our use of exasperate probably comes from the 19th-century Southern obsession with romanticism and classical philosophy.  A fairly common practice among Southerners was to name slaves after classical figures, both real and mythical.

This idea that we reach the stars through hardship resonates with what I've been going through for the last two years.  I had to get really, very near death before I flipped the switch and started becoming something much greater than I had ever been.  Robert St. John tells a similar story.  He had to come very close to destroying himself to ultimately become himself. 

You see the influence of "Per aspera ad Astra" in Christian thought.  There are a number of instances where Christians advise perseverance in the face of adversity as the only path to a higher place.

In Star Trek, they take the ad astra part as quite literally the stars around us.  The real world isn't quite there yet; we have to make do with our one star.  Seneca's thought remains valid and strong though.  Through struggle, we become much more than what we were.  

Official Ted Lasso