Category Archives: Biography

Exit: The heart must sing | Music in the Evangelical church

This post is part of a meandering series about why I left Evangelicalism and the aftermath. You can find the first post here


You want to know a secret?

Although I eye-roll rather hard at pretty much all “Christian” media for its moralism and general cheesiness, sometimes when I’m in the car alone I’ll crank up the local praise & worship station and – if I actually recognize anything – sing along.

*gasp* I know right? lol


Music: Let the people sing

People who know me know that I’m really into music. I sing, I play the piano, I pretend to want to put in the work to learn to play the guitar, I listen to music from all genres all the time. But if you ask me what category of musician I am, I have to answer “church musician.” It’s been the heart and soul of my musical career.

Since I was a kid, one of my primary acts of service has been music for worship. As a little fundamentalist, I banged out (too loud) piano solos as offertories or “special music.” I started playing the piano for chapel singing in middle school and never really stopped. I learned to sing in school choirs and sang in church choirs from age 13 until my adult church stopped having choirs when I was in my 30s. (Casualty of the worship wars.)

For over 10 years I was a primary musician at my church, usually at the piano and – if it was the “contemporary worship service,” singing a strong alto line at the same time.  I can reconstruct nearly anything from a string of lyrics and a set of chords.

And this is perhaps the thing I miss most about leaving church.


Nobody sings like Christians

There’s something powerful about corporate worship, something no other sector of Western culture can even begin to approach.

Think about it: Aside from screaming lyrics at a live concert or singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the 7th inning stretch, when do Americans sing together?

I’ll wait.

The art of corporate singing is dead in our culture, aside from formal civic chorales. Our folk culture no longer prioritizes singing together a set of common songs that might unite us across our differences.  Well, aside from Happy Birthday or Auld Lang Syne.  Even then, people mumble and laugh nervously and get it over with (unless they’re New Years Eve drunk enough not to care).

I’m not saying music is irrelevant — clearly, the American music industry is huge and thriving. (Whether the current pop stuff is good is a totally different argument, but I’ll abstain.)

A lot of the “belt it out with a bunch of other people who know the same song” is gone from American life, and we’re the poorer for it. The people who come together to SING are, primarily, Christians.  And they do it weekly.

Granted, the hard Right within Christianity hates the modern worship music for replacing the complex beauty of hymn text with what they deem to be inferior, repetitive mush.  And the modern worship folks find a lot of hymn tunes to be pretty terrible and hard to sing using amplified instruments (which are almost a requirement in a large hall).  Honestly, I think both sides are right to an extent. And I enjoyed the way my PCA church blended old and new.

I’m afraid I’ll never experience anything like this again.


Did you know you can sing “Softly and Tenderly” to the tune of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”?    You can also sing “Angels We Have Heard On High” to “Yellow Submarine,” but it’s such an earworm that I’d never suggest it to anyone lest you hate me forever.


Leading worship: It’s a dance

What’s it like to lead worship rather than participating in it? I can speak only to my own experiences.

Significantly, there was a weight, a deep sense of responsibility about playing well because the music itself was an offering to God. Worship leaders are simultaneously proud of and protective of and touchy about their place in the pecking order of ministers.

Music ministers grab onto that passage in Chronicles where musicians are labeled as part of the priesthood. They cling to the passage in Psalms about singing a new song to the Lord; the Nehemiah passage about God rejoicing over us with singing; the Ephesians 5 verses the command believers to sing to one another.  Good musicians hate bad musicianship (for good reasons), so it’s natural to elevate the role of music in worship, and speak about it in weighty terms.

Looking back, I honor the earnestness of this and recognize the value of taking leadership seriously.  Yet I hesitate to laud the feelings of guilt and responsibility that seemed to drive many worship leaders into constantly doubting their own motives or quality of work. Christianity can be a very guilt-driven place. Who gets to be on stage? Who determines when the worship leaders are spiritual enough?

Those who bear the worst of this guilt are the souls who question their motives at every turn, blazing a hot light into every corner of their heart to find any hidden sin or dirt or ambition or pride. It’s hard to be a church musician in a milieu where acknowledging your talent is seen as sinful and thankless.  It’s even harder when you’ve been trained by the church to feel guilty if you ever do anything but “give God the glory.”

By raising worship to the level of preaching – and I’m not saying this is wrong; I think the exegesis may support it – we force worship leaders into the same toxic patterns that plague Evangelical pastors in general. We made so much of leaders. They had to be “special” (otherwise, why pay a pastor if anyone could do his job?). By definition this comes with a lot of pressure and expectations.

Should we be expecting worship leaders to earn a masters or D.Min. in worship ministry? Should musicians be church-grown instead? I’m honestly asking.  The church runs like a business more than anything else in America, and capitalist theories of management aren’t necessarily congruous with biblical norms.

worship music piano


How the music gets made

The responsibility of worship leading aside, (speaking now of myself) I was always running a series of parallel processes in my brain when I joined the worship band each week for rehearsal and then service. As an ensemble musician, you’re constantly listening for how your sound fits or clashes with the group. (Or you should be.) This ‘meta’ is what differentiates an outstanding worship band from a mediocre one. And at NCC, when we were all “on,” we were REALLY good.  I’m proud of that.

I’m afraid I’ll never find anything like this camaraderie again.

At any given moment on stage, I’d say 50% of my brain was occupied with the physical and mental work of producing the right notes at the right time in the right places. The other 50% was spit between paying attention to the group sound and paying attention to everything else about the experience: the congregation’s response (or lack of it), my own emotions, the joy or passion or beauty of the music itself.

Occasionally, everything just clicked and I floated out of my own body on the waves of sound, on the waves of emotion and joy and Jesus and feels and ….

Was this the Holy Spirit? Was this spiritual ecstasy? Does Lady Gaga feel the same way in the middle of a concert when suddenly every note is right in a way it wasn’t 10 minutes ago?  If I feel a shade of the same tingle when Coldplay’s “Something Like This” comes on the radio, does that mean God inhabits the joy of all music, or that the elusive moment of ecstasy I experienced on stage from time to time is merely an outcome of playing music live?

