Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, reviewed by Marion D. Aldridge

Hillbilly Elegy is a “New York Times #1 Bestseller,” and, according to all accounts, an Important Book, meaning, we should probably read it. Written before the 2016 election, it explains a lot about the perceived disestablishment of older white men throughout much of the country, the formerly powerful feeling powerless, and even the rise of Donald Trump. Hillbillies never had much clout, but Vance argues that, previously, they could at least make a living for their family.

Vance subtitled his volume, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. His roots are the mountains and hollers of Kentucky and sections of Ohio to which the economically depressed people of Appalachia transplanted themselves.

My dad’s family came from the Horse Creek Valley in the sand hills of South Carolina, in many ways similar to Vance’s Appalachia. My granddaddy and daddy were mill workers. My dad’s nickname was Rube, which means country bumpkin. The great difference in Vance and me appears to be that he blames his culture for the slights he’s endured in his thirty-one years of life, while I credit my family, as deprived economically as his, for providing a solid foundation of core values.

He writes, “Yes, my parents fought intensely, but so did everyone else’s.” I don’t believe that. It’s not even true of the other members of his extended family. Vance falls victim to universalizing his own experience. It makes a good story, but it ain’t necessarily so.

He bemoans his mother’s alcoholism and drug addiction, and I can feel his pain. He doesn’t burn with the anger of Pat Conroy who wrote creatively and passionately about his father’s abusiveness. But Vance writes well and interestingly about his family and culture. Yet, all the while, I kept thinking his issues were as much family as culture. After all, there are alcoholics and drug addicts in the wealthiest neighborhoods of every community. Maybe the numbers are disproportionately high in so-called hillbilly communities, but he didn’t convince me.

Obviously, culture affects us, whether we grow up with a military family that moves every few years, or in a Chinese neighborhood in San Francisco, or in an urban setting in Chicago, or on a small island in the Pacific.

Vance introduced me to a term with which I was not familiar, Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), apparently a kissing cousin to PTSD, to explain symptoms in adults who suffered various types of emotional or physical violence in their childhood homes, e.g., a parent who attempted suicide. Such experiences are in no way limited to the people of Appalachia. Adversity also happens in Hollywood and Hawaii.

Vance’s anecdotes from his childhood are entertaining, but a few more statistics would have been helpful to make his case.

Vance comes close to being the definition of a “self-made man.” He quotes his sister Lindsay, “You have to stop making excuses and take responsibility.” After a rocky childhood, Vance joined the Marines, graduated from Ohio State University, and then finished Yale Law School. He has impressive credentials and is now, something of a media darling, a member of the Ivy League Elite. Upward mobility appears to be his mantra. He credits individuals within his culture and family system with being helpful but is openly disdainful of government involvement. Yet, public schools, the Marines, and the Ohio State University are all government entities.

I think both/and/and/and/and/and is more honest than either/or.

Family, local hillbilly culture, American culture, teachers, the Marines, personal decisions, intelligence, white maleness, dumb luck, grace, providence, and hard work are each a part of Vance’s success story.

I like this book. It’s easy to read and provocative. It’s one of the narratives of some working class white people, but not the whole story.

Categories: addiction, Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Family | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Christmas in New England

A few months ago, the Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, Connecticut asked me to serve as their Interim Pastor beginning the Second Sunday of Advent. I accepted and I leave to drive there next Thursday, December 1.

Another year, another adventure.

Yes, I have the seasons mixed up. I should be in the South during cold weather and go North in summer, but that’s not the way 2016-2017 worked out. Here’s the Quote for the Day on one of the websites (Daily Dharma) I read:

“When we reach out to what is unknown to us, we let go of the notion that we can control what we experience.” Ken McLeod, Where the Thinking Stops

Wilton Baptist, averaging 35-40 people in attendance every Sunday, is practically a megachurch compared with Trinity Baptist of Hanover, where I served last winter. Wilton Baptist has an active congregation, Sunday school and music program, and outreach ministry. They’ve had fine pastoral leadership over the years. My task is to help them transition to whatever and whoever is next for them.

They own a manse, so that’s where I’ll stay. I’m told New York City is just a short commuter train ride away, so I expect I’ll go into NYC occasionally.

Sally will fly up to see me over the Christmas holidays. I loved having guests in New Hampshire, so come visit if you can. There’s a spare bedroom. I’m taking enough grits so I can have company stay over.

