Monday, February 25, 2013

Wor(CENSOR)ship

Hi. My name is Sonny Lemmons, and I used to work for the American Family Association.

No. I can't believe it either. But it's true.

Growing up in Tupelo, MS - especially growing up attending a Southern Baptist church in Tupelo, MS - it was almost impossible to escape the shadow of the AFA. But in much the same way you can stare at your own reflection for so long it begins to grow dull to your eyes, so it was with the AFA. We knew it was there, we knew it was angry about a lot of different things, but we didn't really know how the organization and their vitriol was viewed by others. Keep in mind this was WELL before the Internet took over everything and we could, say, check the weather forecast in Uzbekistan.

We lived in a happy, stupid bubble.

The year was 1991. I was a Sophomore in college, working part-time at a local Christian book store. One day, two gentlemen from the AFA came into the store, looking to purchase a large number of CDs, but were clueless as to what was "popular" in Christian music. Keep in mind at the time, "popular" reflected Steven Curtis Chapman, Sandi Patty, or the - to me - annoyingly schmaltzy group 4Him, so my tastes veered a bit from the norm. They mentioned they were looking for someone who was in college, who could relate to that demographic, who was knowledgeable about Christian music, and who preferably had some radio experience, as they were launching a new station and were trying to find someone to take on the weekend shift.

I don't think the manager of the bookstore could have spouted my name fast enough. Not that she wanted to lose me, but she knew what my passions were. So, with a heavy heart and armed with my knowledge about the inner workings of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), I soon tendered my resignation with the bookstore and became a paid on-air professional as one of the first DJs at American Family Radio.

Almost from day one, I realized what I had agreed to was painfully different from the reality of what was expected of me. My Sunday morning shift (5:30 am - 2:00 pm) would keep me from ever attending church while I was employed there, and as part of my work schedule, I had to pick up this shift. I wound up just setting up a few reel-to-reels of hymns or instrumental music while I caught up on the homework I had ignored the rest of the weekend, going live every so often to give the station ID, the time, the weather, or to read the required number per hour of Bible verses pulled from the box of pre-approved passages (with appropriate translation) perched on the top of the board.

My "contemporary" broadcasting was relegated to the late Saturday evening hours, mainly 9:00 pm until midnight. Leading up to that were several hours of canned shows, including a countdown show highlighting the songs which were charting nationwide in CCM (most of which, ironically, I never played during my three hours of original programming). Of course, everything I wanted to play had to first be vetted by the manager of the station as to being of the quality that the AFA would want to represent it. The same manager who was looking for someone to program for music he didn't "get." This was the guy who was going to tell me what was acceptable to play, based primarily on the lyrics of the songs found in the inserts of the CDs.

I was told that Phil Keaggy's cover of the hymn "Talk About Suffering" was "too upbeat," that Charlie Peacock's WEST COAST DIARIES were "too controversial" to be played, and that I could not use the "Best Of" charts from Contemporary Christian Music Magazine because they included such "unChristian" albums as the 77's Ping Pong Over the Abyss, Mark Heard's IDEOLA and The Joshua Tree from U2. Petra was "too heavy," DeGarmo and Key "too worldly sounding," Kim Boyce "too bubbly," Kim Hill "too husky," Daniel Amos "too confusing," and I was told that because they couldn't understand the name of the band Chagall Guevera, their music wasn't fit for broadcast. I was repeatedly told that music like this, and the artists they represented, weren't of high enough quality.

You know. The music and artists my friends were listening to. The music and artists that could have hooked the casual listener who was just scanning the dial. The music and artists that could have reached out to people who thought all Christian music, and by association Christians themselves, was bland and uninspiring.

The very reason they hired me.

My association with the AFA lasted roughly one semester.

What broke my heart then (and still does to this day) is that not only was I told that the music that fed me and that brought me into closer fellowship with God was not "right," but it was potentially offensive to others. Based on the number of times "Jesus" was mentioned in the lyrics was a litmus test of if the song was acceptable or not. No matter if the song spoke to pain, brokenness, or wrestling with the deeper issues of life, if it didn't measure up to an arbitrary set of standards, it wasn't worthy.

This is, sadly, still a bias held by many in churches today, and not just in music selection (I rue the day the first Passion CD ever sold). If an individual doesn't measure up to a certain standard, if they don't act or even look a certain way, then they probably aren't fit for fellowship or membership with this church -  and absolutely not for leadership. They may not be outright banned (unlike my music was), but made to feel unwelcome or unfit? Absolutely.

