Sunday, July 28, 2013

Family Excursion

Driving through the south side of a northern Oklahoma town yesterday, these are the things that stood out: a Confederate flag flying high in someone's front yard, the sprawling and acrid oil refinery, a [Pioneer] Woman Museum, the Western-themed adult entertainment joint advertising "Nasty Night", and Glad Tidings Assembly of God on the corner of Victory Street. Oh, and a dead armadillo.

Suddenly my corner of Kansas felt squeaky-clean and quite progressive.

While quaintness has its incontrovertible charms...

... it has its terrors, too.

We visited two museums on our trip (not the one showcasing the "pioneer woman") and I was proud of my kids. They are skeptical of corporate propaganda, and their sensibilities are offended by exploits that were once intended to impress. What kind of person crosses the ocean to visit another country, kills one of the largest local animals, and hauls its head home on a ship as a trophy? To quote James Russell Lowell yet again, "time makes ancient good uncouth."

For me, half the fun of any vacation is the anthropological "field research"--observing how people live in other places, or studying how they lived in other times. This trip provided plenty of material, and beautiful scenery besides. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Library Shelf: Keeping Them Out of the Hands of Satan

I love to cook. I also like to learn from watching other people cook. I enjoy comparing different ingredients, different tools, and different techniques and sampling the various results.

Education is much like cooking.

True educators, like professional chefs, use their knowledge of available resources and their technical expertise to design a plan and effect desirable results over time. It is possible for a dedicated amateur to follow the same steps at home and achieve an equally delicious product. It is also possible for an unskilled cook to easily serve meals with much less time and effort. Frequently, however, a reduced investment of time, expense or effort coincides with a reduction in quality.

Like macaroni and cheese, or tiramisu, all education is not created equal. And I'm not even talking about the religious components or motivation.

In this 1988 book, sociologist Susan Rose compares the educational experience provided by two very different church-run private schools. She notes differences in curriculum, teacher experience and training, tests and grading, parental involvement, and organizational structure. And like a truck stop diner versus a five-star restaurant, the two systems turn out very different results.

I was fascinated by Rose's account because I was homeschooled from 1984 to 1993. (After that I continued unaccredited college-level studies from home for a few more years.) Through the 1980's, many of my friends attended private church schools which had significant resemblances to the schools in Rose's study. The children she observed were my distant peers.

One school Rose describes is highly authoritarian in structure. It is run by a trucker (the principal) with no training in education, and one or two assistants. Curriculum is purchased as a package from a single source (Accelerated Christian Education). Individual students absorb information from booklets at their own pace. They do their work in separated cubicles in a single room, only receiving instruction when they request help. Study consists primarily of reading and memorizing. There is a narrow dress code. The school is tightly bonded to the church. Students come primarily from "blue collar" families, many with two working parents. Parents do not expect their children to go on to college. Students are not encouraged to set goals that reach beyond the local community and church. The girls, in particular, are not motivated toward professional careers. In the end, a graduate from this "school" is mentally prepared for a job at the local factory and not much more.

In the other school, parents are involved to a much higher degree and have stronger relationships with the teachers. The grades are divided into separate classrooms. Creativity, personal expression, and leadership are encouraged. Relationships, and conflict resolution, are valued both inside and outside the classroom. The church gave birth to the school and while the two entities overlap at points, they have distinct foci. Teachers are involved in curriculum development and lesson planning so education is more individualized. Children come from mostly middle class families; parents represent a variety of professions and not all the mothers work outside the home. Students are encouraged to pursue higher education and choose future professions that put their individual gifts to use for personal fulfillment and the good of the community.

Reading Susan Rose's observations helped me to understand my own. Ever since kindergarten when I observed my public school classmates learning the alphabet (I could already read), I have been a student of education. I watched my mom and her friends figuring out how to teach their kids math and grammar and spelling and science. I went along to curriculum review "parties"; I sat in the classroom of a Mennonite one-room schoolhouse and in classrooms of a big non-denominational Christian day school. I knew who published their various textbooks and where they kept their art supplies. I grew up hearing about the controversies over requirements that teachers be certified and over the rights of parents to educate their children at home. I have read Amish teachers' magazines and shopped at homeschool curricula fairs.

