samedi, avril 01, 2006

I watched my eight-year old as he cavorted like a young whale in the safe waters of a local Y today, and I was overwhelmed with waves of love for him. There is no naming, no understanding, no quantifying the bond between me and the boy I've called "bud" or "Mr. C" since he was born. But I have a confession. Before he arrived, I thought loving a boy baby would be more difficult, might need to be more conscious, than the organic, innate, unquestioned adoration I had for my daughter. Boy's, and the way they thought and behaved, were a huge mystery to me. I grew up with a dad, a brother, and male cousins, so you would think I'd be a little smarter about how males operate and how to nurture them. Some days, I'm still not completely sure I've got a handle on parenting, let alone parenting a boy. But I have learned some things about my son, just by watching. I know that he's got the instinctive timing of a stand up comic, the emotional intelligence of an "old soul", and a patience with his sometimes bossy older sister that amazes me (fyi-she just popped in to ask what I was writing about "my annoying brother") . Here's what I didn't tell her- he's got an amazing throwing arm, and loves to hang out with his neighborhood buddies, but he knows enough to ask his mom for a hug when he needs one. Delightfully, that seems to be often. Our bedtime chats about friends, family and Yu-gi-oh cards (don't ask) are some of the the highlights of my day. In hindsight, my anxiety seems just another silly symptom of my oh-so-human desire to predict, to control, and to understand. He reminds me at every turn that I am not in charge, and that love is the divine gift of a generous and awesome God. I pray pretty much every day for the grace to be the mother than he needs. As it happens, the challenge is not to love him enough, but to know when, and at what times, to open my hands and let him become the person he is meant to be. They don't give you a manual for that, either.

vendredi, mars 31, 2006

Men and boxes

On this first Friday of genuine East Coast spring, when birds and flowers are reawakening and inspiring us to madness and daring, let's be brave and take a foray into the perennially hot topic of the gender gap. Once we leave the realm of the chromosomal (and there's probably even some ambiguity about chromosomes, but don't tell me right now) the whole debate about gender differences starts spinning off into more subjective places. How quickly we can move from speaking about "gender differences" to "gender wars" or the "battle of the sexes"! Once arrived at that point the conversation enters a much murkier landscape littered with prejudice, unwarranted assumptions and assumptions that may be warranted but make us cringe because they are not politically palatable. But isn't that what makes these kinds of conversations fun? In the interests of full disclosure, let me confess: I am totally fascinated by men. I love hanging out with women. I've been truly blessed by many friendships with women who were very different from each other. But whether they were practical or intuitive, gregagrious or introverted, had doctoral degrees or never attended college, we shared, at the least, the assumption of similarity. Across the gender divide, you have to work harder. Thank God for that lovely ( sometimes dangerous) rush of attraction, or, frankly, some of us might never make the effort. I'd like to throw a question out there for consideration: what does it mean when someone says that guys "compartmentalize" better (or more) than do women? Let me give you a couple of examples I've heard, both from men and from the women who love them. I've known upper middle class men who hated their jobs. Yet they sucked it up on the weekdays and lived for the weekends with their families because their salary paid for the bigger house, the cool vacation and the kid's private school tuition. Who told them they had to do that? I've had guy friends tell me there is one code of ethical behavior that applies in personal relationships and another in business ones. How come no one taught me that? Men also appear, if the statistics are accurate, to be willing to tolerate difficult or even moribund marriages for much longer periods of time than their spouses before they either sound the alarm or get out. I gotta admit, this one totally mystifies me. None of these behaviors is unique to men, though I've observed them occuring more frequently with my guy friends. They aren't either good or bad. In fact, I've often thought dividing my life into neater categories might help me be more organized and assertive. I'm also a little envious, because when it comes to the state of my kitchen or my daughter's math grades there are moments when I too would like temporary amnesia. I'm hoping there is someone, or a couple of someone's out in the blogosphere who are willing to take a crack at answering these questions: what is this thing called compartmentalizing? Do men get special classes in it? Is it a skill more women need to learn? Or do we have a role, on either side of the gender divide, in helping each other understand what it means to see the world through different eyes?

jeudi, mars 30, 2006

A soulful atheist

"Jim Henderson, former pastor and author of a.k.a. "Lost": Discovering Ways to Connect with the People Jesus Misses Most (WaterBrook, 2005), bid $504.00 on eBay in February to win the right to send Chicago atheist Hemant Mehta to church. Mehta, who was raised in Jainism and had never been to a Christian church, offered to attend one service for every $10 bid. "I thought it would be a good opportunity to put my [atheist] beliefs under scrutiny," he told RBL.
Henderson asked Mehta to attend 10 or 15 services, blog about his experiences (at, and handle any media interviews that arose out of the experience. "I am not using this particular project to convert Hemant," Henderson said. "I am hiring him to help me gather information so that Christians can get better reality about how to approach people like this." Having visited about seven churches so far, Mehta said he has been surprised to find church "a nice place to be."
Henderson is executive director of Off the Map (, an organization aimed at "helping Christians not be jerks, or helping Christians be normal," he said, especially when it comes to evangelism. "

Excerpted from Religion Bookline, March 29, 2006

Amazing the kinds of bargains you can discover online if you look hard enough. Kudos to Henderson, who forked up the money to meet Mehta's challenge. But even more credit to Mehta, who was willing to have his convictions tested.