My address and contact info will be

Marion D. Aldridge

222 Mountain Road

Wilton, CT 06897

(803) 413-2734

mariondaldridge@gmail.com

Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Family, Holiday, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Turning off the Noise

People ask me why I’ve not published my blog the last few months. My response is that I’ve not wanted to add to the noise.

At least in sports we’re honest enough to call the racket, “trash talk.”

A friend once explained to me why a meeting had taken so long: “Everything had been said, but not everyone had said it.”

That’s how I felt the past few months. I would have been adding to the uproar. So I stayed quiet.

When our oldest daughter was a child, my wife’s favorite children’s book was Jill Murphy’s Five Minutes’ Peace. Note this was Sally’s favorite book, not necessarily Jenna’s. The idea was that a harried, frazzled mother needed, not an entire day off, or a week’s vacation, just five minutes alone in the bathtub when she wouldn’t be bothered by the demands of being a mom.

God, from this frenzy, give us five minutes’ peace.

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Stopping, calming, and resting are preconditions for healing. When animals in the forest are wounded they find a place to lie down and rest completely for many days . . . They just rest and get the healing they need.”

It’s not an accident that the language of spirituality includes words that encourage us to call “Time out” occasionally.

Sanctuary

Contemplation

Meditation

Refuge

Retreat

Sabbath

Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, says, “There’s a time to speak and a time to be silent.”

Categories: Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Family, Health, Holiday | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

An appeal from my son-in-law…

On October 23, 2016, I will be running the Newburyport Half Marathon. I am asking my friends, family, and anyone else who might be so inclined to help me raise money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (aka the CCFA).  I have never done anything like this before, either the running or the fundraising, so I am pretty nervous about it. So if you could help me out with a donation and/or some words of encouragement, I would be really appreciative.
I want to tell you my story and why I’ve chosen to run this race. As you may or may not know, my wife Julie has suffered from Crohn’s disease and/or ulcerative colitis (collectively known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease of IBD) since before I ever knew her. Julie is kind, funny, giving, caring, whip smart, and the most thoughtful person I know. She is also one of the hardest working people I have ever met. But Crohn’s and UC aren’t easy diseases to deal with, and they often lay her low. She had major surgery when she was 21 and has had regular doctor’s visits ever since.
She’ll run out of energy out of no where, be stopped in her tracks by pain, or be unable to function seconds after feeling okay. She takes innumberable medications, including weekly shots at home and regular visits to the hospital for drug infusions. Julie is also really tough, both mentally and physically, but the combination of pain, fatigue, and other symptoms really take their toll. It is incredibly hard to have to watch her go through it. I try to help out as much as I can, but there really isn’t anything I can do about the condition itself. To say it can be frustrating or even maddening would be a serious understatement.
But I know who I married — like I said, Julie is supremely tough, she hates to lose, and she hates to give up. The fact of the matter is she has no choice but to fight every single moment of every single day. She doesn’t settle for good enough either — she is always fighting for more, for a better life, for one more activity, for one more hour on her feet or out of bed. But when you’re sick, when you have Crohn’s or UC, sometimes you can’t fight for yourself anymore, and (to paraphrase the late Stuart Scott of ESPN, who died of cancer a few years ago), when you are sick and you find that you are too tired to fight, go lay down and let someone else fight for you. So that’s what I’m trying to do — take my fight for Julie and other IBD patients to another level. I will never stop fighting for Julie on a daily basis even though I don’t think I can ever fight as hard as she does for herself, but I wanted to do something more to raise awareness and make a realy difference. Because the doctors, scientists, and researchers will only be able to find a cure to this “cruel and devious” disease unless people raise money to fund their research.
So please, donate a few dollars to help me try and put an end to Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis. I will be ever thankful for whatever contributions you might provide.
For further reading, I recommend this article by Joe Posnanski, a writer for NBC Sports who covered the Olympics this past August: http://www.nbcolympics.com/news/joe-posnanski-kathleen-bakers-crohns-disease-isnt-curse — Posnanski has been open about his daughter’s recent diagnosis with Crohn’s and became close with Kathleen Baker, a multiple-Olympic medal winner for the USA in Rio. The article is touching and occassionally difficult to read, but he says a lot of things better than I ever could (I stole the description of Crohn’s as “cruel and devious” from him).
I also think you should read the description of Crohn’s and UC below, which was given to me by the CCFA when I set up this page:
About Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are both major categories of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD). IBD affects an estimated 1.6 million Americans. These chronic diseases tend to run in families and they affect males and females equally. Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract and may affect any part from the mouth to the anus. Ulcerative colitis is a chronic inflammatory condition limited to the colon, otherwise known as the large intestine.
The Mission of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America is: To cure and prevent Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis through research, and to improve the quality of life of children and adults affected by these digestive diseases through education and support.
Again, to anyone and everyone who can and does contribute, thank you so, so much from the bottom of my heart. I am going to train hard and run the best race that I can on October 23, 2016, and it would be great to know that I was bringing a lot of my family and friends along for the ride.
Tom (Julie’s husband)
How to contribute:  http://online.ccfa.org/site/TR/TeamChallenge/Chapter-NewEngland?px=1591715&pg=personal&fr_id=6380
Categories: Family, Health | Tags: , , , , | 11 Comments