My own study experiences have included: parents, library books, computers and e-books, correspondence school, week-long workshops, a music "camp" at an ATI training center, private classes, state university, and community college. I have studied with teachers who had authored the textbooks, and with teachers who had never encountered the material before. And I have taught/tutored children in numerous settings--small groups, individuals, online, classrooms public and private, at home, overseas, age-segregated and age-diverse, my own siblings, my own progeny, smart kids, kids that needed help.

ATI, which my parents joined in 1987, was first touted as a homeschool curriculum, though families quickly learned they needed to supplement the Wisdom Booklets with other educational materials. IBLP staff actually used curriculum from A.C.E. (School of Tomorrow) to "homeschool" juvenile delinquents sent to their Indianapolis campus by the Indiana court system. When I first began learning at home, my parents used similar materials from Christian Light Education for science and social studies. Reading horror stories of students who were subjected to A.C.E. for years on end, either at home or in private "schools", I feel lucky to have had the academic experience I did.

The difference between taking in data and spitting it back out on the appropriate blanks and actually: learning the bounds of science, engaging with concepts, asking questions, hunting for answers, working with a group, interacting with characters, and creating original works expressing personal understanding... is simply immense.

Today, I am convinced that education is a serious science. It is also an art and some individuals are uniquely gifted teachers. But gifted or not, we should be insisting on quality educators. Investment in the training and welfare of our teachers is an investment in our children's future prospects, after all.

There can be no excuse for mis-education or educational neglect. (Especially in the name of Christ, but that's another post!) Children cannot take responsibility for their own education any more than they can be held responsible for their own diets. They don't know how to evaluate the credibility of a text any more than they know the long-term health effects of french fries. Our children depend on us to teach them what is important, and to equip them with all the tools they will need for life.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What About Socialization?

From the time I left public school (3rd grade), I heard adults inquiring, "But what about about socialization?"

I learned to parrot the answers offered by my parents and their friends: we socialize with each other, we get along with adults because we are not artificially segregated from other age groups, children don't learn anything good from their peers, siblings can be best friends for life, and so on.

From these responses and others, I assumed that "socialization" was just another noun form of "social", as in "Ladies' Aid Social" and "Strawberry Social". That it was semantically equivalent to the gerund "socializing". Perhaps our parent-teachers thought so, too.

Then I found Keeping Them Out of the Hands of Satan by Susan Rose.

Published in 1988 when the Christian day school movement and its parallel, homeschooling, were in full swing, Keeping Them Out of the Hands of Satan is an ethnography in which Rose, a sociologist, shares her careful observations and comparisons of two very different church-run private schools. Though I had never attended a religious school, this paragraph felt comfortable:

"Evangelicals are engaged in cultural production, in creating new forms of educational experience for themselves and their children. . . ." 

Yes, they would definitely say so. This was familiar ground for any homeschooled kid.

But, there was more.

"Socialization is the process by which people and institutions transmit the values, beliefs, and behaviors necessary for appropriate functioning in their particular culture to others. It is a recruitment process--whether recruiting children into adult worlds or resocializing adults into different roles or a new subculture. Socialization involves 'the whole process by which an individual born with behavioral potentialities of enormously wide range is confined within a much narrower range--the range of what is customary and acceptable for him according the standards of his group.'"

I was dumbfounded.

Is that what they meant? Those people who asked with concern, "What about socialization?" Did they know that socialization meant learning how to function appropriately in the culture? And did my answers relieve their anxiety or simply cause them to shake their heads? Suddenly I wished I could remember who they were, those grown-ups who had expressed interest and concern in my educational experience and assimilation into society.

My mind immediately jumped to the night I picked up my little girl from a children's event at church. "The other kids said I was cutting in line," she reported. "What is 'cutting in line'?" And then I was a kindergartener again, standing in the hallway with my friends and classmates, waiting my turn at the water fountain.

Actually, children learn a lot of useful things from their peers. They observe each other; teach each other; compete with each other; challenge, encourage, reward, and even punish each other. Through peers, children learn the bounds of propriety and the range of acceptable behavior. They interact with individuals who share the same internal values despite external differences like style of dress, style of hair, favorite foods, word pronunciation, vocabulary, personal habits and family rituals. Exposed to the same influences and shaped by the same events, they share in the collective experience of their generation. With their peers, children also get to practice self-differentiation in ways that are simply not available within the cocoon of the home.