How many atheists can you claim as friends? I am embarrassed to say that I'm not sure I know any! Agnostics, yes. Atheists? If they are prominent in my life, they are pretty quiet. Having moved in Christian circles for a very long time, I am pretty much indoctrinated in the language and practice of belief. But I suspect that it's about time for me to start getting out there and meeting some.

Because I believe that God works through the world, and through us as His children, I would like non-believers to experience the power of life-changing grace. But before that, well before that, I would like to have the opportunity to understand the real-life experiences of women and men who don't think of God every day, who don't pray, who don't make my set of assumptions.

I grew up in a house of gentle skeptics and flat out agnostics. Although I suspect some of my extended clan on my mother's side were conviced atheists, and others quietly observant, we enjoyed each other's company way too much to talk about matters of belief. You were embraced whether you were a socialist or a socialite. Other topics, like civil rights, the arts and whether there was any future for the Democratic Party seemed a lot more compelling. Politics was our blood sport of choice. Being a rabbi, or being a priest, or being a Catholic (of the liberal ilk, of course) was another lifestyle option.

My dad's ancestry encompasses centuries of rabbis. Although many of my cousins on his side are faithful Jews of various affiliation and practice, there have been, at least as far as I am aware, no more rabbis in this generation. As proud as he is of his rabbi father, who died before I was born, my dad seems to view belief with through the sympathetic (if only it were true) but skeptical lens of the scholar (see previous post) .

Although I'm proud to have come from such motley and tolerant stock, it certainly didn't equip me to engage a religiously pluralistic culture of competing beliefs and ideologies.

In my more recent experience as a church member and leader, I have found that many of us are imprisoned by our context, by our assumptions, and often by our fears. Christians, as Henderson notes, can indeed be"jerks." It may be human nature to retreat behind doctrinal or social walls in times of cultural ferment. But it doesn't speak well of those of us who claim a desire to be winsome examples of lives changed.

Who are we trying to impress? Each other? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God Christians believe was incarnate in Jesus, constantly breached the boundaries of his own culture to reach those who were different. He seemed to do it without condescension, opening the door to belief instead of sneaking converts past the barricades. If he is our role model for fruitful dialogue, we've got to be both more sensitive and more comfortable with ourselves.

I have to admit that the whole question of outreach, evangelism and conversion (there's been dialogue about this in Jewish denominations, too) puzzles me deeply. Like many of you, I have heard that the new Pope, Benedict, has made it one of his goals to re-evangelize the largely indifferent peoples of Western Europe. I am going to be very curious to learn more about his plan of action. How does this ancient faith meet the challenge of putting old wine in new bottles?

As for the Christian community- any E-Bay volunteers out there? Surely there is a group of atheists online with a couple of bucks burning a hole in their pocket- and just longing to meet you.

