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Here’s a little taste of On Fire for the Lord.It’s one of my favorite bits, though at the time I was living it I very much wished I weren’t. Enjoy!

The summer I turned four I realized that the women in our church fell into two groups: the Good and the Wicked. The Good wore pointy brassieres on their high, cone-shaped breasts, neat fluffy sweaters over the pointy brassieres, and neat modest pencil skirts over flat, girdle-smashed bellies and backsides. They formed trios, had their hair done weekly downtown at the College of Beauty, wore matching dresses and scarves, and played the piano or the organ as opposed to the guitar or the drums. Their daughter arrived early for Sabbath School. They petticoats were starched, and their ringlets perfect. They ate only vegetarian foods, and quoted Ellengy White, who they referred to as “Sister White.” They pressed their flattened palms together, bowed their heads, and closed their eyes when we prayed like the children in Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, and called God “Our Dear Kind Heavenly Father.” The Wicked were something else again.

Theaters were forbidden, so naturally none of the Good Adventists would admit to having seen The Sound of Music, but word of the Family von Trapp had penetrated even our closed society, and family musical groups became all the rage. Such groups were known simply as “The Allen Manuel Family,” “The Dave Swanson Family,” or even more simply, as “The Singing Andersons.” These groups achieved some degree of local fame and sometimes even went on tour to other Adventist churches, as long as they were less than a Sabbath Day’s Journey away.

A few families cut records, which they marketed before sundown on Friday nights at Missionary Volunteers and after sundown on Saturday night at Vespers; buying and selling between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday was forbidden. More of the groups got reel-to-reel tapes of church services where they provided special music, spliced them together, and distributed them to their friends, gratis.

When a family friend asked Momma if we girls and Matt could sing special music for the Young Adult Sabbath School class Momma, flattered, said, “Of course. They’ll be happy to.” She did not consult us.
Pam was mortified at having to sing at the Junior High students, many of whom took pleasure in tormenting her. Marie didn’t want to sing, either, though she denied that it was for social reasons. She put a lot of effort into seeing to it that no one dared to torment her. For me, the thought of standing up in front of anybody, even without actually trying to sing, was terrifying, though I was flattered to have been asked, and my dreams of becoming Deldelker enjoyed a brief renaissance. My illusion that this was the start of bigger and better things for us didn’t last long; Pam saw to that. “We can’t sing,” she said bluntly.

“We can, too,” I said hotly. “Sally and I sing like Deldelker.”

“No, you can’t,” Pam said again. “None of us can. We’re flat.”

I looked down at my chest. “So what?” I asked, a bit defensively. “So’s everybody else.”

“No they’re not,” Pam said. “We can’t stay on key, and our voices wobble.”

“Deldelker wobbles,” Sally said defiantly.

“You’re not Deldelker,” Pam said. And that was that. She took organ and accordion lessons; she knew.

I started listening to us with Pam’s ears, and realized she was right. We sounded lost, lonely, and ragged, our thin voices piping out the high notes and chanting monotone through the chorus with none of Deldelker’s round, fruity tones. We had the wobble down pat, though. The song was “Wonderful Words of Life.” Every night after worship, Momma lined us up and drilled us.

“Sing them over again to me
Wonderful words of life
Let me more of their beauty see
Wonderful words of life
Words of life and beeyooty
Teach me faith and d-o-o-o-o-t-y
Beautiful words,
wonderful words,
wonderful words of li-hi-hife
Beautiful words,
wonderful words,
wonderful words of life.”

Marie elbowed me. I elbowed her back, a little harder. Momma glared at us. “Sing nice,” she ordered. “At least try to follow the tune. You could sing nice if you wanted to. Now sing it again.”

We sang it again, sighing heavily between stanzas, yipping out the li-hi-hifes like lovesick coyotes, injecting a little of Deldelker’s wobble when we thought we could get away with it. We sang the wonderful words of life over and over again to the indifferent living room until we were letter perfect and the words had lost all meaning, and then we sang them some more so we wouldn’t forget them before Sabbath.
When we started practicing three weeks before our gig I didn’t care about the song one way or the other; by the beginning of the second week I hated it. By the beginning of the third week I simply stood and chanted sounds loud enough to satisfy Momma.