After reading Rose's entire book, I reevaluated my homeschooling career. Months later, convinced by a multiplicity of factors, we enrolled our oldest in 4th grade. Two years later, she is already better socialized and more differentiated than I was when I finished homeschool "high school".

For more discussion about socialization and homeschooling:

"What is Fringe?" --In a 1997 survey, 13% of homeschooled children did not play with people outside their families!
"Socialization Not a Problem"--a 2009 Washington Times article based on an HSLDA study
"Homeschool Mis-Socialization"--why so many of us homeschoolers feel we are missing a key piece
"Homeschooling, Socialization, and Me"--the experience of a homeschooled student
"Homeschool Parents Need to Take Socialization Seriously"--socialization challenges for adult homeschooolers
"Mrs. Karen, You are Laughing at Real People"--more real stories by homeschoolers

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Reflections On My Childhood, Part III

I have been a bookworm since I learned to read at five years old. I loved Little House on the Prairie, Heidi, and Little Women, as well as history and pretty much any biography: inventors, spies, soldiers, presidents, escaped slaves, authors, businessmen, missionaries, and influential women.

I liked to play in an imaginary world of my own. In my imagination, I always went back in time. I was a pioneer, a forerunner on the prairie, an explorer, a scout sent to tame the wilderness ahead of modern civilization. Or I was blind, exploring my world through other senses. Or I was a conscientious mother to my doll baby, whom I carried on my back while performing my chores, papoose-style. What looked like my pink bicycle was actually my horse, Rosalind, stabled in our garage. Sometimes she was a bay, sometimes a chestnut.

My brothers and I, along with the two kids next door, would go mining in the sandbox. We created a miniature river, waterfall, and reservoir for our play figures to explore. We set up a tent in the backyard and cut up young cucumbers, baby carrots, and tiny onions from our mothers' gardens to make soups in little pots on our imaginary campfire. I can still taste the savory warm water and the tender onion-seasoned vegetable chunks, softening in the summer sun.

Nina was my "best friend". Our parents went to church together. When I was about seven, we joined several families for a Fourth of July picnic at her house and I got to try riding a bike without training wheels. I remember Nina's dad and another dad in the group patiently helping me balance and gently giving the bike a push down the path toward the barn, over and over.

I spent the night at Nina's house several times. We would giggle and play and stay up too late listening to cassette tapes or just reading. Her dad would come in and pray with us before we fell asleep. I remember being surprised that she prayed directly to Jesus ("put angels in my pillow") while I always prayed to God, "in Jesus' name". It was a small distinction, perhaps, but I puzzled over it.

I thought Nina's dad was terrific; he was at ease with kids and his sense of humor kept me laughing. He was a veterinarian and we once got to watch while he performed an emergency c-section on a cow. When he taught our Sunday School class, in a classroom full of desks that also served the church's private school, I repeated his puns in the car all the way home.

Homeschooled during the week, Sunday School was my place to shine. I knew all the answers and memorized Bible verses easily. When I completed one class memorization assignment, the teachers presented me with my own copy of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. When I showed my parents my prize, they wouldn't let me keep it. Fantasy was frowned upon in our home, as were witches--which were not considered fantastic. We returned the paperback to the local Christian bookstore and exchanged it for something safe, without witches.

When Nina came to my house, we were known to spend most of the visit swapping books and reading together. Once, I had to run down to my dad's study, where our fathers were deep in conversation, to find the book I wanted. They looked up as I slipped in and headed straight for the bookshelf. Nina's dad seemed a bit surprised when I selected Tortured For His Faith, by Haralan Popov. I was rather proud of my grown-up taste in literature.

By that time many of my favorite books were about danger and suffering, about spirit and faith in the face of terror. The villains in these stories were communists, atheists, Nazis, Russians, Romans, Germans, southern slaveholders, Catholic prelates, or animistic "uncivilized" tribesman. I learned a lot very young about torture--both physical and mental, about cruelty, about interrogation techniques. I read and reread stories of measured starvation, of brainwashing, of monotony, of forced labor, of families kept apart. I was aware of the psychological effects of isolation, overcrowding, and sleep deprivation. I devoured tales of codes, smuggling, and covert communication.

