March 31, 2009

May I Keep You

A friend of mine died last week. Rance Searle, briefly a rock star, always a bright star, died after a long battle with esophageal cancer. I knew him only for a few years and mostly from correspondence in an online forum.

Famous in the 70s for the pop hit “May I Keep You,” he became a wealthy businessman through common sense, new patents, and good honest work. He was brilliant, acerbic, hilarious, opinionated, witty, angry, loving, profane, compassionate, and strong. He was a magnet to anyone who met him online and in person. We gathered around to hear what Rance would say next on whatever subject arose.

On hard work:
I came from a wealthy family but that didn't change the fact that when I was eight years old Dad led me and my two little brothers and one little sister into the bank and made us take out a note for $18,000 to buy 1,500 head of sheep. We each had to sign on the note and Randy, my youngest brother, was only five years old but mom had taught him to write his name. From that day until we all graduated from high school, those sheep were our responsibility. We branded them, we sheared them, we tromped the wool, we put the breeding harnesses on the bucks in the fall and we drove them from the headquarters ranch to the big ranch, a distance of 22 miles every spring and back every fall. We lambed them out, we docked them, which means cutting their tails off with a sharp knife and removing the testicles of the male lambs by cutting the end off their little sack and pushing the sack back and pulling the testicles out with your teeth.

We worked like slaves. Yes, we made a lot of money with those stupid sheep but we were not a bunch of pampered rich kids, not by a damn sight. We were taught from day one that wealth was a huge responsibility, not a ticket to ride. Those lessons stuck with me and with my siblings as well. I have that god damned bank note in a frame hanging in the bar at the house. It is one of my most treasured possessions. Those four little childish signatures on a note for $18,000 from a time when that was a hell of a lot of money. Each spring when we had shipped our lambs we would all trudge into the bank together and pay on that note. It took us only three years to pay it off. God how I hated those sheep. They are the stupidest animals on the face of the earth and they were damned rough on a budding gay kid.

But the important thing is what they taught me. They taught me that hard work is one of life's greatest blessings. I love the way a hard day’s work makes me feel. I love having my hands dirty and standing back and feeling good about what the day has done.
It was Rance who first made me deeply aware of the damage the church, Mormon and otherwise, has done and continues to do to the LGBT community. He told stories of pain, alienation, surrender, and even suicides of faithful young gay men who could not reconcile the message they were hearing with the person they were made to be. He carried a lifetime of guilt, wondering if he could have helped those whose pain became too much to bear. And in his most recent years, he became a beacon of hope to young men who found their way to his open door and heart. He and the love of his life lived openly in Utah, defying anyone to call their union less than love, their commitment less than any marriage authenticated by law.

On the church:
We could all tell these kinds of stories all day long. It is so easy to hate and to blame but in the end, we must rise above it. Rising above it is all we have. We must each find a way to emulate Him, and keep our eyes on Him and not the tide of misunderstanding that so often rises against us. In the end we should not be deprived of the Church because so many in it don't have a clue. It is just as much our church as it is theirs, it is there for us, for all of us, and the more understanding I gain, the more I realize that Christ would welcome me to the arms of the Church, and He is the only one who counts at the end of the day.
Rance was a joy to witness and a challenge to engage. I was lucky to meet him in person a couple of summers ago before he became ill. We are all richer for his life and I am grateful for his brief friendship.

On last New Year:

Rest in God’s arms tonight, Rance. We keep you in our hearts, full of love and free of horseshit.

Update: To read more of Rance's moving and hilarious stories, read Brian's post of remembrance.

Update II: Rance's writing helped me talk to some Mormon missionary boys who came to my door. You can read my story on Bilerico.

March 27, 2009

Relying On Experts

In this world of easy communication, I have observed the increasing trend for people to rely on "experts" when they have doubt on what to believe or how to proceed in an arena where they feel unsure. Some people look at my job title and consider me an expert in my field. Lord help us. What I have to offer is experience; my "expert" opinion changes constantly with that experience.

I have some suspicion of anyone who puts forth "expertise" that is not backed with great experience. For example, there are parenting experts out there for any school of thought on how to raise a child. So many parents are so unsure that they are willing to blindly follow a self-promoting expert; some do so to great harm to their children. I believe that any parent knows more about his child than any expert and must trust his gut instincts about how to incorporate advice into the family dynamic. Clearly, there are ideas that work and we need to share them.