The Thursday before our musical debut Momma loaded us into the car and drove us over to a Wicked woman’s house to practice. Though she had agreed to be our accompanist, she looked no more pleased about the arrangement than we were. When we filed in her front door I looked around curiously, trying to spot something I could clearly identify as Wicked, but  it was just a tiny old house, both a little nicer and a little messier than ours. I wouldn’t have suspected she was Wicked at all if I hadn’t known that she was divorced and wore miniskirts.

She sat down at her organ and began thumping out our song. We straggled in on the third measure. Momma made us stop and start again until we all came thumping solidly in on “SING them ovER aGAIN to ME…”

After two repetitions the Wicked woman slid off the organ bench and said, “That’s enough; they’re as good as they’re going to get.” And we were, which was too bad.

“They’re going to laugh at us,” Pam muttered as we drove home.

“So what?” Momma shot back. “They laughed at the Lord.” Pam had no answer for that—everything that hurt us, Jesus had had, and worse. What right had we to complain about anything?

Friday night Momma ironed our matching lavender gingham cross-stitched skirts and wound pink spongie curlers into our hair, as she did every Friday night. We each had an assigned hairstyle. Pam’s was a sort of log that ran around her head, topped by a donut on her forehead. Marie’s was ringlets, or a ponytail surrounded by a doughnut. Mine was the log with straight bangs. Sally alone didn’t have to suffer rollers; she had Momma’s naturally curly hair. That Friday when Momma wound the rollers into our thin, fine hair, she swathed our heads in scarves and hair nets, and threatened us within an inch of our lives if we lost even one roller.

The next morning I got up and pulled off my hair net. Three rollers lay in it. My heart sank. I scurried into the bathroom and looked. Straight muddy blonde hair dangled over my right ear. Pink rollers clung to my scalp above my left ear. Momma poked her head into the bathroom, took one look, and yanked the curlers free. She ran a comb through my hair, wound as much of the log around her finger as she could, then rolled the straight part and sprayed it hopelessly.

Finally she sighed, said, “That’s the best I can do,” and turned to Pam, whose doughnut had smooshed into a flat tire. When we were done she looked at us, tight-lipped. Our hair had become an Act of Outright Defiance. We could have had pretty curls, like she and Sally did. We just hadn’t tried hard enough. “Sing it through just once more,” Momma said. “Just to be sure.” We started half-heartedly. “Not like that,” she interrupted us. “Like you’ll sing it for the Young Adults.” We started again, floundered, forgot the words.

“Sounds like you didn’t make’em practice enough,” Daddy observed, jingling the car keys. “Sounds like they spent too much time outside playing.” Guilt swamped us.

“You kids get in the car,” Momma said. We drove to church in silence. Momma herded us down the long flight of crumbling steps to the school, where the Young Adults worshipped. I was too frightened to relish the fact that I was skipping Sabbath School, something I had long yearned to do.

Momma opened the door to the Young Adults’ Sabbath School room. Her friend, the class leader, came bustling back to us, smiled her infectious smile, said “hello,” then bustled back up to the front. “Today we have a special treat,” she said brightly. “The Dan Parkhurst Family will sing ‘Wonderful Words of Life’ for us.”

And it hit me. The Young Adults thought we were a musical group. Boy, were they ever in for a surprise. The Dan Parkhurst Family shambled to the front of the room. They darted a quick glance at the lanky bepimpled high school boys lounging in their chairs in their Mandarin-collared shirts, and at the teased-and-hair-sprayed high school girls in their miniskirts, go-go boots, black eyeliner, and white lipstick.

As one, the Dan Parkhurst Family dropped its eyes to the floor, where they remained throughout the performance. My own particular memory of that experience is of a pee-colored stain shaped something like what I later learned was Florida.

The Wicked woman teetered over to the piano in her tight little miniskirt and spike heels. The bepimpled boys in their Mandarin collars gaped, open-mouthed, as she shimmied onto the stool and spun it experimentally. Then she pounded out our introduction, and we were….ON.

“Sing them over again to me…” we whispered. “Wonderful words of life.”

Momma and Daddy’s friend smiled encouragingly from the back of the room. The Young Adults were silent—apparently equally stunned at the sheer improbability of five tone-deaf children in a single family, at our nerve in attempting something for which we were clearly unfit, and at the Wicked woman’s tiny skirt.