I also read of missionaries who spent years getting themselves into dangerous situations, then prayed and struggled heroically to save themselves or their families from near-death. Some, like the five New Tribes men in Bolivia in 1942 and the five men who died in Ecuador in 1956, went into the heart of the jungle never to return to their wives and small children. I read vivid accounts of men dying alone (Dave Yarwood in Bolivia in 1951) or being murdered in front of their wives and children (John Troyer in Guatemala in 1981). They were all my heroes.

David Brainerd kept a depressing diary while he tried to save the Indians, but died of tuberculosis (at 29) before he could marry his girlfriend, who followed him to the grave a few months later. William Carey left a great linguistic legacy in India, but the poor wife he dragged there after God "called" him suffered so much trauma in the process that she went mad. Adoniram Judson buried two wives and numerous children in Burma. Bill Borden died of meningitis in  Egypt at age 25, long before reaching the Muslims in China that God had called him to convert.

When we got a video player during my teen years, many of our movies weren't any more cheerful. In one of my favorites, a Japanese man threw himself under a runaway train, saving the other passengers. In the film, his fiancee took it even better than I did, glowing in the memory of his selfless love. Roman Catholics were the bad guys in BJU's gruesome "Flame in the Wind" and the Reformation histories of William Tyndale and John Hus, while other Protestants were the perpetrators in "The Radicals", cutting out Michael Sattler's tongue before burning him at the stake.

We never skipped the martyrdom scenes, though we often jumped over romantic parts of movies, especially if the women's costumes even hinted at cleavage. We even fast-forwarded through scenes in movies produced by Worldwide Pictures (Billy Graham's film production company)! Tenderness and sexuality--beyond a chaste married kiss--were repressed, but cruelty and violence were commonplace. Satan was our enemy, after all, out to destroy us. We were soldiers for Christ and had to be ready to lay down our lives for his standard.

Even at ten years old, I took my responsibilities as a missionary rather seriously. Since I didn't often leave my own yard except to go to church or the grocery store with my parents, my evangelization opportunities were few. My Grammie didn't seem terribly receptive to converting, and she didn't seem very unsaved anyway. My neighbors were all churchgoers. But their friends didn't quite look like Christians. Two girls near my age would come over (to my neighbors' house) from time to time and we would all occasionally play together. A. & A. went to gymnastics and would practice cartwheels on the lawn. Somersaults were the limit of my flexibility, but I had a greater gift: eternal life.

One afternoon when A. & A. were visiting next door, I talked to them across the fence and said I had something important to share with them. They should come to my window in an hour and I would have it ready. As luck would have it, Mom was serving dinner when the appointed time came. I slipped away from the table, opened the window, and began to earnestly try to explain to the girl outside why she should care about what I was about to give her. One of my parents came looking for me and wanted to know what was going on. Embarrassed, I handed A. a pocket-size Gospel of John, shut the window, returned to supper, and indefinitely postponed my illustrious missionary career.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


Bruce Gerencser has written an honest account of what it was like to be that happy man with a full quiver, both theologically and practically. I feel glad and hopeful when I think of how he and Polly reconsidered their religious convictions to protect her body.

For a time, we felt guilty. We thought, we are disobeying God. Where is our faith?
In the end, in spite of our theological beliefs, we put our faith and trust, not in God, but in doctors. As we look back on it now, perhaps this was the first small crack in our Evangelical Calvinistic worldview.
We now see how foolish we were and how dangerous certain beliefs were.
We are blessed to have six wonderful children. We love all of them dearly. But, if we had to do it all over again, knowing what we know now, I doubt we would have had six children. Health and economics should have been the criteria we used to determine whether or not to have children. Instead, we let the folly of youth and our religious beliefs determine what size of family we wanted to have. We are fortunate things turned out as well as they did. I can only imagine how life might had been if Polly had died having child seven or ten. I am grateful that the wife of my youth is alive and we are able to enjoy together the latter years of life.

You can read Bruce's entire piece at No Longer Quivering.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

His Quiver Full of Them

Decades ago, I cross-stitched a scripture motto for my parents from Psalm 127, the favorite psalm of large families.
"Lo, children are a heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward."
The psalmist goes on to say: "As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them..."

