Wee Enchantment: Inclusive Faith and Charming Steeple

On a trip to Seattle last summer, my husband and I took a ferry to Bainbridge Island for a stroll along its main thoroughfare. One of the things I loved about the Pacific Northwest was feeling simpatico with the citizens, both politically, environmentally, and spiritually. If not for the frequent gray skies, I might never have come back to Texas.

We encountered this sweet little church on our walk. These Christians seem to be walking a loving walk. This sort of faith is nothing short of magical. Blessed Be!

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I’m Outa Here.

Fruit Salad, Laundry Soap, and Evolving Faith

It has long been my practice to write small observations about the little magic moments found in daily life. I try to keep mind and heart open to signals that the Universe, or God if you prefer (perhaps even Goddess), places in my path; sometimes connected to what I see in nature, perhaps a song, or a memory. For months I have been bumping into Frankenstein author Mary Shelley in such random and frequent encounters that I decided the Universe has something to say to me through her life and work. Based on beloved author Liz Gilbert’s MO I bought a biography to read and started an index card file for research about Shelley’s life and work. Someday, maybe it will be a book.

Today, the signal is all about the Fruit of the Spirit (I capitalize because sometime in my distant past a preacher instructed that this phrase is a proper noun, and so must be appropriately capitalized- I have no clue of the veracity of said pulpit-granted grammar lesson).

I don’t really know why, but I was singing the old vacation Bible school song about the Fruit just a day or so ago. While standing in the shower, my mind chanted them all, with the little melody:

Love

Joy

Peace

Patience

Kindness

Goodness

Faithfulness

Gentleness

Self Control.

I remember another sermon in which a pedantic preacher spent a ridiculous amount of my Earth time parsing whether the Fruit was singular or plural, his point being that they were a collective, and that you’d better excel at all equally if you wanted to be in God’s good graces.

Sometimes we major in minors, yes?

This morning, after my recent reminiscence of the Sunday School ditty, I was scrolling through Facebook and two friends’ posts showed up consecutively with the Galatians scripture embedded in lovely green graphics. Same verse, identical color scheme, different art.

A signal, I think. This may not head where you’re expecting, by the way.

C of C

For, you see, I consider myself a “Recovering Christian.” I grew up in a conservative evangelical tradition, where adherence to scripture was valued (which can be great), but what adherence meant was subject to a preacher’s interpretation (which can be awful). It was drilled into my heart and mind from the time I was very small that it was my duty to save souls. The church had mounted Matthew 28:19 above the exit doors, admonishing us as we left the carpeted lobby to head among the heathen masses:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

I carried with me a deep fear and painful guilt that I was supposed to offer Jesus and the church’s “Five Steps of Salvation” process to every single person I met, and for an introverted soul who deeply wanted to please both Jesus and my church leadership that was an unbearable burden. I stumbled through some door-knocking, invited kids in the neighborhood to Bible class, stammered through opening conversations about Jesus with school friends. Scary. Through junior high and high school, I struggled with one-one-one evangelism, and slid right on into college that way. In my small private church college, it was a little easier. Pretty much everyone was already a baptized believer; but I was introduced to a new gospel: the gospel of Amway.

“Do you know anyone who might be interested in making a couple extra thousand dollars a month working 8 to 10 hours a week?”

“I was wondering if you could give me your opinion on a business I’m looking at. I really value your opinion and could use your input.”

“Well, sure, we do sell Amway products, but that’s only about 20% of what we sell. Everything else comes from over 2,000 other companies, most of which are ‘Fortune 500’.”

I fell in love with a boy who did Amway. He had signed up before we met. Here’s how it went:

Respected college professor was supplementing his small Christian college salary with the multi-level-marketing scheme (and who can blame him, really?), got his son involved, his son approached Travis. Travis, being a people-pleaser, said “Sure!” And so our first six years of marriage were spent trying to make this crazy thing work.

I mean, it does work for some people. It does. Good grief, our current Secretary of Education bought her way into the Presidential cabinet with her Amway family fortune.