I don’t know. I just know that I really miss it. With my whole heart.


The CCM elephant

Look, I fully acknowledge that Christian music has a serious problem. Well, several.  For one, many of the CCM tunes are just shit. They really are.  Four chords, that’s it. Teach someone D A G Bm on a guitar and they can immediately play pretty much anything on the radio right now.   Simplest cadences in the world.  Too much of that in one service, and I’d have to bang my head on the piano lid till the pain gave me something to keep me interested.

Despite all that simplicity, many of the worship song melodies are nearly unsingable by the average person. The verse (so-called) wanders around using a few notes in a dull chant-like way, or leaps like a frightened rabbit around the scale. The songs always follow the same damn form: Intro / Verse 1 /  Chorus / Verse 2 / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus / Outro.  You hear it on the radio every day, in any pop music genre. I get it, the format works. But let’s be honest: at best, people might learn to sing the chorus. The verse is always a mumble-fest.

My guilty pleasure might be scanning our 3 CCM stations for tunes when I’m driving alone, but that doesn’t mean I find things I want to sing along with very often. When I had a 30 minute commute, I used to put in an earbud and play some of my favorites off my iPhone so I could sing along.

Christianity is keeping corporate singing alive, and at times they’re doing it with heart and soul and skill.  Depending on your personal music tastes, you can find something to sing with.  But there’s also a sea of mediocrity out there — of knock-off pop boy bands, of wanna-be Demi Levatos crooning while wearing more modest blouses to avoid alienating their audience, of 30-somethings trying desperately to be hip, of indie musicians squeezing so much earnest belief into their songs that it makes my teeth hurt.

Sing a new song

To prove that I’m not just an ass, here’s a short list of recent worship songs I think nearly anyone can get behind. They’re good arrangements that sing well, tunes that anyone can learn to sing.

Look, the music  you listen to in the car or at your picnic probably isn’t the same music that’s going to work for a worship service. At NCC we built these songs out with a full band and gave them a lot of energy without being obnoxious. But they’re also good with a single piano or guitar. The tunes themselves are very singable and I can lift my voice and sing happily anytime I hear them.

If you’re hip and cool with the CCM charts, you’ll laugh at how old these are. But I believe most songs ned a few years under their belts before we’ll know for sure they can stick.

I hate that one’s hymnody is an outgrowth of one’s tribe. If you’re from a different tribe than me, chances are we’ll have only a very few songs in common: Amazing Grace, the doxology.  Maybe Heaven has huge singalongs and everyone somehow loves all the songs chosen. Or maybe in heaven, with sinless hearts, we will enjoy music as the simple offering that it is, instead of some deep theological / political statement about Big Important Things. We’ll simply love it for the beauty that it provides, a channel for worship.


If we can pray to God, we can sing to God

I don’t know how many Protestants realize that we owe much to John Calvin for making sure that hymnody stayed in the hands of the congregation. As debates raged about what God does or doesn’t permit in worship, church leaders in the nascent Protestant movement were taking a pretty hard line (at least in Calvin’s circles; Luther was waaaay more chill about some of these things) about not allowing anything into worship that God Himself hadn’t expressly commanded.

Calvin famously derived that the Scripture celebrates believers praying to God in their own words. To him, singing to God fell into the same category. Thus, if prayers were ok, congregational singing had to be ok too.  *whew*  I can’t even imagine how much I would’ve hated church if there had been no corporate singing.  I’m going to give Calvin a huge hug in heaven if I see him. I’m not sure how that works. Can I get a punch list or something?

Calvin even hired a guy to write some fantastic, fun, syncopated tunes for his psalter (hymn texts drawn from the psalms). He wasn’t so much into letting people sing just anything, mind you, but he wanted the psalms sung with joy and beauty.  If you think hymn tunes are boring, don’t blame Calvin or Luther (who happily took pop tunes for his poetry, having none of Calvin’s qualms about any of this).  Blame the English Protestants, who had to make sure no one was having any fun ever. Who ironed out all the great syncopation in the Geneva tunes? The English. *sigh*   Would you believe the “doxology” (tune: Old Hundreth) was originally gloriously bouncy and happy?  Yup.  All the way back to the 16th century…. until the English church got hold of it, stripped it down, and then shipped it to America with the Puritans or Pilgrims.

I’m simplifying here, so don’t come at me if you’re a hymnologist. But my Church Hymnody course in undergrad was one of the best in my program, and I’ve thanked Calvin ever since for helping me get through every church service ever.

church music women
Photo by FOTOGRAFIA .GES on Unsplash

Confession:  I just can’t do a church with poor music. I don’t mean “small church, zero talent, so Martha plays on Sundays and we’re thankful for her.”  You go, Martha. I don’t want to attend your church, honestly, but I appreciate your service.

No, I’m talking big churches with the means to do music well, but it’s boring. Or badly skilled. But mostly just….dull.  Trying too hard to be either hip or traditional.  *sighs*  That goes for the megachurch concert approach too. Dude. If I wanted someone to blast my ears with big power chords and soaring tunes, I’d follow U2 around for their world tours and throw in a few shows from every other famous band ever.

Maybe that’s unfair. I don’t know.

It’s my curse. I know it’s possible to do joyful, energetic, interesting worship services that invites everyone to sing, and I’ve got zero interest in doing church without it.

But honestly, one of the things that’s kept me from heading out on a scouting expedition to find a new church is that I can’t bring myself to mumble through a pile of songs I’ve never heard accompanied by a wailing guitar, an earnest 25-year-old on an acoustic, or a somber organ.

The music thing hits really close to home for me, and I’m going to be a recovering church musician for a long, long time.