The term "quiverfull" is now used as both a noun and an adjective to describe a theology and lifestyle that glorifies human fertility while maintaining that God will provide the resources to raise as many children as he allows a couple to conceive. Contraception is held to be "playing God" and a violation of the command to "Be fruitful and multiply". The ideal Quiverfull couple are always open to "more blessings", regardless of financial situation, health concerns, housing limitations, or needs of existing children. 

I'm not certain when my parents decided that contraception was immoral. As a high schooler, Mom was an advocate of zero population growth and intended to adopt rather than bear children. A few years later, she graduated from a strict Catholic nursing school and married my dad. I was born a year later, my brother two years after that, and so on for the next 20 years.

Mail would arrive periodically from the Couple to Couple League and my parents had a couple of books by Catholic authors John & Sheila Kippley explaining the practice of abstinence and/or breastfeeding as a means of birth control. Of course, even "natural family planning" sounded too much like the evil "Planned Parenthood" so it was usually referred to as "child spacing". Somewhere along the line my parents abandoned NFP (turns out it's not all that effective at preventing pregnancy!) and the babies began to come even closer together.

Certainly Mom was influenced by Mary Pride's 1985 book The Way Home, a story of the author's journey from feminism to what she calls "reality". Mary had just three young children when she wrote the book, in which she blasted away at contraception, lingerie, Marabel Morgan's The Total Woman, and even Christian schools. 
"All forms of sex that shy away from marital fruitfulness are perverted. Masturbation, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, prostitution, adultery, and even deliberate marital barrenness--all are perverted."
"Since the word used for female is connected so strongly with the idea of nursing babies, whereas it has no connection at all with the idea of sexual activity, I believe that God is saying here that when women exchange their natural function of childbearing and motherliness for that which is 'against nature' [that is, trying to behave sexually like a man], the men tend to abandon the natural sexual use of the women and turn to homosexuality. When men stop seeing women as mothers, sex loses its sacredness. Sex becomes 'recreational', and therefore the drive begins to find new kicks."    (Mary Pride, The Way Home, 1985)
(Pride's position against family planning was more extreme than even the Catholic Couple-to-Couple League's, prompting a correspondence between her and John Kippley, president of CCLI, and leading Pride to grudgingly endorse NFP in some situations in her sequel to The Way Home.)

Pride went on to birth six more babies and became a powerful force in the new homeschooling movement. My mom used to share The Way Home with all her friends and donated it to church libraries when she could. (When she encouraged me to read it, I was confused. Especially by the story about the lady wearing saran-wrap. Sexually naive young women raised in patriarchal, homeschooling isolation were definitely not Pride's target audience.)

Mary Pride's views fit rather well with the teachings of Bill Gothard--a middle-aged bachelor who handed out plenty of sexual and parenting advice at his seminars and encouraged couples to have surgeries to reverse previous vasectomies and tubal ligations. One of Gothard's books informs us, "Labor in childbirth... was given to the woman for her spiritual benefit..." and points out that the God of the Old Testament "cursed several women by closing their wombs." Attendees of Gothard's conferences learned to associate infertility with God's judgement. A full quiver, on the other hand, was a sign of God's favor, a spiritual status symbol.

In 1990, a Nebraska couple published A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ. In this book, Rick and Jan Hess (homeschooling parents of ten) invite the reader to imagine a world where no one has ever had more than two or three siblings, effectively eliminating many historical figures. This exercise concludes with visualization of a future where enormous families are normal and God provides spacesuits for a missionary family moving their brood to evangelize a colony on the moon. My parents had this book, probably purchased at an IBLP seminar and still available on Gothard's website.

Then there was Nancy Campbell's occasional magazine for moms, Above Rubies. Nancy is a fierce promoter of anti-feminism from her compound in Tennessee. Her website includes multiple articles by women who felt guilt and regret over "the biggest mistake" of their life. After they repented, they went on to expand their families by four, five, six more babies. What mistake is reversed by more pregnancies? An abortion, perhaps? No, as it turns out, the biggest mistake of these women's lives was a tubal ligation. Nancy also sells a book, A Change of Heart, encouraging couples to have surgeries to reverse both vasectomies and tubal ligations.

Vickie Farris, whose husband Mike is president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, homeschooled their ten children and lived to write a book about it. She encourages other women to reject birth control methods and embrace motherhood. Quiverfull women like Farris, and Michelle Duggar of "Nineteen Kids and Counting", have built their lives on the mantra "God won't give anyone more than they can handle", sometimes phrased as "What God orders, he pays for".