Amway

Amway provided an automatic circle of friends, which was really cool for this introverted young woman. We gathered for weekly meetings to account for progress, sat together at church, enjoyed monthly potluck suppers. We attended conventions at semi-fancy hotels and paid registration and room fees that we didn’t have the money for (but it was an investment in our future so our sponsor helped justify it). Attendees sang patriotic songs- several times I delivered Sandi Patty’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” to open the festivities- flags were waving, tears were shed. Many wore red, white, and blue. There was lots of testifying about how the Lord had blessed our endeavors. Guest speakers dangled tempting photos of tropical vacations and reminded us how much easier it is to tithe when you’re rolling in the big bucks, part of the allure of the health and wealth gospel. The pain of it, even now, is that love for Jesus, love for country, and love for wealth were so enmeshed that my faith became clouded. It’s easy for that to happen when you somehow believe that God is going to bless you with cash if you just keep working the plan; then He doesn’t. The Fruit of the Spirit had a hard time flourishing in the garden of my troubled heart.

Amway nearly destroyed us. It really, really did. There was an underlying message that if you truly loved your family, you would overcome your discomfort and approach everyone about joining you, so there we were, twenty-ish years old, both with horrible self-confidence issues, trying to pay bills and buy shoes for the baby, and honestly no credibility whatsoever. I did what I was told I should and kept reminding Trav to make the phone calls. He called, usually without success, and became discouraged, which I interpreted as “You don’t love me and our daughter enough to overcome your discomfort” and I wouldn’t make the calls myself because I was an introvert, dammit, and besides it’s the man’s job to provide for the family (I tell you- I was a different person then). We would consider bailing on the whole thing, then he would say he did want to keep it up, so the whole cycle would begin anew.

Then there’s the whole recruitment thing. I don’t make new friends easily these days. I didn’t back then, either. I would meet a lady and think she might make an awesome friend, but I would either spoil it by using an Amway approach line, thereby cutting off all hope of future conversations, or I would just chicken out and not approach at all because I knew that at some point I would have to bring up Amway.

Travis and I didn’t trust each other, we didn’t trust ourselves, we spent money that should have been spent feeding our child on extra products or convention tickets, we risked friendships. Our marriage nearly caved. We watched another couple in our group disintegrate under the pressure, that was when we knew we couldn’t do it anymore. We confessed to our sponsors, and they lovingly told us that if they had known how we were struggling, they would have helped. They would have advised us differently.

So here’s my takeaway from Amway: I was not living a life, nor setting goals, that were true to my real self. I didn’t know who that self was just yet, so I let other people define it. I spoke affirmations that I now know were in complete contradiction to my deepest nature. I dressed like and aligned my politics and religion with those peers, I played tapes about building a business when I wish I had listened to music instead. I paid babysitters and gave up valuable evenings with my sweet little ones, all so that I could sit in strangers’ living rooms trying to sell them the dream and a starter kit.

Amway wasn’t for me. Around my fortieth birthday I realized church wasn’t for me, either. The church, like Amway, nearly destroyed us as well. Stories for another day. But authentic friendships? For sure. The rabbi Jesus? Absolutely. These days, I share a different good news; which is that we are all capable of meeting the Divine One in our own way, in our own time. No church or preacher required, though I know that many, many people find great joy in both of those things. But you know what is needed, sorely needed, in our world? Those Fruits. I believe that when we spend time where the Divine One resides, we cultivate love, joy, peace, and patience. We harvest kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

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Now that I am fifty-one, I don’t quite follow the rules of the 1970s little girl Christian that I was, nor do I adhere to the 1980s dutiful Amway salesperson. When I was a youth, I recited, “See and save. Seek. Save.” In the Amway days, my mantra was “books, tapes, and meetings.” Now, it’s “Be still. Be still. Be…still.” I know which one resonates deeply with my soul, and I won’t let even the promise of a yacht or my own island in the Caribbean move me from it again.

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Let’s Go To Camp!

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Did you go to camp as a kid? I did: Camp Pettijohn Springs just over the Texas-Oklahoma border. I started going when I was about twelve years old and went every summer until I was eighteen. It was both a broad, flat red-dirt plain and hilly, tree-covered wood. The girls got the cabins in the shady trees, the boys got the cabins on the sun-baked expanse.