Ideas are wonderful toys to bat about and manipulate. I want to see concrete results before I buy the toy you package in bright colors. Today's New York Times carries a column by Nicholas D. Kristof called "Learning How to Think." I think it's worth five minutes of your day to read it.

March 25, 2009


by Michel de Broin

Before you click on the link, can you guess what you're seeing?

Find out here.

March 23, 2009

Seventeen Hours

I’ve been thinking about the connections and community we develop on the Internet. It is an interesting phenomenon that, as we cocoon ourselves away from human contact, we increase our circle of contacts online. A new sort of community develops, one with advantages and disadvantages.

This online community in which I participate is a positive force. I meet and talk with people I could never otherwise reach; and it enriches my life for the different opinions and experiences to which I am witness. I am instantly taken around the world to see it through others’ eyes.

I understand that it takes a minimum of seventeen hours of time together to develop a sense of community with a group of people. Do you suppose it’s the same on the Internet? There are a number of people on whose blogs I’ve spent that amount of time reading, interacting in the abbreviated fashion of comments. My circle of Internet friends is not static, and we intersect in a series of circles: some friends in common, some not. That makes this community very difficult to define.

Meeting some of my blogger friends has been easier than I expected it to be (being the introvert that I am). In some sense our conversations have started where we left off. Like old friends separated by time and distance, we have a history and a familiarity. But there are blanks in that history, of those times when we aren’t erudite, those awkward silences, times when we interact poorly or just plain disagree. That’s missing from the Web, because we edit the persona we present to the public.

On the other hand, you who read my blog are privy to some thoughts I would find difficult to express verbally; and that imbues an intimacy that discussion alone could not. The best of both worlds is reading each other’s thoughts and experiences and then getting together to talk about them all. That fills in the blanks in both worlds.

Those seventeen hours together give us a sense of belonging which all people crave. We must take care that we don’t lose the connections we have with those in Real Life, reaching for the mirage of perfection on the Internet. Bring them together as best you can, and bridge the communities of your own making. We are at the beginning of a whole new paradigm of what community means, setting new rules of behavior and communication. It’s exciting and potentially dangerous as we navigate unfamiliar straits. Let’s be a beacon to those who follow.

March 20, 2009

Starry Night

I’m sorry to have been absent from my blog for so long. I was putting my energy into astronomy. (Well, that and family and work. But I digress.) I made two presentations this week about amateur astronomy to science classes at Ben’s high school.

It’s been about ten years since I did something like this, for Sheba’s fifth grade class. I was pretty rusty, and I’m afraid my first session was somewhat rambling. I tightened it up and the next day’s class—much larger and more difficult to hold their attention—went very well. But last night was the best part of all: we had a star party.

The teacher asked if I would be willing to take my ‘scope out to view some stars. I jumped on the chance to share my enthusiasm with a bunch of kids. We chose a pumpkin farm far enough from the city to avoid the glow of the lights. Even so, viewing was minimal due to light and air pollution. (Light misdirected into the sky is reflected off of particles in the air, turning the black sky into a charcoal gray, dimming out most stars and many deep sky objects.)

The star map indicated that Orion and Saturn would give us the most bang for our buck. Even though we backed up the arrival time to 8:00p, it was still too light to see anything. But we trained the ‘scope on Venus, which was still visible above the western horizon. The “star” of Venus focused into a beautiful slender crescent in the orange sky. It was discernible even in binoculars. That held the kids’ attention while we waited for stars to emerge.

My telescope does not have a motor drive or computer-aided aiming; it requires a lot of fishing about until you find the object of your desire. I couldn’t find Saturn to save my life, so I switched around to find the Orion Nebula. My back was killing me after another half hour of searching, so I handed the ‘scope over to some willing teens. Meanwhile, others used the two pairs of binoculars I’d brought to keep them busy. (The nebula is easy to find and examine using binoculars. You should try it before it disappears in the summer skies.)

When we were beginning to get discouraged, one young lady grabbed the eyepiece to give it a try. Not two minutes later, she cried out that she’d found “something,” which turned out to be the Orion Nebula. While kids lined up to see (and say “Whoa!”), I told the teacher to give this girl extra credit.