My parents were opponents of both birth control and sterilization. They even encouraged some of their friends to have reversal surgeries, resulting in many more babies. My mom had eleven children over 24 years, including ten [unassisted home]births. Pregnancy was not easy for her--she often referred to herself with the phrase from St. Paul, "a living sacrifice". She spent most of my childhood breastfeeding, diapering, potty-training, and homeschooling on top of that. I understood that this was not culturally normal, but sought to convince myself that God was pleased with this self-sacrifice. I spent my teen years watching my mom's body swell and deflate, and changing thousands of diapers.

In my twenties, as I waited for my turn to become a wife and mother, I quietly ticked off how many children I could have in x years. I may have been ideologically persuaded that contraception was wrong, but I didn't want to spend twenty years lactating either. When I got impatient for God to bring me a husband (no boyfriends on the horizon), I consoled myself by guessing how many fewer children I would bear in a shorter window of fertile sexual activity.

Fortunately, when I did get married, my husband and I quickly began to realize that many aspects of Quiverfull thought and practice were contradictory to our values. Not before taking NFP classes from a Catholic certified trainer, though. When we got pregnant anyway, we were told the method worked fine--we'd just had sex when [it turned out!] we were actually fertile. Well, what do you know?

I think my relationship with the Quiverfull movement finally ended a few years ago as I was perched on the end of an exam table in my doctor's office. Looking up from my chart, she compassionately observed, "You've been raising kids for a long time," and I burst into unexpected tears.

These days, stories of ex-Quiverfull moms and their "quivering daughters" are multiplying on the Internet like rabbits in the spring. The fruit of the movement has not turned out to be sweet; we deal with health problems, poverty, anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, cutting, sexual abuse, emotional incest, and divorce. (You can read far more than you want to know at the Homeschoolers Anonymous blog.)

In spite of these firsthand horror stories, Quiverfull continues to enjoy wide support in America and is gaining traction in other nations. Earlier this year, the BBC reported on the movement's growth in the United Kingdom. You can listen to more, including scary-sounding clips from Nancy Campbell, here.

Meanwhile here in the States, Hobby Lobby and Catholic hospitals gnash their teeth over their employees' rights to use birth control. Texan teenagers are taught that contraceptives don't work. (The result? Texas has more than 10% of America's teen births.) And TLC continues to profit from shows like "Nineteen Kids and Counting", promoting Quiverfull ideology to some unsuspecting viewers. The show should include a disclaimer: For your own safety, don't try this at home.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Day in the Life of a Stay-at-Home Daughter

At 21 years old, I frequently battled feelings of futility. As hard as I tried to believe otherwise, my life felt meaningless, wasted, directionless and unmoored.

To cheer myself up one day in early spring, I recorded the following on a note card:

For Your Encouragement!
On Monday morning, you:
  • made breakfast
  • made your bed
  • baked whole wheat bread
  • planted seeds (and put away the stuff!)
  • let Hope & Faith* watch the seed-planting
  • washed the dishes, including the dough mixer
  • checked the younger kids' math and reading books
  • answered a Sentence Analysis (advanced English grammar) question
  • cleaned the kitchen sink
  • practiced a vocal solo
  • spent an hour at the piano
  • practiced Bach and Hanon Studies and a hymn solo and did Lesson 17 and prepared for Charity's* lesson
  • refilled the yeast jars
  • changed Faith's diaper
  • tutored Zedekiah* in English composition and appreciation of his paternity
  • removed a spot from a blouse
  • returned a book to the bookshelf
  • helped put lunch on the table

After lunch, you:
  • washed the dishes
  • let Faith rinse and remembered to run the dishwasher
  • found the lost sweatpants
  • went for a walk
  • changed Faith again
  • chased 5 chickens back in
  • reported to "work" [for my parents]
  • gathered the back yoke of a nightgown
  • sewed a sleeve casing 
  • mailed two invoices for Dad
  • typed two pages of engineering jargon [that I didn't understand]
  • printed 14 graphs
  • tried a new idea for a gored skirt
  • helped Mom in the kitchen (while she was in the living room)
  • washed a mountain of dishes
  • vacuumed the upstairs

For months and years afterward, that little note card gave me a sense of accomplishment. When I found it again a few weeks ago, it gave me more of a sense of exhaustion!