We stared at the floor, our mouths opening and closing like goldfish. I assume at least some sound came out; it could not have been good. I have a dim memory of our old family friend hustling us out of the room when it was over. We had been granted our five minutes of fame and we had squandered them.

Momma chivvied us back up the hill in time for our Bible Study classes. On the way home after church Daddy asked, “How did it go? Did you remember all the words?”

“Yes,” Pam replied. I couldn’t have told him if I remembered all the words or not.

“See, you can do it if you try,” Daddy said smugly. “I told you so.”

“But we were awful,” Pam burst out. “We sounded awful.”

“But at least you tried,” said Daddy.

“But we were awful,” Pam protested again. “They laughed.”

I was surprised; I had been too terrified to see anything except for the pee stain.

“So what?” Daddy asked. “You did your best.”

“But we were awful,” Pam muttered sadly. “They laughed.”

Marie folded her arms and set her jaw. Her blue eyes were steely. “I’m never doing that again,” she announced.

“Yes, you will,” said Daddy. “The church is full of people who won’t help out because they can’t do something perfectly. If you’re asked again, you’ll do it again, young lady. And you’ll keep on doing it every time you’re asked. I’m not going to have my girls saying ‘no’ when they’re asked to do things.”

There is this to be said for doing something very, very, badly: People don’t ask for an encore. Perhaps the truest measure of the Dan Parkhurst Family’s musical career lies in its brevity; we were never, ever, invited to sing anywhere again. The moral of the story lingered on, though. We understood that, no matter how good the reason, and no matter how painful we found a thing, we could not say “no.”

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The books we respond to most powerfully are those that arouse an echo in our own experience, a “Hey, I know about that!” moment. Holy Ghost Girl does that for me. Like Ms. Johnson’s mother Carolyn, I, too, found myself caught up in a relationship with a married “Man of God” at one point in my life.

It’s easy to condemn that relationship–and it should be condemned. Man of God or not, no man or woman has the emotional bandwidth to sustain two mutually exclusive committed relationships at the same time and lead a congregation. The simple, short answer is that Carolyn should have left the tent evangelism circuit, just as I should have left my job and filed sex abuse charges. It sounds simple, clean, and neat.

It’s not. The forces that shape women in fundamentalist denominations can make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to “just say ‘no.'” As a woman who has been there, let me give you a few of them, and explain how they work.

Soul-winning is a core value. When David Terrell taps Carolyn to join up with his crusade as his organist, in fundamentalist terms he plucks her from a shameful, failed obscurity (she has “wandered from the fold,” failed at her “life of sin,” and is now back home with no marketable skills) and offered her not only absolution but a prominent, visible position at the very heart of his ministry. As part of a team that has as its sole stated motive the winning of souls, Carolyn has become a fundamentalist star, a woman who has dedicated her life and talent to what everyone in her social network would see as the service of God, and the winning of souls.

To “leave the ministry” is more than just a career change for women in that position. It is seen as an apostasy, a forsaking of the “narrow, hard path” about which we fundamentalist children hear so much for the “broad, easy path” that leads to perdition. When someone does that, people want to know why. It would have been difficult for Carolyn to leave without having her relationship with Terrell exposed. And then, like now, that exposure might embarrass him, but it would destroy her.

Fundamentalist ministers stand in the place of God to church members. We speak of men (and there’s a reason for that term) being “called” to the ministry. The belief is not that men choose theology for reasons that may or may not bear examination, but that God Himself reaches down and taps them on their shoulders and says, “You’re my boy.” All anecdotal and historical evidence to the contrary, fundamentalist congregations still have a very difficult time believing that their pastors might abuse the power their positions confer upon them.

For one thing, acknowledging an abusive minister calls the entire “called by God” meme into question. This, in turn, calls the whole “sacredness of doctrine” meme into question as well. Instead of sitting peacefully in their seats, nodding and murmuring (or shouting) the occasional “amen,” congregations find themselves in the difficult and embarrassing position of  having to chastise the man they have chosen to lead them.

Many–I believe nearly all–churches prefer to take the less embarrassing path. Here’s how it goes:

First, the woman or child involved is discredited. She “misunderstood.” She “took something out of context.” She “led him on.” She’s “bitter.” She’s a “troublemaker.” She “needs help.” In cases like mine, where the minister in question was also my immediate superior, there was no room for euphemism. When I timidly asked a dear friend and fellow employee about what might happen if one filed a case for sexual harrassment she was blunt: “The secretary gets fired. The minister gets transferred if there’s an affair,” she said. “If you file a sexual harassment suit you might win the lawsuit, but you’ll lose your job, and you’ll be disfellowshipped. The brethren just won’t stand for that.”