Then we turned our sights on Saturn again. We used the star map to figure out which of the bright stars was actually a planet. We confirmed it with binoculars: only a planet will magnify to a larger size in binocs or a telescope; stars are too distant to get bigger. The teacher found it in the ‘scope and we were able to see the rings just barely tipped at a shallow angle. While conditions wouldn’t let us see the dark ring, two tiny moons were visible as bright points of light.

It was just barely dark enough to make out the smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy. This deep sky object has such a low apparent light that it’s almost invisible. If it were as bright as the pictures make it appear, you would see it cover the sky to a width of eight full moons. As it is, you can just make out the central bulge as a light gray fuzzball, using good binoculars (with a 50mm aperture).

The evening was a success. My son was enraptured by the views. He didn’t remember all those nights we spent in the cul-de-sac looking through the telescope when he was small. Truth to tell, he didn’t have the attention span to spend much time at the eyepiece back then. I have a feeling we’ll be pulling out the ‘scope more often now. Summer will offer some incredible skies.

On a spectacular side note, I asked the teacher about Ben’s mid-term grades and learned that he is on the honor roll for the first time since fourth grade. He is one B away from straight A’s. Now I really have stars in my eyes.

March 15, 2009

All God's Children, Week Four

Week One: "Our Families"
Wekk Two: "Gay and Christian"
Week Three: "The Science of Sexuality"

What the Bible Says About Sexuality

One of the class members arrived early, armed with a grocery bag filled with blue clasp folders. Apparently she had read the Blue Book, a resource I displayed every week on the class information table. The Blue Book is a report that explains “What We Wish We Had Known” from a church task force that studied the science and Christian view of homosexuality. She was so excited about its welcoming message that she made ten copies for her study group. Then she made twenty more copies and gave them to her friends. And then she made thirty more copies and passed them out to class members as they arrived. I have to agree that it answers many basic questions that most people have as they approach the issue for the first time. It is wonderful to see someone newly afire with enthusiasm.

Our presenter was a seminary professor of Old Testament studies. She went through the standard passages that are the core argument for calling homosexuality a sin and presented arguments for each side. (I hesitate to call this a two-sided argument, for that is too simple for such a complex issue. But this is not a hermeneutics lesson.) I had heard pretty much everything she presented but one thing was new to me: she said that there is a school of thought that says Old Testament law is utopian literature, that it is something to reach for but impossible to attain. That is something to think about.

Attendance remained high but not what I expected for this most difficult topic of the series: 76 came, still three times higher than normal attendance. The audience was rapt as always, but the speaker used every minute available. Still, no one would leave as class time came to an end and hands were raised. After a discussion on grace came the question I expected: “Doesn’t homosexuality destroy the family?” I could see four heads nod with agreement.

The professor explained that this was an empirical question; that is, we can examine this with evidence before us today. This is not answered in the Bible. She mentioned a social services study of families who adopted children. Children adopted by same-sex couples were compared in a years-long study to children adopted by hetero couples. The study concluded that those children who were adopted by same-sex parents were “more successful” than those adopted by hetero parents. She could not name the study or what “successful” meant in the terms of the study, and mumbling was heard from the audience. She calmly asserted that each of us is obliged to find the facts and not just take someone’s word.

I was sorry that the real discussion was only beginning as the class was ending. Clusters of people continued to converse at length after class ended. One of the dissenting men talked for a long time with Abe, who was able to tell about his own journey of discovery. I am grateful he was there. The man complained at how one-sided the series was, and Abe said it was that way on purpose. The man was taken aback. Abe continued, “We’ve had four weeks—four hours—of this point of view. Balance that against 170 years of the other point of view.” They continued in a calm discussion, agreeing to disagree on a couple of key points.

Some people were uncomfortable with the potential for conflict, but how can we grow without it? If we are complacent, we have no reason to change. If we’re arguing, it means we are talking. That is the goal for now. We have to let the dust settle before we move forward, but we are talking.

March 9, 2009

Ms. Grammarian

I can no longer be silent. This is the first of what will be a book may be a series of rants posts on a subject on which almost no one is completely correct neutral: language usage and punctuation. Today’s post:

Punctuation, period.

Let us remove our hats and have a moment of silence for that workhorse of the sentence, the period. What has been a steadfast and dignified conclusion to the statement is being replaced by exclamation marks, ellipses, and—recently and mysteriously—blank spaces.