mercredi, mars 29, 2006

Justices delayed will not be denied

It isn't always fair to judge a man by the company he keeps. But when a chorus of his terrorist buddies start hurling brickbats at the accused, one Zacarias Moussaoui, such judgments seem justified. "He had dreams of flying a plane into the White House" said a South Asian terorist known as Hambali in Wednesday's New York Times. In Hambali's words, he was known on the street as "not right in the head and having a bad character." Even his own defense attorney termed him dangerous. The question confronting a jury in an Alexandria, Virginia courtroom this week is: what exactly was he guilty of? Is he really a major player in the September 11 attacks that killed thousands and left an apparently indelible scar on the American psyche? Or is he a lower level operative so delusional or so driven by hatred of the United States that he will confess to acts for which the punishment could all too quickly be death? Call me a coward, but I am very glad that I don't have to serve on that jury. The case was already complicated by Moussaoui's theatrics and obstructionism and by allegations of unprofessional behavior by a lawyer connected to the prosecution. On Monday, Moussaoui's "admission" that he was pretty much guilty as charged have put the jury in the almost impossible position of trusting the word of a man whose words have shown he cannot be trusted or of believing the testimony of a group of unsavory characters linked to various other acts of terrorism. Yet Americans who have observed this trial from afar can be pretty confident that however much the defendant might have tried to subvert the rule of law, justice will prevail. As obnxious and boastful as he appears to be, Moussaoui has had a hearing worthy of the best the American legal system can offer. Not far away, in a Washington D.C. , courtroom, the nation's highest court gathered to hear testimony in an even more important case. The topic at hand was whether Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for Osama Bin Laden, could be tried by a military commission, as the Bush administration wants to do. But the subtext to the defenses layered argument about the validity of military commissions and the government's case for commissions was the fact that the prerogatives of the Supreme Court, and of other lower courts, are being challenged by this administration in ways that would have been unthinkable before the bombing of the Twin Towers, the war in Afghanistan, and our invasion of Iraq. Conveniently designated as enemy combatants (who also, conveniently, don't fall under the international laws of the Geneva Convention) many prisoners taken abroad have been locked away for years without access to lawyers or the possibility of a trial. We don't even know, in many cases, why they are being held. In some cases, they may very well be innocents picked up in the wrong place at the wrong time. It may be too late for the Supreme Court to override the unfettered license this administration and Congress have taken with our legal system. But judging by the sharp tone of the questions to Solicitor General Paul Clement in the Hamdan hearing, recent actions by Congress to remove legal jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay detainees from the courts may have finally provoked the Justices to righteous anger. We can only hope so. A country which prides itself on an exemplary legal system is shamed when men are held for years without access to justice. A nation which advocates for human rights all over the world looks hypocritical when it treats its opponents as unworthy of the right to challenge their own detention in a court of law. We have done an exemplary job of giving an accused terrorist a hearing and trial. But our efforts haven't been solely, or even mostly, in the services of the man even his friends call unbalanced, unreliable and kind of crazy. No. We have done it so we can sleep at night, knowing that our justice system, though imperfect, is one of the best in the world. More than he deserves? Maybe. More than we deserve? Absolutely not.

mardi, mars 28, 2006

Marital Mysteries

In a previous life I had frequent occasion to visit an older couple in their lovely house on a quiet cul-de-sac at the end of the Main Line. When I got to know the two of them, he was almost housebound, a large man with a quick smile and an agile intellect. She was, and is a warm, and gracious woman of an optimistic cast of mind and profound faith. A professional designated to bring spiritual nourishment and comfort, I came with something I thought I could offer. But as I left at visit's end, I wondered if I had received more . Perched on the edge of a wing chair in the spotless living room, I would feel like a ticketholder to a play who arrives in the middle of the second act to find the characters established and the story almost told. Although they were affectionate and polite, the bond between them was so strong that it almost didn't matter whether I was in the room or not. Almost inevitably, in the course of our conversation, one or the other of them would retail an anecdote from their rich store of memories. Do you remember that vacation on Bailey Island? How we met? What your mother thought of me? Then they would be off to the races. Like a chain of antique pearls, memories would be brought to the surface, dusted off and lifted to the sunlight. Fascinated, I would observe their banter, respect and mutual tenderness, knowing that if I had not been in the room the conversation would have gone down these roads without me. He is gone now. When he died, she grieved deeply. But she has not stayed at home, pining away. Instead, each new adventure, whether it be a trip to the British Isles or to visit the grandchildren is infused with the confidence and mutual joy they shared. I have been privileged to observe other couples as they strove to forge a life together. Some marriages seem built on shared 'sacred moments', some on choices made in moments of crisis. Some couples seem to do better in second marriages because they've made big mistakes in previous relationships. Other couples enter into new relationships with the guiless faith of high school kids high on the drugs of lust and romance. Against all odds, some of these couplings survive. I've also seen plenty of bad pairings: marriages built on indifference, marriages where couples disliked and sabotaged each other, marriages where profound sacrifices went unappreciated. But those unhappy pairs and their sufferings are not the subject of this post. What is the secret of a happy marriage? If you know, and would like to share it, I'm sure I'm not the only one who would be grateful. Maybe you will be able to add something to a topic that continues to engage even those of us who profess to be jaded and cynical about true love. Of course, we might have to come to terms with the possibility that there is no secret. It may be that each union is as unique, as mysterious as that of my two friends, smiling and sighing and staring enraptured at one another as the afternoon light faded and evening crept in. For as much as we would deny it, evening always comes. It is what we do with the daylight available to us that makes a lasting impression on others.

lundi, mars 27, 2006

Towards a more genuine public dialogue

Perhaps I should blame my dad for the fact that I'm congenitally prone to seeing both sides of an issue. My father is a retired historian. That is, he's retired from teaching undergraduates, but not from taking the bird's-eye view. It is probably from him that I picked up the slightly fatalistic sense that "it's all been said before" by a Cicero, an Augustine, an Alexis de Tocqueville or a Yogi Berra. Said before, and probably said better. Partisans have been debating hot button topics like sin and salvation, justice and mercy, sex and celibacy for millennia. But have we made any progress in resolving our disputes? While I can be as bull-headed and opinionated as anyone on the staff of Fox News or of the Nation, I'm eager to hear voices raised in opposition, or disagreement, or skepticism. In cases where I am reluctant to do that, I usually figure it's telling me more about myself than it is about the other person or the alternative point of view.