Though it’s the consequence with the least legal ramifications, the last result of bringing a suit was emotionally and socially the worst. In our particular church it was believed that once one had been been given the “good news” of our particular brand of christianity, one could not leave the church and still reach heaven. It was called “living up to the light we knew.” What this meant was that, in that time, place, and denomination, filing a suit for sexual harassment would have meant giving up my chance of heaven, if I was so unfortunate as to die before enough time had lapsed to make repentence credible and rebaptism possible. In earthly terms, I would never work for the church again. In my case I ultimately found another job and moved on. For women like Carolyn, whose whole identity is tied up in her ministry, moving on is more difficult.

And there is also the paradoxical fact that because fundamentalist ministers “stand in the place of God,” refusing them a request is equivalent to refusing God’s request.  It doesn’t matter if the request is inappropriate–after all, didn’t Abraham get kudos because he was willing to go so far as to kill his own child? And didn’t God tell one of the minor prophets that he was supposed to marry a whore? God works in mysterious ways; in the scheme of a request–or demand–for sexual favors can seem pretty minor in the beginning–particularly when “no” isn’t a realistic option.

If the woman cannot be discredited, she must be silenced. Women are silenced in many ways. The threat of disfellowshipping did it for me until I got strong enough to leave, and wise enough to understand what had happened. Others are ostracized.Friends simply no longer call. If they meet by chance they engage in only the most superficial conversations. The minister is simultaneously showered with affection and support. Add to that the simple fact that ministers have a lot to say about what is printed in church periodicals and circulars, and everything to say about what message the Lord chooses them to deliver from the pulpit, and the woman often falls silent under the sheer weight of public opinion. What makes all this so deadly is that no matter what the minister may have done, and no matter how justified the woman’s suit may be, she is at a critical disadvantage. And no matter how deeply the rejection of those who have formed her social and support system corrodes her soul, a woman who is also a true believer cannot leave.

If the woman cannot be silenced, and if the minister’s behavior has become egregious, the solution is to shift or spread the blame. The woman herself is accused of “leading him on.” She is accused of being an “accuser of the brethren”–which is code for Satan. If it’s hard for some to swallow that explanation, blame is simply spread around–to the devil first (“The devil’s working hard”) then to all of us (“all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”), then to the fact that we are “living in the last days” (The Lord says that even some of the brightest lights will go out) and ultimately the guilt can become global (“We live in a wicked world. It’s all part of the fallen condition of the world.”) Once it’s spread that far, it’s easy to forget that Pastor X believed that he had a right to sleep with Ms. Y even though she wasn’t crazy about the idea because…well, because he wanted to, and because his wife didn’t understand him, and because the rules about pastors and divorce and adultery are too strict anyway, and because she had a great butt.

And then what happens? Some of us leave. We find other jobs. We find other churches. We find other faces for Divinity. Some of us stay, and if we stay we will either shut up about what happened or, if we are very brave, and believe deeply men who profess to speak for God can and should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us, we pursue our case, not because we’re going to get anything out of it (by that time most of us have realized that the financial, emotional, social and spiritual costs of this path are going to beggar us), but because we hope that in raising our voices we will remind other ministers that with great power comes great responsibility.

And if we do, we learn that we are “angry,” “vindictive,” “shrill,” “carrying things too far,” “insisting on our pound of flesh,” “being unchristian,” “giving the Lord’s Work a black eye.” We are reminded that we are to forgive those who sin against us, that no one held a gun to our heads while we were in those seedy hotel rooms, those back seats,those back rooms among the cleaning supplies, plungers, and discarded Morning Watch books, or god help us, on those desks. We know that. Most of us spend a lot of time wondering if we do share responsibility for the destruction of our own lives. We wonder if we did dress inappropriately. We wonder if we inadvertently sent a “come-hither” message. We wonder how it happened that we started out serving God, and ended up servicing a minister.