The pool was at the bottom of a hill, and its deep end was full of algae and weeds, so that when I jumped off the diving board, I would curl my legs up under me, lest my toes brush those creepy leaves.

The mess hall was a favorite place. Here is where Bible Bees happened in my younger days, meals were wolfed down, and talent shows were put on.

We had an annual talent show act performed by our youth minister, a stand-up routine in which he acted like a silly little boy with a sideways baseball cap and puffed-out cheeks, then two of the senior boys set up that daffy thing you’ve probably seen where one guy has his hands behind his back and the other one does the actions- including the eating of whipped cream and squirting of ketchup and such. We laughed like maniacs every single year. All the singers, including me, would perform Contemporary Christian numbers, and I think I remember someone playing the spoons. Right outside the mess hall was a propane tank emblazoned with the word “Danger.” We sat on it like it was a horse, lots of harmless flirting happened around the Danger.

The traditional Sunday night arrival supper was baloney sandwiches, but for the rest of the week, food was pretty good. KP duty meant your cabin stayed after meals to wipe down tables and mop up cement floors. At meal times, you were not permitted to put your elbows on the table, if you did and were caught, a song might ring out:

“Get your elbows off the table, David H!

Get your elbows off the table, David H!

We have seen it once or twice and it isn’t very nice,

Get your elbows off the table, David H!”

Camp Pettijohn
Molly, Angela, Chellie, the author, and Jill get ready to board the bus to Pettijohn!

It was always followed with another song, “Round the Mess Hall You Must Go,” which finished with a stipulation. You might have to run around the mess hall skipping backwards, perhaps hopping like a bunny or singing loudly. If you were lucky in love, you’d be assigned the direction “holding hands,” and the whole Mess Hall population would wait with bated breath to see who you picked to hold hands with.

I saw my first tarantulas and centipedes at Camp Pettijohn. I was so traumatized by the centipede that I could barely sleep for fear that one would crawl, with its hundred nasty little legs, into my sleeping bag.

Pettijohn 2

There was a small metal building that served as our canteen, and twice daily we queued up to get sodas and snacks with our canteen punch cards. My favorite was peach Jolly Rancher sticks dipped in a Sprite, the candy would give just a hint of peachy goodness to the Sprite. When we were teens, boys and girls might use their canteen cards to buy their crushes treats.

The only air conditioned building on the whole site was the chapel, which was a sweet little brick building overlooking a drop-off covered with trees. The windows at the front of the little chapel gave us a glorious view of Oklahoma sunsets over dense green leaves. If memory serves, it was carpeted with some sort of green turf. There were gorgeous devotionals in that chapel, and mid-day Bible studies in shady cabin breezeways.

I always came back from camp with an awesome tan, a suitcase full of dirty clothes smudged with sweat and red dirt, and a list of new pen pals. I slept for about eighteen hours, then got up to head to Sunday morning church, full of light and joy.

As a youth minister’s wife, I spent several years in my 30s attending a different camp, this one in Texas Hill Country along the Medina River;  while it shared some traditions and characteristics with the Camp Pettijohn of my youth, it had its own beauty and rituals. Here I was cabin counselor and lifeguard, trying to love on girls while calming my own introverted spirit. A cabin of thirty noisy sixteen-year-olds can be a lot to take in! I loved Bandina for the years I got to attend: its traditional camper vs. counselor softball game, its rope swing, its large, shady gazebo. The food, cooked lovingly by a team of folks from the various churches, was fantastic- way better than the food at Camp Pettijohn (sorry, Pettijohn peeps). Evening worship and talent were in a sweet little outdoor amphitheater, and hymns were accompanied by the sound of hundreds of feet shuffling the gravel that lined the aisles. Late night devotionals happened on the rocky riverside. During the dark hours while campers were sleeping, deer always came out to find snacks and crumbs left on the wide open field around which all the cabins were encircled. My favorite times were the singing sessions in the screened-in dining hall, when 500 people sang songs both silly and holy with every bit of their bodies and souls. The very best memories, though, are spending time there with my own kids. When my youngest wanted to be baptized in the river, I drove to be there and walked into that river with my baby girl and her big brother, who baptized her.