No Wiggle Room on a Church Staff

No Wiggle Room on a Church Staff

Marion Aldridge

(This blog describes a problem I have never heard named. Unfortunately, I have not proposed a solution. I hope I am starting a helpful conversation, since I don’t have an answer. What are your ideas?)

Most churches are small. Compared to the government’s various definitions of “small business,” which can be up to 50-500 employees, our congregations are tiny. It is a rare church that has a dozen employees. Most have one (the pastor) or two (the pastor and an administrative assistant). Some have full-time or part-time employees with very specialized skills—financial secretary, minister of music, preschool coordinator.

If someone is a good employee, but in the wrong job, larger businesses can move a person to an assignment where he or she can succeed.

Aha!

Churches can’t do that. We are too small. There is no wiggle room. Promotions and demotions are nearly impossible in ecclesiastical life within the same congregation.

In conversation with one of my friends who owns and manages a fried chicken franchise, he contended that one of the tasks of a successful supervisor is to get a person in the right job. My friend, for example, hires someone for a three-month probationary period to work the front counter. He soon discovers the new person doesn’t have the social abilities to work with customers face to face. The individual is faithful in attendance, shows up on time, and isn’t afraid of work. So my buddy makes the employee a dishwasher. The boss keeps a good employee and the worker keeps his job as a wage earner.

Most churches are too small for a similar scenario. A good receptionist does not necessarily make a good financial secretary and vice versa. An exceptional Minister of Music does not necessarily make an exceptional Minister of Youth. Like other businesses, churches enlarge and shrink. Change happens. Difficult choices must be made. What does a congregation do with a pastor when they discover the nice person they called doesn’t have the skill set required to lead a church? A “probationary” period in calling a minister would be extremely rare. What happens when, even after a time of magnificent ministry, it is obvious that an individual and a church’s current situation are no longer a fit?

The exceptions in ecclesiastical organizations are denominations with a Catholic or Methodist polity, where the system and not the local congregation is the employer. In those settings, clergy can be moved from one place to another without fear of being terminated for the “sin” of a bad fit.

Exacerbating the problem, most churches use pious language to describe a hiring as a calling. I like that language. We talk about a “call” being the will of God. It is hard to move from a deeply held spiritual conviction about vocation to saying, “We no longer believe you working here is the will of God.” But, to be fair, other jobs are also callings, and teachers and accountants are not exempt from forced career changes.

Furthermore, churches are volunteer organizations that depend on the generosity of members to pay salaries and meet the budget. Even an employee despised by 90% of a congregation may be loved by 10%. That ten percent might leave if there is an involuntary resignation. If the percentages are different, the results can be even more disastrous. Church sometimes lose members when a terminated pastor or minister of music takes 30%-40% of the congregation to start a new church.

Does anyone have a solution or even a suggestion regarding this painful predicament in our churches?

In the meantime…

As Christians we claim to be people of the Resurrection. We believe that life comes after death. Pain is not the end of the world. We say we trust the transformative power of God working in our lives, even when we suffer. Christians, when we are in our right minds, know that more growth happens in the valley of sorrow than on the mountaintop of pleasure. How many times have we heard someone eventually say, “They did me a favor,” after the unpleasant experience of being dismissed?

We know the Bible says, over and over and over, “Fear not,” but, when it comes to paychecks, we live fearfully.

“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Romans 5: 3

Most of us would prefer that the Bible not say such things, but it does. Still, my question is a serious one: Is there some solution to our vocational dilemma, within churches, that could be less painful for good people doing the wrong job or doing the right job in the wrong place?

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Ordination Prayer for Sanchita Kisku

God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Our Guide through the past and our Hope for the future,

We don’t have words majestic or glorious enough, sensitive or tender enough to speak adequately to God above all gods. Yet, here we are, gathered for worship, acknowledging our complete reliance on a Higher Power.