Confessions of a recovering church musician

  • I stayed at my Evangelical church way longer than I “fit” there because I truly enjoyed the fellowship of my fellow musicians. We played well together. They were my band peeps, and I loved them for it. Genuinely.  I miss them right now, and writing this post makes me sad.  Giving my music to the church week after week helped keep me connected to the community of faith.
  • I’m also sad because, when the end came, it came because I wasn’t welcome back to their stage.  I don’t blame them, since I think by that point everyone could tell I wasn’t in that camp anymore. But it’s a painfully Evangelical thing to rob someone of a gift they love to give because the Evangelical no longer agrees with the gift-giver.
  • When I can’t handle the suffocating blanket of organized religion, I can sing to God. I can give Him my songs.  I can play for Him. I can play TO Him.
  • America really ought to get back into the corporate music thing. I guess we’re going to need something newer than Stephen Foster songs. Are the Beatles enough?
  • I haven’t touched a piano since July 2016, the last time I played for corporate worship at NCC. Not even to play for weddings. Like everything else in Evangelicalism, that too is tribal. When you’re out, you’re really and fully out.
  • I sense how this is deeply and personally tragic, like someone knocked me out and amputated a limb without asking first. But now that it’s gone, I cannot drum up any interest in going back to the grind of rehearsals and early Sunday mornings. I have zero desire to hire on as an underpaid musician at a church of any flavor.  And believe me, they are ALL underpaid.
  • If you’re in a church somewhere, and you’re reading this, and your church musician(s) are good at what they do, please make sure they get compensated somehow. Please. Give them a Christmas bonus. Argue for them to get a monthly stipend or a quarterly perk. Church musicians are hardworking people, and music is expensive.

This post is part of a meandering series about why I left Evangelicalism and the aftermath. You can find the first post here

The Backstory: Gravedigger

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.


It was 1986 and late June, not long after my parents’ wedding anniversary – not that I ever saw my parents celebrate their anniversary, ever.  My last surviving grandparent, my maternal grandfather, had died after years of declining health, endless hand-rolled cigarettes, severe alcoholism, and abusive behavior toward many in his life. (My #metoo story of sexual abuse stems from the few months my grandfather lived with us. I was 3; he was always drunk; his had went down my underwear when I was sitting on his lap one afternoon. I told my parents what he did;  he moved out within a few days.)

Now Grandpap was dead, and we were left wondering what to do about it.  It was a little more complex than I’d expected, this being the first family death I’d been party too. There were late-night calls and quiet discussions centering on whether my grandfather’s children were willing to take part in his death rites. All of this was news to me, and much of it I learned eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations after I’d “gone to bed.”  What I overheard broke a lot of my childish illusions about my extended family. Ugliness lurked under the surface, very real despite the way no one talked about it in my presence.

My youngest aunt, who’d born the brunt of my grandfather’s abuse, wasn’t interested in anything related to the funeral. (I wish I could go back in time and send her a therapist. She desperately needed one.)  My other aunt and her husband didn’t really want to be involved, though they probably had more money than anyone else in this story. Like many family deaths, the money issue was a sharp divider. Our family was struggling, barely surviving my father’s disability and ensuing unemployment. The price tag of a death was beyond what we could bear at that point.

My uncle and my mom conferenced to see if there was any money to address the obvious needs: bury him, pay for the coffin, settle his bar tab at the ancient watering hole in Scottdale where he’d drink with his buddies.

I had to ask someone to explain the term  “pauper’s grave” after hearing it thrown about by a relative. Turns out that was still a thing in Scottdale in the ’80s. But I guess  family pride kicked in, and Mum and my uncle weren’t going to let it come to that.   No money to buy fancy clothes, and Pap didn’t own any, anyway.  Dad went through his closet and found a nice navy suit that he couldn’t any longer fit into, given the massive breadth of his shoulders and chest after spending the past 4 years cutting firewood.  The local VFW (I think) helped supply the flat brass plate that served as his grave-marker.

Granpap had a $5,000 insurance policy, probably from his Navy days. It was enough to buy a basic coffin, pay for the embalming, and set up a graveside funeral. But it wasn’t enough to afford an extra couple thousand for the concrete vault required by the large “nice” cemetery where my grandmother was buried. That’s not  even to consider the shade thrown by mom’s other siblings at the idea that he would be buried next to her.

Family gets weird when someone dies. Grudges that didn’t provoke action from the living are waged around the dead.

Another conference around the kitchen table.  Several calls to local cemeteries: can we bury someone in your ground without a vault? And what do you charge to dig the grave?

In the end, it was Mount Tabor Cemetery tucked up in the mountains where I lived, across the ridge and near Indian Creek, that offered terms we could collectively afford.  And so it was on that wet, warm morning in late June that my dad, my half-brothers, my uncle, and his son stood on our porch with their collection of tools to tackle an age-old tradition: digging a grave.

It took them several hours. They were in for hard work, and they knew it.  Under the lush black dirt of the mountains would be sticky yellow clay, the kind that could bounce a pick right up into your face if you weren’t careful.  And worse, it had started to rain. Not a gully-washer, but a humid drizzle that threatened to produce bigger showers.

The men returned mid-afternoon hungry, tired, and dirty – but satisfied they’d dug a good grave, and seemingly appreciative that they were contributing to a good burial for a man they didn’t fully admire, but whom they were willing to claim because of blood.  But they were also concerned – although they’d covered the hole, the impending thunderstorms threatened to fill the grave with water, a puddle that the clay soil would preserve, delaying the planned funeral.

In the morning, a couple of them headed over to see how things stood. My dad returned with heartfelt news that the hole was completely dry. It shouldn’t have been; the men all knew it’d rained enough overnight that they should have been dealing with a mess. But that’s not what they found, so dad offered his thanks for the Providential surprise, and went to put on the only dress clothes he owned which still fit him. My brothers changed into their finery recycled from the 70s (my own wedding photos a decade later would confirm that one of my brothers bought his only suit around 1975 and saw no need to put money into an updated one). The family and a few associated friends assembled for the service.

It dripped rain on us as we stood on an unusually cold June day on the steep slope of the Pennsylvania Appalachians in a cemetery which now seemed quaint. A minister who’d known my mom’s family found something kind to say over my grandfather’s bones. Pap had been a machinist at various points in his career interrupted by bouts of drunk-induced unemployment. But a few of the old men in the town remembered his skill with a tool, and with rolling a good cigarette, and serving in the Navy during World War II. The minister salvaged what he could of my grandfather’s life and drew our attention to the shortness of human existence.  As my adult self, I can appreciate now that the minister wasn’t one of those guys who had to turn every moment into an altar call or threaten us with hell if we didn’t confess Jesus. It was a simple service, simply delivered, matching the simple way my grandfather’s hand-dug grave would accept his body.