The divorced.

The single parent.

The mixed race couple.

The same sex couple.

The unmarried woman.

We hope for and want their salvation, yes, but on our terms, with our qualifications, and by our rules.

Many churches take their interpretation of perfected societal norms and raise them as the standard by which they want to be viewed. They want to be perceived as being just like the happy, smiling, public domain family photos they use in their publications. God literally forbid if their congregation externally reflected what the world looks like beyond their walls, or that it should reflect the inner turmoil dominating the lives of many of the same people who attend their services week after week.

"If you want to be one of His, you've gotta act like one of us." Lyrics by Steve Taylor. From his 1982 debut album.

You know.

One of the ones I couldn't play on the air.

Funny that.

What's it going to take for the church to stop censoring the lives of those who have come to worship, to bow down? When will we accept our faith doesn't have to be pretty all the time? 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pre-K Gender Identity

Exhibit A: Plastic broccoli.

Roughly a year ago, I was in a local toy store with Kai. They had plenty of "floor model" toys for the kids to play with, which was great for an attention grabber, but wretched for trying to make it out of the store without purchasing something. Once we walked in, Kai made a beeline for the back wall, where he grabbed a plastic shopping cart and loaded it up with toy vegetables before heading to "cook" in the model kitchen.



A few minutes later, another parent, a mom, came in with a little boy who looked to be roughly the same age as Kai. He headed towards the kitchen area as well, but before he could join in the fun of pushing around a buggy full of faux bananas, his mom grabbed his arm to stop him. She then, in a not-too-subtle voice, announced to the store:

"No, we're going to go over here to go play with toys that little boys should play with."

You know: trucks. Swords. John Deere tractors. And other such clearly masculine things.

Exhibit B: Flouride.

Last week, I took Kai to Target to go load up on many of the staples we needed at home. I knew his supply of toothpaste was running low, so we walked over to the appropriate aisle so he could select his next tube of fruit-flavored cavity protection.

He narrowed his choices for which toothpaste to get down to two based on the character on the front of the package: Thomas the Tank Engine or My Little Pony. After going back and forth, he finally settled on My Little Pony. There was another shopper on the aisle we were on, and she had been watching our debate on the pros and cons of which toothpaste to select with more than a little interest. After we put Kai's selection in the buggy, she approached me and asked me:

"Excuse me, but you are aware that toothpaste is for girls, aren't you?"

Clearly, these examples cite how I am failing as a father and as a man. I'm allowing my son to make poor life choices that will affect his sense of gender identity by letting him play with fake produce, to say nothing of how letting him use toothpaste with a cartoon horse on it will obviously cause him to not understand how to use a urinal.

Here's the thing: he's not even four years old yet. So what if he loves to pretend to cook? So what if TANGLED is his favorite Disney film? So what if he, in the cutest, sweetest manner possible, finds babies adorable and says "aww" whenever he sees one? So what if most mornings he wants to just sit and cuddle under a blanket on the couch for a few minutes while we watch TV?

Because he stays home with me, he sees me cook, clean, shop, do laundry - all the stereotypical "mom" duties. We spend hours each week reading, making crafts, and even hosting "dance parties" in the living room or outside in the backyard. I love the fact that he sees me - his dad - doing all of this. I love that he's going to grow up without a sense of predisposed gender roles within a relationship. I love the fact that instead of him staying all day in daycare, most of which have a predominantly female staff, he gets to see both of his parents interacting with him.

I've been called a "man fail." I've had my faith called into question because I have chosen for three-plus years to stay home with my kid and "let" my wife's work be the primary source of our income. I've had total strangers - moms, usually - look at me with distrust because I'm out alone with him at the park, the store, or elsewhere.

But I've also been called "daddy" by a bright-eyed kid with a mop of curly, sandy-brown hair. And the trust and love this kid shows me (which, admittedly, a lot of which will expire sometime around puberty) drowns out the voices and glances of people who would probably prefer it if I took him to a monster truck rally instead of Whole Foods.

The thing is, we play what he wants to play. He will go from pretending he's a superhero one minute to a ninja the next. We'll put on puppet shows followed by going to the kitchen to prep lunch or dinner. We'll draw maps detailing everything we did that day before we go outside to play "robot tag" or any other game he comes up with. We'll use sticks as swords before we play soccer in the mud.