Given the polarized nature of public discourse over the past five years (since September 11, 2001) it would be helpful if we as citizens were able to do a better job of finding solutions rather than blaming the 'other side" and going on our dismal way. One very small but important step in resolving major issues is learning to check our reflexive self-righteous attitudes at the door and seek out folks who are different enough to challenge us and tick us off. As for our opponents (forsooth! I mean partners in dialogue) if we indicate that we are open to listening first and judging later, we might find that most people are a lot more willing to give us the time of day than we think. On the other hand, I am constantly surprised by how many genuine weirdos there are out there. If it's any comfort, history is full of them, too.

dimanche, mars 26, 2006

Losing my religion? Democracy as revival meeting

When I stroll the historic streets of Philadelphia's Society Hill, I gape like a fan who happens upon into his or her favorite movie star downing an espresso at a New York City cafe. With its red-brick Federalist facades, cobblestones and barely visible gardens seen through latticed ironwork and wooden gates, the whole area is a living tapestry of recollection and respect. Frankly, it gives me chills to think that Jefferson, Madison and Franklin paced the same streets, deep in thought or argument. While I have no stomach for the Constitutional fundamentalism of an Antonin Scalia or a Clarence Thomas, I do have a deep reverence for the intellectual foundations and legacy of the thinkers who created the framework for our country. So it is with some sadness that I have come to consider democracy an ideology like any other ideology, rather than a projection of manifest destiny or intelligent design. Crafted to evoke nobility and draw upon our deepest aspirations, it can be dangerous in the wrong hands. If the United States of America is the leader of the council of democratic nations, its credibility at modeling "democratic" ideals should not depend upon someone like President George Bush, who confuses the duties of overseeing American interests with the pulse-thumping excitement of a Christian revival meeting. Good in one corner. Evil in the other. If you aren't for us, body and soul, then you must be...on the other side. One can picture the conspicuously non enthusiastic Fathers shuddering in horror. Perhaps copies of the Declaration of Independence, not to mention the Constitution, should come with a warning label: handle with care. One of the lessons of our Iraq adventure is that you can't blithely sail into another country and impose the ideology of democracy on a country which has little, if any experience or indocrination in respect for individual rights. It's tough to cobble together a viable government in a nation where there has been a huge ethnic and religious imbalance of power under the iron hand of a dictator. It is particularly risky, not to say a little mad, to attempt to create a democracy in a land previously composed of various tribes held together by a warlord or thug. Can we come up with one place where that has worked? More to the point, is it our God-given responsibility to make it work? On a more pragmatic level, one would have thought that the guardians of our prestige here and abroad had learned something about the dangers of dismantling an oppressive system by watching Yugoslavia after Tito rent by nominally religious zealots, or by viewing the convulsions of democratic movements in some of the nations of the former Soviet Union. If we truly believed that democracy was God's gift to humanity we'd be aiding democratic movements where people have already expressed a strong desire for a change of government! Yet the allure of trying to forge a democratic state in the smoking ashes of a dictatorship is addictive. It has kept many normally sane pundits and journalists on board with the Bush express train even as it careened over the cliff's edge. What good a "free" society if the people who will profit by it are prisoners in their homes, or at each other's throats, or dead in the streets? It is possible that our highly rational Founding Fathers would be appalled to see their passion and and intellectual capital so roundly betrayed by zealots. It is almost certain that it will be a while before we have the muscle, or the hubris, to try to remake another nation in our image again.

Horsing Around with My Daughter

She's not a 'tween yet, but she's got aspirations in that direction so fervent that it scares me sometimes. I'm so glad she isn't yet too cool to laugh at herself and gape with wonder at the sight of eight huge deer parading across our lawn at twilight. She's spunky and volatile, a real drama queen, who tries to rule our house with with thunderclaps of protest when I insist on a certain (minimal) amount of decorum at the dinner table or on diligence about homework. Her younger brother loves her with the chastened affection of the frequently spurned. Occasionally she will bestow the favor of a smile or a word of praise upon him, and sunshine will flood our house. Until the next rainstorm. Don't ask me from whom she inherited her changeable temperament.