And there he lies to this day.  He was the only one of my grandparents that I remember.

His wife, my maternal grandmother, survived breast cancer long enough to hold me, then died a few months after I was born. I am named for her and for my mom’s youngest sibling, the one who suffered the most in the unhappy household my mom grew up in.

My dad’s parents were gone by the time I came along.  His father, an evil man, died screaming in his bed and was laid out in their family parlor in 1964 for viewing –  that’s a story my dad told with great consistency. His mom lived to see my dad get married to my mom, but passed shortly after.  We had a photo of her in the family collection, sitting in their living room staring into the camera in that frank way old people look at the world, next to photos of my mom’s family.

Grandpap retained his place in the family photo collection. Whatever he’d done to his family or to her, it wasn’t enough for my mom to cut him out of her life.

The Backstory: Reborn for the 4th of July

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

When I was a teenager, I watched Born on the Fourth of July when it finally showed on TV. I doubt my parents would have let me watch it if I’d asked them for permission, but they weren’t around at the time and I thought it was a war film, so I watched it. The story disturbed me deeply for a long time.

I gaped at the screen as the soldiers shot up a Vietnamese village in the haze of war (and bad decisions). I watched as Ron Kovic, the central character, fell apart after the war was over, screaming in rage at his disability and his broken life. We didn’t talk about PTSD in my household. My dad considered the Vietnam vets ‘soft’ – too fragile to handle war like his Korean buddies or World War II relatives had done.  I didn’t know how to process Kovic’s protest at the RNC – in my life, Republicans were good guys (though my parents’ relationship with the political parties was a lot more complicated than I realized). It was a provocative film that hit me when I wasn’t at all used to being provoked.

I was raised in a sheltered environment by parents with strongly conservative viewpoints on most issues. B4J challenges the American mythos surrounding war, military service, and veterans even as it plays into the stereotype of Vietnam vets as baby killers and mentally ill.

At the time I had no background or preparation for handling the ideas that I had encountered, whether it was the sex, the language, or the attack on the simplistic view of America as entirely good and right (always on the winning side, always the righteous side). And I didn’t feel like I could really talk to my parents about it, since some of what bothered me so deeply was the content that they would have banned me from seeing in the first place.

So it lodged deeply in my mind and I tried not to think about it, though the ideas would surface occasionally and create an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. It would be decades before I learned enough history to come to grips with how Vietnam altered  American consciousness of the late 20th century; how film is its own rhetorical form, demanding assessment and critique and a recognition of the storyteller’s own bias; and how Americans tell ourselves myths about our own heroism to bury our national guilt that we should be feeling about our own nation’s imperialism and oppression.

Kovic reminded me of one of my brothers’ friends, a man whose name I’ve since forgotten, who showed up at our house one day in a black T-shirt, aviator sunglasses, and a cowboy hat.  Visitors were rare, so this hard-drinking, hard-smoking man stood out. He was older than my brother by at least a decade or two, and nothing was ever quite right for him after his Vietnam service. My dad closed the door after they left and felt sorry for the guy, hoped he’d find his way eventually. The vet was dead (as I recall) a few months later, the victim of a collision with a semi that sheared off the top of his convertible.

My relationship with America grows complicated as I grow older. A nation is more than the sum of its citizens.  I now begin to understand those few places in the Gospels where Jesus talks about evaluating nations (dividing sheep from goats) as if that is a separate process from judging individuals.

I choke up at a booming fireworks display overtop “God Bless the USA” even as I tremble in anger at our callous destruction of Native peoples because our leaders believed God and political power were on the side of our “manifest destiny.” We like to paint ourselves as the hero in every picture, perhaps because America is barely a teenager in nation-years, and we’re too stubborn or arrogant to listen to the older nations around us.  My Italian grandfather fled one of those old nations to start anew in America a century ago, where he drank heavily and beat his wife and abused my dad who grew up in abject immigrant poverty. Yet here I am, a college graduate, thanks to the sacrifice of my parents.

With the upstart hubris of a Silicon Valley start-up whiz kid, America  blazed forward in the 20th century – and we’re unwilling to admit in the daylight that we might have gotten a head start over the rest of the developed world by not hosting two bloody and destructive world wars on our own soil, as if our own wisdom and not geographical realities had the most to do with it.

I’m proud of my nation and appalled, and those two feelings churn in my stomach – ever more so in 2017, this ridiculous, stupid year. Perhaps I’ll rewatch Born on the Fourth of July this holiday weekend to see if its effect stemmed from my adolescent naiveté or the power of its story. This time around, I know too much about the world to be shocked. I’ll just be sad.

The Backstory: Dollar a Day

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.  Today happens to be my parents wedding anniversary date – it would have been their 42nd.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My mom was one of those indomitable women, the working ones who juggled career and child-rearing and house cleaning and everything else without losing her sanity. Most of the time.

For as much as working parents fret about ruining their kids, I think  I turned out ok. My earliest memories were of two parents juggling their schedules and me alongside my teenage half-brothers.  Dad worked swing shifts that involved occasional night work, but his preferred was second. Once I started school, he swung his schedule back to daytime so he could pick me up after school.

loan-sharkMom had a more “regular” job as a loan clerk at a finance company. Yeah, the loan shark company that gave people money at like 30% interest. It was a job, and she was good at it, and I doubt she’d had a lot of options when, as a divorced single mother in the 1960s, she first hit the pavement looking for employment.

So by the time I came along, she’d worked at The Associates for at least a decade. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s how my dad met her…. making payments on a small car loan.

Mom’s job was pretty decent when I was a wee lass. She worked in my hometown of Connellsville; at least, that was the closest actual “town” to where we lived, since I hardly consider the mountain hamlet of “Normalville” a town. Normalville had a post office and an ice cream place and maybe a gas station.  Connellsville was a bustling metropolis by comparison.