Sadly, the exclamation point has been long abused to create emphasis that language should import instead. Many do not seem to realize that a period imbues a necessary solemnity that can offer more emotional weight than an exclamation mark. For example, compare the following two statements:

I hate poor punctuation!

I hate poor punctuation.

Which of these is squealed by a twelve-year-old girl, and which is expressed calmly by an adult? The exclamation point loses strength with each use. It is used most appropriately and almost exclusively in direct quotations. Try not to use it elsewhere, unless breathless excitement or anger is indicated. And, for the record, only one exclamation point can be used at a time!!!

The ellipsis (...) was created to indicate missing words, used to shorten a quote to its most meaningful phrasing while staying true to the author’s actual words. Somehow it has come to indicate a pause that isn’t quite the conclusion that a period provides...thus depriving us of a chance to take a literary breath...never quite coming to that satisfying finish so necessary for jumping to a new topic...

Lastly—for now—I come to that curious new interloper, the blank space Is this the function of an overworked “period” key But what about those other punctuation marks also left blank Are you going nuts yet as I would reading this And how are they ignoring all those green squiggly lines in their docs  I’m sorry but this must stop With a period.

Grammatically yours,

P.S. How many of you are carefully proofing your comments before you hit "publish?"

March 8, 2009

All God's Children, Week Three

Week One: "Our Families"
Wekk Two: "Gay and Christian"

The Science of Orientation and Gender

Our guest speaker was a doctor of pediatrics from Riley Children’s Hospital, and she gave a presentation on adolescent development, especially as it dealt with same-sex attraction. (At our request, she did not address transgender issues. We don’t think the congregation is ready for that discussion at this early stage in our growth. But I included an article on the subject on the resource table.)

As she covered the facts of development, a number of studies were quoted. I was glad to hear her name the source, longevity and brief methodology for every study quoted. She even discussed the weaknesses of two of the studies and addressed the questionable methodology of studies being quoted for opposing conclusions.

An interesting thing happened during the question period at the end: three people asked three different ways, “Is it a choice?” The speaker answered thoughtfully and at length to say “no” three different ways. One of those questioners asked when it’s a good time to intervene and change a child’s orientation. After the long answer that said it isn’t possible, the petitioner asked, “So, we need to go younger?” That person has a long way to go. But I want to stress that instead of throwing our arms in the air and dismissing him as a lost cause, it is this person and those like him we must embrace. If we are asking them to welcome us—even though they disagree—we must model the behavior we are asking of them—even though we disagree. Grace is not conditional.

I live for the day when the silence in our church is one of grace, that what is unspoken is understood to be acceptance, when orientation and gender identity don’t need to be subjects of lengthy discussion because it simply is not an issue.

There was no mention of faith issues except by the class leader as he closed; he hoped that what we are learning here is a step toward a more inclusive church, making this a place of safety for our youth. As in weeks past, class had to be halted well after the closing time, and people rushed to resume the discussion with our speaker. Attendance continues to grow; today we had 81 attendees. (Remember, standard attendance for this class has been 20-25 up until now.)

In a related note, news came today of yesterday’s vote in our presbytery on a change in the denomination’s constitution. The Presbyterian Church USA is calling for a vote to return ordination requirements to the original language of 400 years prior to the change in 1967; that is, from “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness” to “fidelity within the standards of the church.” This change returns the discernment process to the church and its presbytery (collection of local churches) which approve ordination of individuals. It allows churches to decide for themselves whether or not to ordain openly gay persons.

Historically our presbytery has voted against the change. Yesterday, by a margin of TWO votes, it passed (108-106). The national vote is currently 39 yes, 66 no. It requires a majority of 87 to pass. While this local decision is a reason to rejoice, it also is part of the reason that one of our presbytery churches chose to leave the denomination at the same meeting, just prior to the vote.

This turmoil gives us cause to reflect and determine our course of action. We must move carefully, educating people in a loving way, allowing for reasonable disagreement, always reflecting the behavior we hope to see in others. Be the change you wish to see.

Next Sunday: "What the Bible Says about Sexuality"

Image courtesy of Christ First Church of Gainesville, GA.

March 2, 2009

Making Music

...or at least as close as I'll ever get.

Blobby in Cleveland passed on a meme that looked like innocent fun. An hour later, after trying every font known to Print Shop, I have made my band's album cover. How, you ask? Here are the directions:

1 - Go to Wikipedia. Hit “random”or click here. The first random Wikipedia article you get is the name of your band.