It made me sad when the folks who ran the camp told me I couldn’t come any more because I had switched to a different flavor of church. That sort of closed mindedness, that denies people whose walks might be a little off the approved path, can make it hard for folks to stick with church. At least, it did for me.

The best part of camp was always the friends. In both of these camps, you spent quality time with kids and adults from other churches, other towns, other states. You made real friends. I still have a handful that I am in touch with. Back in the 80s, you had to write real, honest, paper letters; and we did. Now, kids get to follow each other on Instagram- so cool! Camp creates connection. We all need it.

I have been asking people to share old camp stories, and have gotten some great responses:

“A raccoon ate my toothpaste.”

“Finding out I was very naturally good at archery, when I was struggling and behind on every other activity out there. It was nice to find my ‘thing.'”

“Breakfast in bed for having the cleanest cabin.”

“Pranks, kitchen raids, spying on others, building campfires – I worked camp staff for years. We had the most fun when getting in trouble was a possibility.”

“Hiking up Hermits Peak and holding hands with a guy by the time I got to the top.”

There have been a few stories that are sad: abandonment worry, being shunned, getting hurt. I guess every good thing has some dark stuff, too.

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My life now is defined by a mission to recognize magic in an ordinary life, and to share it; and I believe that for many of us, summer camp was, and is, magical. Whether church affiliated or not, camp gets us into nature. We swim and hike and tell tales under the stars. We sing- have you ever heard of a camp without songs? Whether it’s “Big Booty,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” or “El-Shaddai,” music is pure enchantment. We use our hands to make cool crafts. Best of all, camp creates friendship, and love between people is about the best magic there is.

What’s your camp story?

Why “Christian Soldiers?”

 

I have struggled and struggled, trying to understand how so much of Evangelical Christianity has gotten entangled with the National Rifle Association. As our country tries to process our latest mass shooting incident, and I watch devout Christians on social media circle the wagons around their guns, all the while offering “thoughts and prayers” to the families who lost loved ones, I am baffled.*

Upon his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, when an apostle cut off the ear of a Roman soldier, Jesus admonished him, saying in the book of Matthew, ” “Put up your sword. All who take the sword die by the sword.” And though Jesus did speak of violence to come, it was the violence of persecution and martyrdom. Not war.

But as I meditated this morning, for some reason I found myself singing an old Sunday School song:

“I may never march in the infantry,

ride in the Calvary,

shoot the artillery. I may never

fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army. Yes, sir.”

There were hand motions, complete with a military salute. And I realized that somehow, over the millenia, we have equated faith with war and violence. There were the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the witch trials. After World War II, and during the Communist scare of the 1960s-1980s, many Christians wove patriotism, militarism, and Christianity into a camouflage fabric. The Constitution, and particularly its Second Amendment, have been granted the same reverence as the Bible, as though both writings, penned by a group of men in the late eighteenth century, are as inerrant and Divinely inspired as the Bible itself. After the Newtown shooting in 2012, English journalist Jonathan Freedland made this observation:

“If you really want to know why the US can’t kick its gun habit, take a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC. You don’t even have to look at the exhibits. Just study the queue. What you’ll see are ordinary Americans lining up, in hushed reverence, to gaze at an original copy of the United States constitution, guarded and under heavily armoured glass. It is no exaggeration to say that for many Americans this is a religious experience.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/21/sacred-text-us-gun-habit

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I myself have tried to gently discuss the idea that the Constitution is not above needing change, that in the 200 years since it was written, the world has changed and that elements of the document that was written so long ago could use revision. For a Constitutional Believer, that is a non-starter.

And then, there’s this: somehow, many Christians have come to believe that bearing an AR-15 is a sacred right, endowed by God and sanctified by the same Jesus who told Peter to put away his sword.

How did we get to a place where we are teaching seven year olds that being a Christian is equivalent to being a private in the United States Army?

Songs like “His Banner Over Me Is Love” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” reinforce this perception- Christians are here to do battle: battle against the people whose life choices are disagreed with, battle that requires a bump stock. We are an army, and armies need weapons.

The Armor of God that Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesians is this:

“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.’ Ephesians 6: 13-18.