It also reminds me of why I identify so much with this song from Disney's "Tangled":

Instead of asking "when will my life begin?" I used Old Testament metaphors like, "until the pillar of cloud moves" or "until my Isaac finds me". Oh, I knew I was useful, in the sense that every mom is useful. My family needed me desperately. It just wasn't my family I was exhausting myself for every day; it was my parent's family.

And I was desperately lonely.

*Names have been changed.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Faith of our Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson

Many years ago, I stood behind a church pew and argued with a college student who was the son of a Reformed Presbyterian minister. My family had just attended the Sunday evening service at his father's Pennsylvania church. Decades earlier, the building had belonged to a Christian & Missionary Alliance congregation. It was where my parents had been baptized as adults, where they were invited to sing cantatas with the choir, and where I was dedicated to the Christian God by a Pastor Raymond Dibble. We were in town to revisit those memories, but I was more fascinated by this Presbyterian church's songbook: a psalter that contained nothing but metrical psalms put to hymn tunes or chants.

I was also surprised to meet a young man close to my own age who had no aversion to conversation with a female. We stumbled onto the subject of American history, a favorite of mine. My fascination with the guy probably made me over-assertive. His studies had convinced him that Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. At least not in the sense that his preacher-father would ever use that word. My home-education reading had led me to believe the opposite, and I was as stubborn as a bulldog. Not often did I have the opportunity to verbally wrestle with a handsome, intelligent young man! The intellectual contact made me as giddy as his wavy hair and Scottish last name did.

When my parents loaded us all back into the car to return to our hotel that night, my belief in our Christian founding fathers was still unswayed, though I did wonder how such such a cute Christian young man could defend such error so sincerely! I may even have been slightly jealous that he got to study such subjects in college.

My information had come largely from David Barton and ATI Wisdom Booklets. It was many more years before I realized the difference between real historians and David Barton. My definition of "Christian" has also undergone multiple revisions since that time. And now I understand what that pastor's kid was trying to explain to my much younger, naive but inquisitive and ever-searching self.

Thomas Jefferson
(Source: Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia at

Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. (Letter to Peter Carr, 1787)

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. (Letter to Benjamin Rush, 1803)

In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to them. . . . We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the Amphibologisms into which they have been led by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging, the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. (Letter to John Adams, 1813)

I must ever believe that religion substantially good which produces an honest life, and we have been authorized by One whom you and I equally respect, to judge of the tree by its fruit. (Letter to Miles King, 1814)

But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its luster from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable he did not live to fill up. Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others. The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems,* invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life.
* e. g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.
(Letter to William Short, 1819)

No one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in its advances towards rational Christianity. When we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus, when, in short, we shall have unlearned every thing which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples: and my opinion is that if nothing had ever been added to what flowed purely from his lips, the whole world would at this day have been Christian. I know that the case you cite, of Dr Drake, has been a common one. the religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers, to revolt them against the whole, and drive them rashly to pronounce its founder an impostor. (Letter to Timothy Pickering, 1821)

The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors. (Letter to John Adams, 1823)

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Strange Stories of the Bible: Holy Priests & Perfectionism

Rules for Priests

[Priests] must not marry women defiled by prostitution or divorced from their husbands, because priests are holy to their God. Regard them as holy, because they offer up the food of your God. Consider them holy, because I the Lord am holy—I who make you holy.
If a priest’s daughter defiles herself by becoming a prostitute, she disgraces her father; she must be burned in the fire.
The high priest, the one among his brothers who has had the anointing oil poured on his head and who has been ordained to wear the priestly garments, must not let his hair become unkempt or tear his clothes. He must not enter a place where there is a dead body. He must not make himself unclean, even for his father or mother, nor leave the sanctuary of his God or desecrate it, because he has been dedicated by the anointing oil of his God. I am the Lord.
The woman he marries must be a virgin. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people, so that he will not defile his offspring among his people. I am the Lord, who makes him holy.
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.’”
Leviticus 21:7-23

Growing up, we were taught that many of the rules for priests applied to us, too. We were now God's chosen people, after all, anointed for his service, a "royal priesthood", a holy tribe. "Be ye perfect," Jesus said, "as your father in heaven is perfect." And, oh, we tried!