Murphy's And The Associates had a branch office near the center of town next to a Health+Mart and across the street from a number of fascinating shops including a Murphy’s and McCrory’s and Woolworth. Sometimes after kindergarten or on summer days when I had nowhere else to be, I ended up playing on the chairs in the guest waiting area, or killing time in one of the conference rooms.  Mom’s bosses and coworkers were always nice to me. I remember one of them trying to help me learn to tie my shoes. I think I was a helpless case at the time, but velcro was about to bust onto the scene, along with jelly sandals, saving me from some serious frustration.

And at lunch or in the afternoon, sometimes she and I would walk into Health+Mart to buy a giant Crunch! bar or across the street for an ice cream, and talk to the friendly old men who sat on the benches and liked to touch my hair. Mom knew they were just being friendly, not creepy, but it always pissed my dad off if he found out.

Because Mum had worked in her industry for so long, she knew the ins and outs of loan paperwork and interest and processes apart from adding machines or computer programs. That always amazed the 20-somethings who worked alongside her. “How do you KNOW that?” they’d wonder, looking at my mother like she was some priestess of an ancient tribe, hoarding the secrets of a sacred order of finance to which they had never been invited. She knew how it all worked. And whenever the computers went down (sometimes for a day or more), her loan paperwork was still moving right along, powered by her knowledge and a hand calculator.

ibm-punchcardGrowing up, I watched her office morph from punch-card IBM computers (no kidding!) to one of those classic 80s era IBM systems with the black monitors/green type. (Or maybe it was orange?)  The keys on the computer keyboard were extra clacky back in those days…. a stiff tactile memory. And IBM typewriters and Selectrics, where loan papers had to be typed in triplicate with carbon paper in between the sheets.

I know because by the time I was in double-digits, Mum had me helping her with paperwork. Her job got busier and busier, and there was always more filing and typing than she could keep up with. And some of the work was truly mundane, perfect for a bored 12-year-old on a weekend or lazy summer day.

I wish I could say my mom loved her job, but she didn’t.

This logo was burned into my memory as a kid. It's not a bad design, actually...
This logo was burned into my memory as a kid. It’s not a bad design, actually…

Around the time my dad lost his sight and thus his job in the steel mills, Mum’s office closed and they folded in her branch into one further away, about 30 minutes down the road in Uniontown. Her commute instantly make it far more difficult to drop me off or pick me up from school, and I found myself riding busses with the public school kids…. but that’s a story for another day.

Her office situation in Uniontown wasn’t as friendly or welcoming. The coworkers were decent, many of them, but offices always incite drama. One lady was sleeping with the boss, so she got extra favors. The men, who held the assistant manager positions, got paid way more than the women who shuffled the papers. The boss was basically a drunk, and though he was always nice to me, he could be nasty to his employees.

[An important side story: I got married after my mom had died. Several of her coworkers were incredibly kind to me during the months leading up to my wedding. One of those ladies baked our wedding cakes, and the entire office gave us a wedding gift.]

Things went from bad to worse and Mum faced a difficult choice. Locked into her job as primary breadwinner for her family, she could either trudge along doing loans, or she could move in the assistant manager position over Collections.  It was a rough gig, calling people who had defaulted on their loans and threatening them with whatever worked to get them to pay up. Or sending out the “repo man” to repossess whatever collateral backed the usury that folks were paying to this loan company to finance their summer vacation or last year’s Christmas. And unlike all the men who’d held this job before her, my mother wasn’t given an office assistant to shuffle her paperwork. She was now responsible for all of her former cases as well as all the new work of being a supervisor.

The pile grew large. I showed up on many more weekends during my teenage years, even one entire week during the summer, to type and file and process records. I learned how to read a credit report, how to properly file last names beginning with Mc-, how many horrible cuts and hang-nails you get when filing papers, how to send faxes and read the faint lettering on the shiny papers, how to do data entry.  It was actually a pretty good gig for me as a teen job for a little money here and there, though often my earnings disappeared when the money ran short at the end of the month, and Mum had to “borrow” it from me to buy gas. I resented that, and didn’t really see her point when she reminded me that I was getting a whole lot out of my parents already …. I don’t think any teenager is quite ready to understand that lesson.

Mom’s work hours got longer and longer and she felt more and more stressed, trapped by a job that didn’t end and the financial burdens of owning a house my parents had built when they had two incomes. We were the classic example of “house poor,” and since my parents had spent half of their lives waiting to finally build a house, they weren’t about to give it up. So we — and she — soldiered on.

Dad and I were pretty sure that the stress of her job contributed to the onset of breast cancer when I was 12 and she was 50, but who can say? She had a family history of the disease but none of us could deny that The Associates didn’t offer a safe, nourishing environment for her soul.

After the diagnosis, biopsy, mastectomy, and recovery, Mom want back to work. What else could she do? We needed money, and her salary was decent given the opportunities available in Fayette County.

My mom’s story is one of surviving. Trudging. Working. Earning. Coming home exhausted and worn down. The story of working mothers everywhere in America, where “work-life balance” really is a laughable term….. Turning down promotions for better positions away from the bullshit in her office because she would have been forced to move away from our family home (and my school). Running a side business in the springtime preparing people’s taxes because she could earn a little extra money to pay off just a little more of my Christian school tuition. Juggling the books and robbing Peter to pay Paul so everything more or less got paid and we all more or less had food to eat. 

She didn’t complain. She set her jaw, and she worked.

Because that’s what working mothers do. They sacrifice everything they could have been and all of their own dreams for the sake of their children’s futures. They drop us off at college, give us a hug and a kiss and a pep talk, and hold themselves together so the weeping doesn’t start until they’re in the car for the lonely ride home.

She didn’t get the chance to see me grow up enough to understand just what my opportunities cost her. That, to me, is one of the world’s great injustices.