Righteousness, faith, truth, readiness, salvation, the word of God. Paul says nothing about swords, bows and arrows, axes, slings, spears; or the modern day equivalent of handguns, rifles (bolt action or semi automatic), and shotguns.

I became truly aware of this conflation of militaristic patriotism and faith when I took a job teaching in a private Evangelical school in south Texas. I was required to lead my students in the pledge to the “Christian flag” along with the pledge to the Stars and Stripes. And though I had been raised singing about shooting the Lord’s artillery, I was flummoxed. I had never heard of a Christian flag. I felt sick. I began to really encounter this enmeshed belief system in which loyalty to America was synonymous with loyalty to Jesus. I  decided not to lead or say that particular pledge, having students do it instead while I quietly stood by. And since my eyes were opened, I have come to believe that loyalty to the Republican party is included there (I learned this when a Christian friend accused me of hating the country because I voted Democrat-the friend was not kidding). In the last two weeks, I have added loyalty to the NRA to the mix. Not for all Christians, no. But for enough.

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I have found myself wondering, amongst the money that is spent on guns, how it compares to money spent on feeding the poor. For each donation to the NRA, does the Christian gun advocate donate equally to a relief organization? Maybe.

In her blog “Just a Jesus Follower,” Anna Dimmel cites the New York Times:

“The NY Times recently published an article outlining the top 10 career recipients of N.R.A. The numbers speak volumes regarding the amount of control they have ‘bought’ inside our government.

It’s just gross.” It is, Anna. It really is.

America is not God’s Chosen Nation. That was ancient Israel. We are one of many great nations. God is not wrapped in a robe of red white and blue. Jesus doesn’t wear a camo hunting jacket and red trucker cap emblazoned “Make America Great Again.”

The Divine is greater than jingoism. Jesus would not have carried an AR-15. It’s time for some American Evangelicals to remember whom they profess to serve. Even more, it’s time for the compassionate, loving Christians to speak up. They can change the conversation if they will just gird themselves in that powerful and true armor of God.

Here’s Anna Dimmel’s blog:

 

https://justajesusfollower.com/2018/02/22/christianity-vs-the-nra-finding-a-different-perspective-on-gun-control-and-violence/

*In the interest of full disclosure- I am what some would probably called “lapsed.” Maybe “Lost” or “Fallen.” My frustration with some of the issues I have described here, along with the church’s treatment of women, and other more personal issues, have left me unable to face organized church. But I do love God. Jesus is a friend.

Between Shame and Ovation (Thoughts From the Wife of a Former Texas Youth Minister)

Sunday night, after a quiet day of reading and watching television while my husband stayed tucked in bed fighting off a cold, we watched the news together, and looked on in horror and recognition as a story broke about a pastor in Tennessee who had confessed to the 1998 sexual assault of a seventeen year old girl in his youth group. The news program showed footage of Andy Savage apparently remorseful, as he confessed to a megachurch audience. They gave him a standing ovation.

A standing ovation.

I have something to say about all this.

In 1999, living in the very same town (I currently live just five minutes from the church where Savage was a youth minister), my husband was also a youth minister. Though he doesn’t specifically remember Andy Savage, it’s likely they at least attended the same monthly youth minister luncheons that were held at the various churches around our town.

And in October of 1999, my husband stood in front of the congregation and confessed, at three different church services, a sex addiction.

There was no standing ovation.

Thankfully, he never touched a member of his youth group. His struggle was with the fantasy world of pornography and adult bookstores, not with the flesh and blood reality of teenagers.

I will never, as long as I live, forget the glare of the lights and the wide eyes of the church members as we stood on the stage, hand in hand, and Travis told everyone his deepest, darkest secret. This was a move that was required by the church leadership if he wanted to receive a severance salary.

Unlike Andy Savage, whose church leadership demanded silence, both of him and the young lady he abused, our church leadership insisted on full and public disclosure.

I don’t think it is coincidental that last week I downloaded a double episode of Oprah’s Super Soul podcast, with guest Brene’ Brown . The universe was getting me ready to see this story on the news and in my social media feed. Last night, on the way home from work, Brene’ spoke her mantra to Oprah: “You share with people who earn the right to hear your story. It’s an honor to hold space for me when I am in shame.”