We are humbled by the Omnipotence of the Almighty and by the limitations of our humanity.

All we really know to do is to utter repeatedly the words, “Thy Will,” “Thy Reign,” “Thy Way,” “Thy Delight.”

May it happen on earth as in heaven. Let us not wait until we die. May a reign of justice and love surround us today and every day.

Today, especially, we pray for Sanchita Kisku, as we ordain her into the gospel ministry. We are grateful for the people and events that have brought her to this place and time. We ask that she continue faithfully to serve Christ and the church and individuals with the compassion we have already seen evidenced in her life. Help her to be a good listener, a good learner, and a good teacher of the Good News of Jesus.

We ask for your protection of her body, mind and soul as she engages in ministry. Help her avoid the temptations that so often befall women and men in positions of spiritual responsibility, whether deacons, pastors, chaplains or educators.

Bring her through the years, gracefully, to a good old age, where she will know the truth of the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

We pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Marion D. Aldridge on behalf of Kathwood Baptist Church, Columbia, SC

Categories: Faith/Spirituality | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Frequently Misused Religious Words

Frequently Misused Religious Words

Marion D. Aldridge

  • Altar alter (Both are good words, but they don’t mean the same thing. An altar is a place of religious ritual. To alter something is to make a change.)
  • Baptist Babtist (Babtist is not a word. Ever.)
  • Baptists Baptist (Baptists is plural, meaning more than one Baptist. A Baptist church is not full of Baptist. It is full of Baptists. Our Baptist history professor had to teach this on the first day of class.)
  • Calvary cavalry (Jesus died on Calvary. Cavalry describes soldiers who fight on horseback.)
  • Counsel council (Pastors often counsel, similar to advise, people in their congregations. A council is a group of people.)
  • Cemetery seminary (Some people make this mistake and think it’s funny. Probably not funny to men and women scholars who have invested a lifetime in fighting ignorance.)
  • Episcopal Episcopalian (Episcopal is an adjective. You can attend an Episcopal church. Episcopalian is a noun. The bishop is an Episcopalian.)
  • Hospice versus hospick. (Pure linguistic laziness, possibly complicated by low IQ. Some people say Walmark instead of Wal-Mart. There are South Carolinians who still believe their Senator was Strong Thurmond.)
  • Pastoral pastorial (not a word)
  • Prodigal prodical (not a word) Bonus: Prodigal means wasteful.
  • Prostate prostrate (How many pastors have been asked to go visit a Dad who, the pastor is told, has prostrate cancer?)
  • Psalm Psalms (Both are good words. They don’t mean the same thing. There is a book of Psalms that contains Psalm 23.)
  • Revelation Revelations (There is no book in the Bible called Revelations. The final book of the Bible is The Revelation to John.)
Categories: Faith/Spirituality, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Beware of Controversial Churnalism: News as Entertainment

Most newspapers and television stations aren’t really in the News and/or Information business. They’re in the advertising industry, making money by selling toothpaste and automobiles. Still, it drives me slightly nuts when so-called news programs and news channels use emotionally charged language to attract and hang onto viewers. Their hope is to keep you tuned in, so the really important thing you need to know is coming up in a few minutes or a few days. I’ve heard such enticements called “churnalism” because their goal is to stimulate readership and viewership, not to inform.

These words during a news broadcast or as headlines in a newspaper are a clue:

  • Alarming
  • Amazing
  • Angers
  • Blames
  • Bombshell
  • Chilling incident
  • Conspiracy
  • Controversial
  • Crackdown
  • Devastating
  • Disturbing
  • Emergency
  • Feared
  • Lashed out
  • Leaked documents
  • Monstrous
  • Power play
  • Scary
  • Shamed
  • Shocking
  • Sparking outrage
  • Stuns
  • Urgent
  • Victims

A key component of democracy is an educated electorate. We need information. I have no objection to legitimate descriptive words:

  • Deadly
  • Hoax
  • Indicted
  • Missile
  • Missing
  • Nuclear power
  • Rape
  • Sniper
  • Suicide bomber
  • Survivor
  • Suspect
  • Turmoil

There’s enough news that’s important and interesting to inform us without adding the lurid enticements of charged language. I’d prefer to keep our news sources and our entertainment sources separate. (I hope you’ll find some humor in and be entertained by this blog title, even though I have no toothpaste to sell: Beware of Controversial Churnalism.)

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Alexander Hamilton

“Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did.” Ron Chernow

Honesty compels me to confess that Broadway piqued my interest in Alexander Hamilton. Family and friends who were fortunate enough to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about Hamilton raved.