 

 

 

The Backstory: Light Fading, Darkness Closing

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

We just celebrated Father’s Day, and I loved seeing all the photos of everybody’s dad popping up in my Facebook feed.  It reminded me that I promised y’all way back that I’d finish telling my dad’s story…. but I haven’t.  Most of it has been told, at least as a story arc, up through my early years. What remains is a sketch of what were to me the most vivid memories of my life intertwined with his.
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To recap:  My dad was the son of an Italian immigrant and he grew up in a poor immigrant section of Connellsville, Pennsylvania – a town that existed to feed the industrial behemoth of Pittsburgh via coal, coke, and glass. My dad survived his childhood, impoverished and terrible as it was, and did a stint in the Army before settling in for a 30-year career in the world’s longest steel mill. (Really!)

He met my mom when she was the single mother of two teen boys and fell in love. Along the way, he became a Christian and they got married, touching off a firestorm in their small church. But my dad was stubborn, so he stuck it out in the pew Sunday after Sunday, growing angry that he’d been pigeonholed as an unrepentant “adulterer” (because anyone who marries a divorcee is breaking the Bible’s commandments, right?) and sidelined from doing anything more at church than warming a seat. Meanwhile, they’d built a house and manufactured a daughter, and so the set pieces for my young life were all in place by 1980.

I imagine if my dad were to list the critical moments of his life, a fateful Sunday morning on a lovely October day in 1981 would rise to the top of the list.

He got up and dressed for church, as he always did. There was a funny foggy spot in his vision in his right eye, but he assumed it would go away eventually; if not, the eye doctor would be open on Monday and he could get it checked out.  The church lights really bothered him that day.

Monday morning found my father, who was almost never sick and certainly never in the doctor’s office, sitting in the chair of the town’s optometrist. Our town was small and our doctors not exactly cutting-edge. Anything “fancy” happened down in Pittsburgh, more than an hour away. My dad always wondered if perhaps a better doctor would have saved his sight, but “what if’s” do nothing but stir up dissatisfaction.

A few routine tests indicated that something – a rogue blot of calcium perhaps? – had hemorrhaged my dad’s eyeball, not the big inside part but the small area between the lens and the cornea. The fluid was 90% gone, meaning the growing grey spot which had eaten my dad’s vision in his right eye was permanent.  The eye itched and burned and ached and he was able to see only at the very top of the field of vision.

At first, I think my dad had a little bit of hope that perhaps they could find a solution, and a great deal of gratitude that the chunk of calcium or whatever that had floated around in his head chose to lodge itself in a blood vessel in his eye rather than in his brain to cause a stroke. But it was a cold comfort for a man who’d spent 50 years working with his body.

I was too young to process much of what was going on, other than the fact that my dad was home a lot more and not going to work as much.  I imagine those were deeply disappointing weeks for him.  He talked to his bosses and US Steel offered him sick leave and eventually a new job: dipping disks (of some kind) in acid (for some reason I don’t remember). Dad was quite offended that this was his option. I’m not sure if the job was demeaning (to him) because it was a huge demotion from his previous work driving big dump trucks and bulldozers, or if he felt it was unsafe for a half-blind man. Either way, he was rather indignant and walked away from the offer.

Fortunately for our family finances, dad had just completed his 30th year at USSteel-ClairtonWorks, meaning he was eligible for a small company pension and continued health insurance coverage. It was a massive pay cut, offering about 40% of his former salary. But it was something.

I remember a few of dad’s mill buddies stopping by to see him during the year that followed. His personal misfortune was soon gulfed by the widespread collapse of the steel industry in Pittsburgh in 1983-84. Ironically, many of his friends who stayed at the mills to try to squeeze out any final months of work were rewarded with less than what my dad got from his pension.  If he’d stayed at Clairton, as he’d intended, he probably would have been in the same position…. along wit the 25% of people in Fayette County who were unemployed by 1983. (!)

*****

Life for my dad form then on was a lot more bitter. He still played Johnny Cash tunes for me at nap time, fiddled around the house with building stuff like our back deck, and cut wood to burn for heat in the winter.

Dad was a very skilled man, really, considering his aborted acquisition of a college education. He could figure out how to build nearly anything — but now he couldn’t see well enough to hit the nails squarely.  The constant watering and pain in his eye made going out in bright light nearly impossible, made reading very difficult, made driving dangerous (though he still drove), made everything harder.

So at 50, my father wrestled with God over what to him were the worst possible questions: What had he done to deserve this? What sin had he committed that brought upon him blindness, uselessness, encroaching poverty, inadequacy? As he said it (many times), “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t run around, I don’t gamble. Why, God? Why me? Why us?”

I don’t think the answers ever came.

We continued on as a family, cutting expenses and tightening our budget, eliminating household utilities that others probably considered necessities.  My dad cooked (he was an amazing cook) and did laundry and met me at the bus stop after school.  He still mended his own socks (as he’d been taught in the Army) and picked away at songs on his guitar or harmonica and wielded his chain saw with mastery. We listened to Pirates baseball games together on the radio or TV on hot summer nights as tree frogs and crickets created such a chorus from the trees around us that we had to put the volume on high. I was daddy’s girl, just as I’d always been.

But my dad wasn’t the same anymore. That gregarious, talkative, personable man shrunk down into his shell of pain and irritation and bitterness and darkness and watched as many of the bright spots of his life faded before his eyes.

By the time I was a teenager, the marital strain was painfully obvious. It was joint blame for sure, for my mom’s loyalty to her older children above her current husband led to bad fights and a lot of screaming and a hateful anger which took up residence in our house and didn’t leave. Their intimacy crumbled, their working lives crumbled, and their drive to be something useful to the world fell apart as well.

By the time I went to college, I’d learned to appreciate the love and energy my parents had poured into me – on that score, they were still united. But my dad’s bitterness and soul-darkness did not break until my mom died.

That’s probably a story best left for another day. 

Music Monday: Soundtrack to my life

Like most people, I can write a biography from the songs that have accompanied my journey on this green orb.