As my husband stood in the sanctuary and, in a broken voice, told 2,000 people, most of whom were complete strangers, his darkest struggle, I felt like we had been raped. It was as if our clothes had been ripped from us, and we stood bare for all to see. My children also had to bear the burden of the sidelong (or worse, pitying) looks that were sent their way over the next few months as we struggled to keep attending the church where every room, every person, and every worship service sent us spiraling back into shame. Two years later, when I sat in a therapist’s office and told her this story, she was horrified and told me, in no uncertain terms, that we had been victims of profound spiritual abuse. I have often wondered how many men sat in the pews that morning and breathed great big sighs of relief that their own garage stash or computer files hadn’t been found yet. My husband got to be the whipping boy, the sacrificial lamb, for them.*

Is it any wonder I can’t do church anymore?

There has to be a middle place- somewhere between public shaming and standing ovations. A place where healthy confession is possible, accountability is attainable, and healing is administered for all.

I am beyond thankful that my own husband didn’t ever actually touch a kid in his youth group. We have a close friend, A.,  for whom that was not the case. Earlier in our church work, Travis was compelled to share his struggle with a fellow youth minister who, it turned out, was crawling a similar path. They went to the same support group together. A. didn’t come out unscathed, either. He molested a youth group member.

There’s a lot to think about here: impossible standards of perfection that set young men up for deep, internal sexual struggle; spouses who suffer in silence as they try to raise children and create the model home, knowing that they dare not speak a word because their family’s very livelihood depends on maintaining the veneer of holiness; how to maintain accountability that is safe for both ministers and their charges.

But standing ovations? No. Andy Savage has to make this right with a humble apology to Jules Woodson. She needs healing. Savage and the church leadership must stop making excuses and hiding behind the passage of time. Because I know that if my own experience is any indication, 1998 can feel like five minutes ago. Shame can rear its ugly head at any moment and utterly incapacitate you. I hope Woodson gets the love and joy she deserves. I hope Andy Savage can move forward in honesty. I hope his wife has courage and a couple of love warriors** by her side.

And I hope that his current congregation learns how to support, but not idolize, the penitent minister. I hope they know who the victims are and I desperately hope that they have compassion and love for all concerned.

May the Divine One breathe healing and peace on all of these broken people. And may we all know that we can be broken and healed, as well as being instruments of grace and healing.

 

*There was one particular family who sat in our shame with us. They listened as we cried, watched our kids while we went to therapy, and never gave us that pitying look. They know who they are, and they are blessedly still in our lives. Most folks just ignored us or tried to pretend nothing weird had happened. I get it- once you’ve seen someone’s nakedess, it’s hard to go back.

**Love Warrior is a phenomenal book by Glennon Doyle. A recovering addict, Doyle was married to a sex addict herself. She knows this journey. I highly recommend this book, which was fortuitously and prophetically given to me this Christmas by my eldest daughter.

 

And the winner is…

Astros ring

It’s baseball season! And since I live in Houston, the home of the current World Champ Astros, for whom I just bought a new team shirt and am anxiously awaiting the chance to go to a game at Minutemaid Park,  I find myself contemplating the concept of sport. Of Competition. I wonder how much we Americans are conditioned to Competitiveness and how much is innate. Clearly, some element of Competition has existed in humanity before there was even organized society. Cain Competed with Abel for Adam’s esteem, spilling blood to be the favorite. The Greeks held magnificent athletic and artistic Competitions in the original Olympic games. Who was Alexander but the most Competitive general to lead an army?

So I don’t really have a problem with Competition. It is a necessary force that pushes humanity to make new discoveries, chart new frontiers, and achieve excellence.

But sometimes I wonder why we have seemingly made everything here in America about being the best. We give trophies and tiaras to four year olds who prance and priss better than the other little girls. We pit students against each other in spelling bees in first grade so that the adept learners can lord it over the ones who are a little (or a lot) behind. We award trophies to kids for being on a sports team, making the trophy the desired end, rather than emphasizing the lessons learned about sportsmanship and personal physical fitness.