2 - Go to Quotations Page and select "random quotations"or click here. The last four or five words of the very last quote on the page is the title of your first album.

3 - Go to Flickr and click on “explore the last seven days”or click this. Third picture, no matter what it is, will be your album cover.

4 - Use Photoshop or similar to put it all together.

My band plays rock. What's yours like?

March 1, 2009

All God's Children, Week Two

Week One: "Our Families"

Gay and Christian

Both of our speakers arrived early, which was of some consternation earlier this week when our lady guest emailed me that she was suffering from the flu. She assured me last night that her health had improved, and she did look and sound good when she came into the classroom.

I had requested more chairs for this week, since last week we had needed more than originally imagined. Instead of the 50+ we used last week, I requested 75. The room filled quickly, but apparently the building staff did not give us the number of seats we’d requested. I found someone on staff to add as many chairs as they could find. Some ended up along the side wall, and every chair was filled.

Our two speakers came from two different Methodist churches. The gentleman came to us from a friend’s recommendation to me; the lady was an acquaintance of the class leader. I was to introduce them. I had their basic bio information, but when I stood before the class, most of it flew out of my head. That doesn’t usually happen to me; but I knew that the audience wasn’t here to hear me and it didn’t really matter. I introduced our guests by name and they came to the table to speak.

“Linda” spoke first and movingly about growing up gay in a Christian home. She didn’t specify this time that she was a PK—a preacher’s kid—but it was clear that she grew up in a loving home. Because she was so fearful of the reaction, even from loving friends and family, she did not come out to anyone until she was in her late 20s. She did not suffer from any discrimination, beating, or vitriol; but she was well aware of the possibility, and it kept her silent. Linda teared up a few times and the audience was respectful. You could hear gasps of response to painful moments in her story. She emphasized how happy she is now in a committed relationship and a strong Christian faith. She closed her story with quotes from elected officials about their views. It was pretty ugly, and she emphasized that this is the message that the gay community is hearing more than any other.

“Roy” was raised in a loving home as well. He described himself as a “Bible geek,” truly interested in what the Bible had to say to him. He was at various times moving, funny, eloquent and well-versed in explaining his complex journey, which included a number of years in an ex-gay ministry. He finally realized that he was meant to be gay and Christian, and that it isn’t an oxymoron to be both. He is in a long-term committed relationship, and he and his partner have recently adopted a young boy. His “gay lifestyle” consists of tons of laundry, trips to school, chores on the weekend, and work.

I had to stop class five minutes after the closing time. It was apparent that no one wanted to leave. No one was looking at the clock or rustling papers. They were waiting their turn to enter the discussion. Again, as in last week, all of the responses were positive. When I dismissed the class, our guests were rushed by a number of people eager to continue the discussion.

Several came up to me to thank me, and I got a chance to speak to the gay man who approached me last week. I told him that I had discussed his request for a support group with our senior pastor. Because in the past month we have broken the silence in the pulpit after 170 years; initiated a discussion in this series of classes; and publicized this week the new support group for parents of gay children, that it would be circumspect to slow down. We have to give our congregation time to digest this new information and let the dust settle before we introduce yet another aspect. If we move too fast we can incur a lot of resistance. We haven’t felt yet the full impact of our current actions.

“Darren” was gracious and understood the need for pacing. He had already waited all of his life for this; a few more months were okay. He went further to tell me some of his own story, and it is book-worthy. It was a private conversation that I hope someday he will be willing to share. Powerful stuff.

Clusters of people continued to talk in the classroom and hallway. The ripples in the pond are widening. As the room slowly began to empty, I decided to count the chairs to see exactly how many had attended (since every chair was filled). We had exactly 75 people. Normal attendance for this class is about 25. Last week we had over 50. I think next week we might expect 100, and the last week—the one on Bible interpretation—I think we’ll need a new room with seating for at least 150.

My resource table is getting good reviews. I need to find more for next week about the science behind orientation and gender. Lots of handouts are being picked up, so I’ll continue to produce those as well.

I haven’t heard about any pushback that the subject might have caused, but I’ll bet our senior pastor has. I’ll ask him about it if I see him. Meanwhile, we move forward, in grace.

Next Sunday: “The Science of Orientation and Gender.”

Image courtesy of Christ First Church of Gainesville, GA.