We don’t know, because abusive ministers are smart. They don’t pick the strong, happy, emotionally healthy women as their victims. They pick those of us who have failed. who know shame, who have bad reputations, who believe we are damned, who have grown up being victimized by other men of God. They pick those of us who believe we are nothing, and are so pathetically grateful to discover that we are something after all that it takes us far, far too long to discover that we were never nothing, and that what we have become is killing our souls. They pick those of us like that, and then they use the power of their “God-given” positions to use us. And because we have grown up in a system that has taught us that we are nothing, that we have no right to determine what happens to our own bodies, that we bear all of the responsibility and none of the power in sexual matters, we let them. And we wonder if it’s our fault.

Why does it take Carolyn so long to realize that David Terrell is not going to “do right by her?” The mystery is that she is able to know it at all. I hope she’s doing well.

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I grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist home. For those unfamiliar with the denomination, it grew out of the same explosion of religious fervor that gave birth to Mormonism and I believe the Baptists, and was characterized by its conviction that all of its doctrines were firmly based on scripture. Ellen G. White, one of the church founders, was–and is–widely regarded as a prophet in Adventist circles.

With its conviction that it holds “God’s final message for these last days,” that as “the remnant” Adventists will experience extreme persecution, and its “olde-tyme religion” focus it is perhaps natural that Adventism is heavily populated by social conservatives, as well as religious conservatives.

When I was growing up Good Adventists used the works of Ellen White to develop their child-rearing practices, but which portions of Ellen White got the most weight varied from home to home. In our home, one of the biggest issues was Knees.

Ours weren’t supposed to show. This was because Ellen White had said that women’s dresses should come “half way between the knee and the ankle.”

“Count yourselves lucky,” our mother said when we objected. “Your dad wants you to actually wear them there, but I talked him into just having them cover your knees.”

And so, while the rest of the world in which we lived sported neat frocks that hit them just an inch or so above the knees, our dresses came below our knees. Because that was Modest. Because that was what Ellen White  (aka “The Spirit of Prophecy”) said. In vain did we question why knees were obscene. In vain did we beg to look just a little more like our classmates. Our knees remained firmly covered.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned that when Ellen White was establishing the Adventist Dress Code in the 1800’s her strictures were considered bizarre, and women who wore them were subjected to the same sort of ostracism and humiliation that we girls experienced. But in her day the issue was not Modesty, but Health. Ellen White advocated for shorter dresses–and in fact for pantaloons–that allowed women to move more freely, and kept dresses from dragging the filth and manure from the streets inside and spreading disease.

As far as I have been able to gather, one of Ellen White’s central concerns as she wrote about fashion was women’s health. She maintained that clothing should be appropriate to the weather, simple and loose enough to promote easy movement, and short enough to avoid the unnecessary spread of germs. All that makes sense.

But when my parents were citing her strictures on fashion–following the same rules–their justification was not the promotion of health, but Modesty. And so it was that lived a key part of our life following an outmoded set of rules (that in fact inhibited free movement and health) for a reason that had nothing to do with the reason those rules were originally imposed. In our case, the rules about Modesty were so stringently enforced because the family was rife with child molesters, and in those days, in the circles in which we moved, the best way to address that sort of problem was to keep the kiddies from looking Alluring. Keep them Modest. You know. Unattractive. Like Good Christian Girls should look.

And so it was that a set of guidelines originally put in place to solve a real problem became a weapon in a struggle of a very different nature.

All of which puts me in mind of Grover Norquist, and pledges, and the GOP, and the issue of taxes.

Like the Seventh-day Adventist child-rearing tenets of my childhood, our tax structure was established to meet the needs of a world that no longer exists. And yet we have a whole segment of our population who continue to demand that those old systems designed to work for a smaller population with different demographics and different values and vastly different financial demands–the halfway between the knee and the ankle hemlines–are more than adequate to meet the needs of our nation. Indeed, they are seeking to move those hemlines down, down, down so they are once again dragging through the manure in the streets. Not only must no new taxes be imposed, but those in place must be cut, ever cut, and never, ever, reinstated.

Like the hemlines of my childhood, the outmoded tax structures are most firmly supported by those who don’t have to suffer from them. My father, who dressed exactly like all the other men at his job and in our church, was the lead advocate for hemlines in our house. He could talk about the need for Modesty, he could praise us for looking like Good Christian Girls and thereby earning the scorn of the children we would have liked to have for friends because that scorn never touched him. It’s easy to make rules that don’t touch us personally.