So if he wants to ask for the Pink Power Ranger outfit for Halloween? Big deal.

And after his brother is born? Yep. I'm probably going to screw him up just as much by staying home with him as well, loving on him, and letting his personality shine brighter than my expectations.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

One Word 2013.1 - Reflections on January

I knew this word was going to be trouble.

If you keep at something long enough, you run the risk of developing getting into a rut, falling into a routine, or somehow becoming complacent with how you operate. While it can - and is - justifiably arguable that being a stay-at-home dad for three years brings with it a new set of challenges and experiences every so often, the opposite is also true in that some days (weeks, even) seem to be stuck on an endless repeat cycle of doing the same things over and over again.

And I'm not just taking about how, given his preferences, Kai would probably be okay with eating chicken nuggets, fries, gummy bears, and apple juice for every meal for the rest of his life.

I didn't choose my word "Now" for this year. It chose me. It chose me because God knows there is a dangerously thin line between granting him alone play time so he can learn to play by himself, and my telling him to go play in his room so I can spend more time on the Internet. There is a dangerously thin line between me genuinely stepping away for a minute to get a refill of coffee before coming back to his room and my going into the kitchen to wash dishes or prep dinner while I plop him in front of a TV. There is a dangerously thin line between the amount of time Ashley and I need to just sit in front of the TV for a minute at night just to let our minds unwind and suddenly glancing at the clock only to realize we've been watching The History Channel for three hours and another night has passed by without us talking. Again.

And once our second kid is born in a few months? This word - "Now" - is going to take on an entirely new set of challenges. And it will develop an entirely new sacred meaning.

And it will become that much more important.

That's why I've been trying to get Kai to cook with me in the kitchen.

That's why I've been telling myself it's okay to sit and play with his action figures - again - instead of prepping dinner hours ahead of time.

That's why I've been trying to look up from my world and into the worlds I interact with.

Because "Now" has a shadow. A shadow called "Never." And that shadow threatens to fall on my life if I choose to not act.

So minus the two weeks of rest (HA!) I got from the flu, I've been trying to let the light of being in the now so shine before me so as to not let the shadow of never fall.

It also means we got to make rockets out of toilet paper rolls.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Cursing the Cursor

January was a fun month for writing. And I state that with as much sarcasm I as I can possibly muster.

To be fair, there were a few bright spots: I finalized the largest paid writing assignment I've had (to date); I was asked to submit a few guest posts which are coming up at other websites; and I knocked out a couple of pretty good posts for Prodigal Magazine. But after that, things got tricky.

Okay, not so much tricky as sickly: Ashley got sick. And since she's pregnant, that meant that she needed to rest as much as possible, so I was on Kai duty pretty much 24/7. But a couple of days after she got sick, so did he. Anyone who has a kid can tell you that taking care of them solo is difficult work, but taking care of them solo, while they're sick, is doubly difficult.

So of course about three days after he got sick, I woke up with a fever of 102.

All this adds up to three people, at various ages and stages of being sick, having to stay confined to the inside of their house for nearly ten days straight. And yes, it's about as exciting and relaxing as it sounds.

The first time any of us felt well enough to venture outside to something other than the drug or grocery store was this past Saturday. Therefore, we thought an attempt to get back to normalcy where I spend the day writing while they have a "Mommy/Malakai Play Date" was in order. I loaded up my notebooks, my iPad, and my bag of trail mix, and headed off to a favored writing spot in order to let the backlog of creativity just come flowing out of me.

An hour later, I realized all I'd been doing was cutting and pasting the same paragraphs over and over again, arranging them in different sequences.

Right now, my brain has the same problem my palate has: everything is bland. While I was waylaid by the flu these past few weeks, my tongue stopped tasting things. Nothing has the same pop or flavor that it held only recently. My writing is experiencing the same problem; the words I write out seem to be flat, dull, and lacking in spice. I know it's not always going to be like this, and that that words in my heart will come to life once more and eventually show up again. But for the time being, it's a struggle.

That's why for as frustrating as it is, I keep writing. I had to down bland soup, bland crackers, bland grilled cheese sandwiches, and even bland coffee (to me) while sick in order to give my body the energy it needed to help fight the infection. If this means I have to stare for a little while longer at a blinking cursor and write out words that I think contain as much passion as reading a DVD player manual, so be it.

The alternative is to let the coating of crud remain.

And I enjoy cooking - and writing - far too much to let that happen.