Sweet tones of a guitar form some of my earliest memories. I grew up on my dad’s acoustic versions of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr, plus his collection of records and 8-tracks for performers like the Nashville Brass and Jim Reeves. Dad played both the guitar and harmonica, self-taught. He owned a beautiful powder blue Fender electric guitar and amp which he sold for money shortly after losing his job.  At the time, I didn’t realize just how sad that was. Anyway, his trusty acoustic served for the Cash and Hank Williams covers, providing companionship for his low tenor.

Country music and church music were the staples of my upbringing, with classical piano music squarely at the center of my piano lessons …. plus whatever music entered my head from listening to WCVI radio in the mornings as the household got up and got moving.  WCVI is the epitome of the local small-town radio station. The DJs had thick local accents; the news was shocking only to the extent that you probably knew the people being mentioned in the crime reports; the music generally hit the Top 40 mix, like this gem from my middle school memory:

My parents weren’t Fundamentalists. They were just truly “old-school.” My dad loved 40s and 50s pop music, so he listened to the one station in the area that defined “oldies” older than any station I’ve ever encountered.  As a man in his 30s when the Sexual Revolution of the 60s upended everything familiar, rock music just wasn’t where his heart felt at rest. For him, it was taste.  Michael Jackson’s brilliant moonwalk provided a curiosity rather than an offense, but he still wasn’t impressed.

My half-brother nearly sent my dad into apoplectic fits with his KISS records in 1979. Since Dad married into fatherhood of two teenage boys in the mid-70s, and since that whole transition was a wee bit rocky, I think Ed took the chance to rattle Dad’s cage. Thumping bass and squealing guitar riffs shook his end of the house (which was literally across a 2 foot hallway from my dad’s bedroom door). Inevitably there would be a lot of arguing and a lot of shouting and some door slamming.  Thus I was introduced to hard rock. (Metal, maybe? KISS seems so tame now!)

Confession: At 4, I thought Ed’s music was pretty cool.  Plus he had these awesome blue and orange lights hanging in his room. It was dark and interesting and loud. LOUD. Very loud.  “Stan’s music” I was told. The pentagram and makeup confirmed it. I guess my dad was influenced by the Christian vibe around him after all. And I  grew up in a world with nothing but piano and organ hymns on Sundays and country music on the weekdays, punctuated by angry sermons about the evils of rock and roll.

College is often a time for expanding one’s musical tastes. Since I went to Bob Jones, where rock music was Satan and anything more exciting than Yanni was banned (actually, Yanni was banned too for being “New Age”) my musical tastes didn’t expand by much there either. My roommates introduced me to soundtracks for films I’d never seen (Man from Snowy River) and films that I loved (Patrick Doyle’s soundtracks for Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing), and others that didn’t stand up to repeated listening (Gettysburg).

I encountered most pop tunes and mainstream rock as a matter of daily life until my move to BJU. Though I went home in the summers during my undergrad years, grunge wasn’t on my radar (except that all the Korean kids at college were wearing flannel that looked like they’d slept in it, so BJU made a rule banning “Grunge” clothing). By the mid-90s I had fallen into a deep cultural black hole.  For me, watching I Love the 90s is an educational endeavor.

i_love_the_90s_281x211

We crawled out of Greenville and into a new life around 2002, and as my conscience unwound itself from the strictures of Fundamentalism, we began to explore the radio dial.  My students were listening to pretty much everything, so I mounted an expedition into Top 40 to figure out what was going on. I don’t think Matchbox 20 or Dido counted as “edgy,” but one must start somewhere.

Not usual in the life of a teacher, my students became my guides through music both on the dial and off. I met plenty of hip hop and country and mainstream pop, but the fireworks really went off when someone played me an album by From Autumn to Ashes, a hardcore emo band. The “emo” part of the music wasn’t particularly appealing, but I loved the sound: driving drums topped with guitar riffs and a tenor vocalist, punctuated by screaming. It took a long while to acclimate, but that’s where I found my taste for metal/hardcore.

Later, thanks to friends with excellent musical tastes, I also discovered Radiohead, (old) Muse, the Chili Peppers and eventually excellent but lesser-known acts like The Bad Plus and Snarky Puppies.

And that explains why a 2013 list from last.fm of my “top artists played” looked like this:

This was last updated in 2013, I think

Don’t laugh, but I didn’t listen to truly great bands like Zeppelin until well into the 21st century. *looks ashamed* Maybe my cultural malnutrition serves as the drive to experience and enjoy the best of what’s out there.

It’s definite that if you  start talking while “Stairway to Heaven” is playing, I’ll shoot you a dirty look and probably consider disowning you as a friend if you can’t shut up.

And this doesn’t take into account what we’re all able to discover now on Spotify or iTunes radio or the stuff I track down on YouTube. Like right now. (Currently listening to the Hyperlight Drifter soundtrack. It’s great.)

And really, that brings up the question, In this world where music is all around us, seeping into our lives on every front and every moment thanks to radio in the car, earbuds at work, iPhones in our pockets, what challenges us forward in our musical tastes? 

Are we stuck in the trenches of our favorite genres? Locked into whatever the music services decide to shove into our ears?

I still have so much to learn (but at least I’ve picked up some knowledge of classic grunge).  Like ….Jazz. I need to learn more about jazz…..  Our resident musician loves polyrhythmic, progressive stuff ranging from Periphery to Tigran Hamasyan.

I’ll even begrudgingly acknowledge now that not all Christian music sucks. Just most of it. A post for another day.

It’s pretty amusing to look back at my own musical biography.  Maybe you’re still listening to the classics of your childhood. Thanks to our 2015 world, we can put our hands on playlists built by mood, geography, genre, or friends’ preferences.

We consumers live charmed lives blessed by technology and access.

Get out there and listen.

Grace for G.R.A.C.E. at Bob Jones University?

Today has been a difficult day.

The organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (G.R.A.C.E) released their report today detailing a two-year investigation of how the victims of sexual abuse were mishandled by counselors at Bob Jones University.

You can read the entire report here:
G.R.A.C.E. Report on Bob Jones University (pdf)

It’s very long so if you’re looking for a summary instead, several news articles have offered good summaries of the findings, including Religion News Service, the Greenville News, and Al Jazeera (yes, their summary is spot on).