It is a mentality that permeates every single aspect of American life. We rate our movies according to top box office gross every Monday morning. We look at the cars next to us at the red lights and either pat ourselves mentally or grit our teeth in envy. We slave endlessly (or pay yard workers to) so that we might put that “Yard of the Month” sign in our front yards. Most women eyeball each other in the mall, comparing rear ends, wrinkles, and wardrobes. We brag about our kids’ grades on bumper stickers. It’s in our schools, our churches, our businesses, our neighborhoods.

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Even when the cause is worthwhile we compete. Weight loss competitions abound in businesses. Companies use competition as a marketing tool, cloaking it in contests for charity. For goodness’ sake our kids even compete for medals to see who can read the Bible best (how in the world we American Evangelicals could have imagined that children showing each other up is a Jesus thing is just incomprehensible to me)!

So no wonder we Americans believe we live in THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD! Most of us have never visited any other country, but our Competitive conditioning tell us it must be so. That ideology was a deciding factor in our most recent presidential election. Competition, not competence. Supremacy over alliance.

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I don’t think I really am very Competitive by nature, though I think growing up in American culture can impart a pretty fierce dog-eat-dog mentality in all but the the most passive . I could never enjoy the fierce push to win at team sports, it seemed a silly waste of mental energy to me. When we had to shake hands and say “Good Game” I just wanted to make friends with everybody. I didn’t enjoy the All State Choir audition process in high school. I enjoyed the singing, but not watching some girls cry whose names were not called out. When our class elected its top ten most popular senior girls, I was #12. I watched as girls strategized and agonized about getting on that list, and I could not have cared less about that vote. I was surprised I got as close as I did. One of the top ten boys, Kevin R., told me in my yearbook that I could have been so popular if I had just tried a little harder. As a young adult I couldn’t have cared less about having better stuff than my peers. Still don’t.

As a theatre teacher, I found myself immersed in the arts, and Competition was probably one of my least favorite aspects of the job. Year after year I watched my students create beautiful work onstage and backstage. They were full of pride in their accomplishment. They gloried in the story they had told and they knew they had learned and grown in their craft as well as in their humanity. Then the trophies and medals got handed out and the kids without gold sparkly things suddenly doubted everything they thought about the art they had created. As a director, I had begun to start thinking cunningly, plotting for a win rather than for learning. Principals like it when you can set a trophy on their desks.

Irony of ironies, now that I am no longer a full time theatre educator, I serve as a judge at those very competitions. I go into those days with the goal of teaching and edifying the kids. Most of my judicial colleagues do, too.

I did discover that once the competitive element of trophies was introduced into my local community theatre stomping ground, much of my joy in that hobby was lost. I don’t get involved any more. I guess I have had one too many conversations with people who introduce themselves with their number or trophies, or who find ways to work their victories into conversation.

I am all for excellence. Anyone who knows me well knows I do not tolerate laziness or mediocrity. I used to lay that burden on others. I held everyone to my standards. Then I let go, and just held myself to a constant and unrelenting expectation of quality. That exhausted me. Through my practice of yoga, I have learned that winning has its place, but so does failure; that excellence is a worthy goal, but sometimes relenting and just being is just as worthwhile.

blue-ribbon

I envision a world where kids play on rotating sports teams, drawn by lotto. Everyone works out and plays together and switches teams to make new friends and team parties at the end of the season include the whole league in one great big bouncy castle. The top spellers help the ones who are having a hard time. The beautiful popular girls hang out with the regular girls doing stuff completely unrelated to fashion, makeup, and boys. Neighbors come together to help each other with their yards. Plays are not pitted against each other in UIL, so that students and directors can come together and share their work and inspire each other without worrying about medal count, and Americans take the time to learn about all the beautiful countries and societies that populate our planet, appreciating cultural and religious diversity without feeling somehow disloyal to the States.

I may not be the thinnest or most beautiful woman, most talented performer, best mom, winning cook, or most decorated high school director. Fortunately, I now know (at least 80% of the time) that it just doesn’t matter. What I am is a human being discovering her own path, knowing that her path is not a race track. There is no medal for winning at the end. There is only the love we leave behind as our legacy, and there’s no blue ribbon for that.

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