It is perhaps no accident that the people who promote the outmoded tax systems most vociferously are those for whom they work well–the very wealthy, and their bought and paid for legislators.

I’m a grown-up; I can dress how I like. My taxes are, I believe, mostly pretty fair for my income. So what’s the point of all this? There are two, actually.

The first point is that great harm can be done by blindly enforcing outmoded rules. The rules of my childhood contributed to the lonely, painful world in which I grew up. Had my local Adventist system–and my family–decided to espouse the underlying principles of health that led to Ellen White writing those words in the first place, my world would have been a far more comfortable, logical place. Instead of seeking the theological meaning of Knees, I might have been dressed in simple, age-appropriate clothing that promoted active involvement with my world and the people in it.

Likewise, if, instead of blindly enforcing a no-tax ban the likes of Grover Norquist, his pledgees, and his minions chose to take a look at the needs of a nation to function as a healthy whole and then sought to fill those needs responsibly and fairly, accounting for the increased needs of increased populations, they might do great good.

The second point is that the Adventist system as I knew it used what any reasonable person would understand to be an outmoded rule as a weapon in a hidden war. The true reason for enforcing hemlines in such a draconian fashion was to protect child molesters–to “not place temptation in their path,” to make sure that all of us girl children understood that if we found ourselves subjected to unwelcome advances it was our own fault, we had “tempted a man beyond what he could bear.” Instead of protecting children from predators, the system existed to protect the predators, both from children, and from themselves.

I see something similar at play in the debate in Congress today. Those pledges aren’t about teaching government to spend more reasonably. Nor are they about protecting “the middle classes” (the theoretical beneficiary of all this tax cutting). Like our hemlines, those pledges are about protecting a hidden population, those who truly benefit from the way that taxes are structured. When cuts happen, the invariable first cuts are to funds used to equalize the playing field, to provide a health and standard of living baseline–a safety net to keep those who struggle the hardest from slipping through the cracks.

Of course there will be those who work the system, just as there were girls among us who rolled their skirts. But using that fact as justification for stealing the safety net from those who have not misused the system is just plain wrong. And to do so when the wealthiest remain protected from any sort of meaningful contribution adds insult to injury.

So what’s the answer? Certainly it’s not in half-measures, any more than my mother’s solution that our dresses “only” cover our knees was a solution to the issue of pedophilia with which we were grappling. Cutting safety net programs and reducing already-unfair taxes on the very rich is no more effective a solution.

Maybe the answer for taxes is the same as the answer should have been for hemlines all those years ago. Maybe that answer begins with discarding a set of rules that no longer reflect the reality in which we life, and building a new code that meets our needs today. Maybe it continues with asking questions.

1. Who are we as a nation?

2. How much money do we have?

3. Where does it come from?

4. How can we provide for the emergencies that we will surely face, both as citizens, and as a nation?

5. What are our financial resources?

6. Where do they lie?

7. How can we work it so that everyone contributes, but that no one is asked to contribute disproportionately?

8. How can we spend what we have more effectively?

And perhaps most important:

9. Who are we really protecting by taking this action?

And maybe it ends with–well, maybe it never ends. Maybe the answer is less in creating a new set of rules than it is in finding a new way to think about what we are doing, as people, and as a nation. How do we solve problems? How do we meet the financial needs we share as a people? How do we take the principles that helped to shape us as a nation, and use those principles not as a set of rules to protect the powerful, or to demand that all others think and act like we do, but to carefully, rigorously, and responsibly shape ourselves into a nation that reflects not only who we were, but who we are now, and who we dream of becoming.

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All this week, two things have been pretty much dominating our days: the ongoing drama (I heard one commentator calling it “Kabuki theater”) of the debt ceiling debate, and football camp.

Even though I have largely sworn off watching political coverage, the specter of a possible national default was enough to persuade me to start checking in with the news again. The irony of the public horror at the thought of declaring bankruptcy when I myself just had to go through it did not escape me. Indeed, when I first heard a news anchor waxing passionate on the subject I have to admit I rolled my eyes and said, “This would probably bother me a lot more had I not just had to do it myself.”

Then I did a little research and realized that there was a lot more involved, that as with most of what we see happening politically these days the real debate was over things that really don’t hold up well under scrutiny, and that raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with allowing us to incur more expenses, but everything to do with honoring debts we have already incurred.