Honestly, folks, that report is a rough read. And I should have waited. But honestly, I didn’t expect it to have the effect that it did.  I don’t have “triggers” because —thank God— I’ve never been abused. That’s an honest ‘Thank God’, a recognition that I’ve been spared the horror that victims of sexual abuse have lived with.

quoted by AJA
quoted by AJA

So I didn’t expect this, not when I sat down during my extra moments of lunch time to read the gist of the central findings.

Didn’t expect to be sick to my stomach, to feel pounded and nauseated. To feel wrath and anger and sorrow down in my abdomen.

Visceral.  Painful.  The reality of seeing all of the truth heaped into a single report.

Thing is, nothing in that report surprised me.  I was at BJU as an undergrad for 4 years in the 90s, a graduate student for 2 more years, and 4 years on staff.  Ten years total.  I saw the place inside out and outside in.  And since now it’s more than a decade in my past, I usually go throughout my day with little thought for the Bastion of Fundamentalism up the road.

I knew, based on what I saw and what I heard from fellow students, that the counseling offered by BJU via untrained grad-school students in the name of “dorm counseling,” along with the official student life counselors (dean of men/women, dean of students, dorm supervisors) was harmful and unhelpful, often leading the counselee into guilt, shame, and self-loathing.

I know (now) the narrative of the Gospel that BJU tells is one of law-keeping for the sake of maintaining righteousness for a God who is angry, who is harsh, who finds sin everywhere with His searchlight. You aren’t safe anywhere, really. Not unless you can prove to Him that you’ve been good.

Even the Lord’s Supper became a device for guilt and shame at the Fundy church I attended in Greenville.  You weren’t supposed to approach the Table until you’d convinced your conscience that you were sin-free The pastor called it “unpacking all the boxes” — his advice was to sit in silence and beg the Holy Spirit to bring to mind a sin you had committed, then repent, and ask Him to bring out another box. It was Judgment Day in miniature, every month.  Not a love-feast.  Not a table of Grace for redeemed children of God.  Only the “worthy” got a seat.

I knew, personally, two people who lost their minds because of the guilt and shame piled onto them by Fundamentalism.  And a third, who was not a personal friend of mine, but I heard his story too.  Mentally ill. Hospitalized. Suffering.

I knew that the rule structures were abusive and well beyond the Bible’s definitions of obedience or morality. Glorifying the informant was wrong. Confronting a girl walking up the sidewalk in front of me because their skirt slit was two inches above their knee was self-righteous assholery.  That never really fit my personality; the few times I “confronted” left me in a cold sweat and feeling like a major douche. I knew the rhetoric: “upholding the rules” was the work of the Kingdom. But my gut knew it was wrong, unloving, graceless snobbery.

I destroyed a relationship with my best friend (unintentionally) because, as a 20-year old, I was asked by a dysfunctional and legalistic dorm structure to make the final assessment of whether she was “spiritually fit” for “spiritual leadership” in the dorms. I knew she’d been abused as a kid and was kind of unstable (never occurred to me to tell anyone though; it’s not like the University liked her much anyway).  And I knew she didn’t deserve the pressure cooker of being a “prayer captain” in charge of the “spiritual health” of 3 other girls, held accountable for their “sins” before the administration and dorm staff.  Christianity built on perfectionism destroys people. But she knew that not being granted a position of leadership was a public humiliation — and she hated me for that humiliation, and my lack of courage to face her directly. I simply let the dorm spiritual evaluation process run its course.

Truth is, the GRACE report about Bob Jones tells me a lot of things I already knew — that it is a college who fixates on rule-keeping rather than Grace in an environment driven by a powerful administrative discipline structure.  That the people who really bought into BJ’s culture believed snitching was godly because all behavior is a discipline issue, even being late for class. That it was kind of weird for an entire department of counseling to reject all scholarship completely, all psychiatry, all psychology, all medication (oh, they paid it lip service but we all knew that depression was the fault of the depressed person’s sin).

I was complicit.  I was part of the dorm structure for a few years, even being a “hall leader” (like an assistant RA), and it was a soul-sucking experience.  I constantly had the dorm staff on my back about KEEPING THE RULES while trying to keep the girls on my hall from being crushed by what I could even see were petty and unfair expectations.

There was little Grace.

But actually, there was.

My BJU story is complicated.  It really is.  Because my professors were, for the most part, great people. They invested in me. They were themselves victims of a college who paid them nearly nothing, stripping them of social capital or any sense of financial independence, and pounding down any independent thought or person brave enough to speak it.

Because my years there were actually very good for me.

Because it was under Barrett and Bell and Rude and others that I saw Jesus. I saw the Gospel. I found Reformed theology. I learned Greek and Hebrew and an allegiance to what the Bible actually SAYS, not what some man says it says.

And then I woke up. And I saw for myself. And we left.

But today — years later — I weep.

Bob Jones University has one choice.  They must change, or they will die.  And dying is actually better than the judgment God will pour out on an unrepentant institution if they stubbornly cling to unbiblical, legalistic, harmful definitions of sin, grace, and righteousness.

It is a very hard day to be a Bob Jones University graduate.

Fairness: BJU’s response to the report
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Update, March 10, 2015:

The University presented its response to the assembled students, faculty, and staff today, and to the world via video and web page. 

BJU’s Response to the GRACE Report

Unfortunately, BJU failed to respond to the most damaging allegations in the Report, citing their own evidence that no laws were broken (when GRACE cited numerous examples of failures to follow mandatory reporting law).

Even more egregious to me, the University not only failed to acknowledge the abusive nature of its culture of legalism and rule-keeping, President Pettit reaffirmed Jim Berg and other counselors as “biblical.” If you have read the GRACE Report, you know that the investigation centered on Berg as a significant source of gross error and negligence in counseling, recommending that he immediately be fired and his books entirely removed.

I’m not surprised that BJU, whose motto has been “Standing without apology” for most of its 90 year history, failed to apologize meaningfully to victims or own up to its problems. But I’d hoped for more. 

Con or Candor: A List of the Lies in BJU’s Response to the GRACE Report