No wonder we still struggle with perfectionism!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Strange Stories of the Bible: Elisha

The Double Portion and The Two Bears
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”
“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.
“You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.”
As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 
He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.
2 Kings 2:9-12,23-25

Elisha Arouses a Dead Boy
When Elisha reached the house, there was the boy lying dead on his couch. He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm. Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got on the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes.
Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, “Call the Shunammite.” And he did. When she came, he said, “Take your son.” She came in, fell at his feet and bowed to the ground. Then she took her son and went out.
2 Kings 4:32-37 

Elisha's Potent Bones
Elisha died and was buried.
Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.
2 Kings 13:20 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Raising Atheist Kids in the Bible Belt

My daughter announced one day last spring that she'd stopped saying the "under God" part of the Pledge of Allegiance at school. I smiled. 

I have those kids now.

My son could tell Bible stories in circles around his classmates, but some of the other third-graders badly wanted him to attend the school's Bible Club. "I don't believe in God anymore," he explained. 

"Don't believe in God?!" the little boys gasped. "Then you're going to the hot place!"

These children have already learned how to use religion as a weapon: "This table is only for people who believe in God." Third-graders

Months later, they wanted to know if B-- had changed his mind yet. "If you don't believe in God, you're going to h-a-l-l," they spelled circumspectly. 

"That spells Hall, and I'm already in it!" B-- responded, proving once again that superior spelling trumps dogma.

I grew up truly believing that Christians were persecuted in America. Not as much as behind the Iron or Bamboo Curtains, certainly, but persecuted nonetheless. I guess I really thought that when I joined the ranks of unbelievers, I'd be in the majority for the first time. Hearing my kids stories from public school, where a framed faded motto declares "In God We Trust", was a rude awakening.

We signed B-- up for his first soccer season this year. The Young Men's Christian Association has a facility right at the edge of our little neighborhood. We ignore the prayer request cards in the corridor when we are there for gymnastics, karate and swimming lessons, but religion seems otherwise absent. Until soccer games. Before they began playing, the coaches led the boys in "I pledge before God..." and I winced.

Other fifth-graders don't know what the word "atheist" means, so my daughter educates them. (She has classmates from various faiths--some more obvious than others.) The teachers at the middle school she will be attending assume she has a religious affiliation. M-- is required to log 15 hours of community service this school year. When we asked her teachers for suggestions that would fulfill the requirement, all of them were church-related: babysitting for church programs, helping with Vacation Bible School, etc. <sigh> Fortunately, I have non-religious friends who have helped us find some other options.

Chatting with my daughter last week, I remarked that it must be different for her, not having spent so many years steeped in faith and belief. She agreed. "I never really believed it all," she told me. "I never said my prayers every night, and I read the Bible because you made me." So I did. Just as my mother did with me.

Since they do live at the edge of the Bible Belt, I am sometimes glad my kids have experience with VBS, Sunday School, and AWANA. From a socialization perspective, they are "normal". But I'm glad they don't feel pressured to accept beliefs that aren't their own and that frustrate their intellect or their sense of right and wrong.

Children are not born with a belief in god(s)--but they do naturally trust, and desire to please, the adults they depend upon. When I was a little girl, I wanted to feel secure, to fit in. I wanted to believe the same things my parents did, to be on the same side with them. If God was going to take them straight to heaven, I didn't want to be left behind. If he was going to take care of them during a scary thunderstorm, I wanted to be safe, too. So I would pray in Jesus' name, recite verses about God's protection, and promise to obey him. But I was still afraid of the God whose hands controlled the sky and sea and whose eyes could always see me in the dark. He was said to be loving and good, but when the clouds rolled in, it seemed apparent that he had a fearsome temper, too--much more than my parents ever displayed.

My kids are anxious about the same things I was. But instead of teaching them that there really are creepy invisible spirits in their rooms at night, we explore the science behind shadows, sounds, lightning and weather. If the fear is irrational, we listen to them, reassure them, and help them take charge of their own minds. We teach them to practice the techniques that help us: thought-stopping and thought substitution, relaxation, meditation. Their minds are their own, and they can choose how they will use them.

And what better situation for the use of one's own mind than as an atheist in the Bible Belt?