I came to the conclusion that the debt ceiling should be raised, no matter how distasteful the idea may be. I even agree that we should get spending under control, and that some of the loopholes that allow those who bear much of the responsibility for the global crash to evade paying their fair share should be closed.

The hitch, of course, is that Taxes have become a religion to many in the Republican party, and as with any religion, you have your liberals, who might concede to closing tax loopholes, and your conservatives, who might consent under duress but who suspect the liberals are probably going to Hell. And then you have your lunatic fringe, the wild-eyed tax fundamentalists who insist that what was good enough for George Washington tax-wise should be good enough for us.

And if that isn’t enough, you’ve also got your basic Mean Girl thing going on in the GOP, which has decided that Good Policy is making President Obama’s life so miserable he finally gives up and goes away and lets them have the best office again. I could talk about how veiled and therefore more virulent racism seems to fuel a lot of that, but what would be the point? Somebody somewhere would be sure to utter the words, “Job-killing taxes,” and there we would be, in the middle of an argument we cannot hope to settle because the real things we’re arguing about aren’t the things many of us claim to be arguing about. And because for some of us, our position has become an article of faith, something in which we believe, even though we can’t really provide a good explanation for it. In fact, merely asking for fact-based, logical reasons for our beliefs is like expecting us to produce God in a test tube.

So there’s the news. But in our town there’s also football camp. Every year, the middle school and high school coaches send out word that for two weeks in July they will teach any kid in town old enough to walk and potty train reliably how to play football. (Actually I think kids have to be in elementary school, but you get my point. They cast their nets wide, because there aren’t enough big fish around here for us to be snobbish about hauling in a few minnows.)

Every evening for the last two weeks, the practice field between the high school and the middle school has filled up with boys ranging in height from Patrick, who is six four now, down to a very small child whose head didn’t reach a number of the boys’ waists. I think his big brother wanted to come to football camp, but he had to babysit. And so he brought his little brother along. And because this is our town, and coaches make allowances to get as many kids onto the field as possible, they made the little guy a part of the program. All this week he has run plays with boys bigger and older than he is. He had an unfortunate meeting with a big boy foot during stretches a couple nights ago and developed a nice shiner, but he ran on, undaunted.

He’s the smallest boy, but he’s far from the only little one. Because we’re small potatoes here, football camp welcomes all shapes and sizes. The coaches divide the boys by size and ability for running drills, but the whole group stretches together, and from time to time throughout the evening the head coach blows his whistle and brings all the boys together for footraces, pushing contests, and various games designed to build speed, stamina, and spirit. Patrick says he also talks to them about what it means to be a team–that you become family, encourage the weaker and slower among you, and celebrate all victories together. I saw it play out in the exercises and races, where faster, more agile boys would sometimes double back to run with and encourage a slower boy, and where everybody cheered for a boy who succeeded in doing something right for the first time.

For the last two weeks, I have sat on the grass with my back propped against a power pole and watched a few of the men in my town teach the boys and young men coming after them about the joys of doing something well, of working as a team, and of stretching one’s self beyond one’s limits.

But as I watched I realized that those boys are learning something else as well. They are learning how to be careful of each other. There are probably almost a hundred boys out on that field. They range in height from 6’4″ down to the little guy, who is maybe three feet tall. For much of the time they are engaged in vigorous, close-range activity. There have been few accidents, none serious. I look at the big boys, and watch how they temper their responses to teach the young ones rather than dominate them. I watched the littlest kid’s big brother keep track of him. I watched the coaches watch out for him, shaping his participation to both teach him and protect him. I watched the coaches help the boys to discover each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and then work together for a common goal.

I watched all that, and I realized that while our national life is very much reverting to the law of tooth and claw and might is all, in our town, at least, the boys in football camp are learning about a different law–a law that says that everyone who wants to be involved is welcome, that everyone needs to try their best, that there is no room for egos and power trips on the field, and that if you’re bigger and stronger you have a responsibility to do more than just outplay everyone else. You are responsible for seeing to it that your actions don’t injure the smaller and weaker among you. And you are responsible for showing them what it means to participate with joy, with passion, with excellence, with respect for others, and with honor and sportsmanship. Football camp is about teaching football, but the way it happens here it’s about teaching honor as well.

Perhaps President Obama needs to hold a football camp. I’m happyt to ask our coaches if they’re available.

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