My formal education in American history was deplorable. I took the required course in the eleventh grade. Probably made a “C” and probably didn’t deserve that. But I spent most of July 2016 overcoming that deficiency. I read all 738 pages of Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. I loved it.

Somewhere in my under-utilized cranium was awareness of Hamilton versus Jefferson. I knew the name Aaron Burr. This volume remedied my early American history deficit.

Chernow covers Hamilton’s view of church and state: “The best government posture toward religion was one of passive tolerance, not active promotion of an established church.”

About mud slinging, Hamilton lamented that, “no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.” I’ve observed that in politics, religion, business and education.

Hamilton and George Washington often sided with one another against Thomas Jefferson and other “state’s rights” advocates. Hamilton and Washington “had drawn the same conclusions: the need for a national army, for centralized power over the states, for a strong executive, and for national unity.” When twenty-first century Americans want to interpret the Constitution according to the desires of our Founding Fathers, we would need to ask, “Which Founding Fathers?” They were no more homogeneous in thought than we are today.

Some of the issues our forebears wrestled with sound modern: “Hamilton had to combat the utopian notion that America could dispense with taxes altogether.

Another twenty-first century conundrum: “For Hamilton, the federal government had a right to stimulate business and also when necessary to restrain it.”

Another current dilemma is mirrored from early years of our history: “It irked Hamilton that Jefferson claimed a monopoly on morality, and he made the following retort to his adversary: ‘As to the love of liberty and country, you have given no stronger proofs of being actuated by it than I have done. Cease then to arrogate to yourself and to your party all the patriotism and virtue of the country.’”

I love it!

 

 

Categories: Book Review, Faith/Spirituality, Quotations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Advice to a Congregation with a Young Pastor

Advice to a Congregation with a Young Pastor

(Second of two parts. Part one: Advice to a Young Pastor)

Marion D. Aldridge

  1. Don’t expect your new pastor to be like your last pastor—or any other pastor, ever. Not too many decades ago, seminaries produced cookie-cutter candidates to be pastors. Same theology. Same clothes. Same haircuts. Same gender. Their wives could play piano and teach Sunday school, two employees for the price of one. Your pastor could retire or move on, and your church could almost be guaranteed to get another man very similar to the last one. That is no longer so. Nowadays graduates of the same seminary vary theologically—from fundamentalist to liberal. They vary in worship style from traditional to contemporary. They may wear tee shirts to church on Sunday and have beards or shaved heads or both. Some of the best pastors are females. If you want an old-fashioned, twentieth-century pastor, you might as well put up a For Sale sign in front of your church building now.
  2. Love your pastor. Pretend he or she is your beloved grandchild. Invite the new pastor to your house for a meal or meet somewhere for coffee and a donut. Remember your pastor’s birthday. You are at least partly responsible for your pastor’s success or failure. All pastors need support and encouragement, especially young ones. I made mistakes as a newly-minted seminary graduate in my first church. I needed help, good advice, a listening ear, wisdom, and grace more than I needed judgment.
  3. The job of being a pastor looks easier than it is. Pastors don’t think jokes about working one hour each week are funny. Believe it or not, a twenty-minute sermon may take twenty hours of preparation. Make sure young pastors have coaches, mentors and support systems that can help them successfully navigate the inevitable challenges in a congregation made up of human beings—an organization that operates in real time with real money and with real problems. Make sure your pastor does not have to choose between vacation and continuing education. No pastor graduates from seminary with all the requisite skills needed to be a competent pastor. Allow them time and money for continuing education experiences.
  4. Most conflicts in a church are about power. Even if the conflict is about the color of the pew cushions, it’s about power. He said/she said/he said/she said is always about power. Power is often about change—a marriage, a birth, a death, a retirement, a hospitalization, a bankruptcy—something that may look as if it has nothing to do with the church. Pay attention. The issues under dispute are almost never the real issues. God advises patience. God advises listening more than talking. God advises kindness. Reducing anxiety is a worthy goal. Everything young pastors attempt to do won’t work. Make sure you, as a member of the congregation, are a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. Blessed are the peacemakers.
  5. Every generation has new insights about Jesus, Holy Scripture, and the Christian faith. With a young pastor, be prepared to hear something different than what you were taught in Sunday school fifty years ago. The Bible is a Big Book. Every generation, every culture, every denomination, even every family emphasizes aspects of faith unfamiliar—maybe even anathema—to older ears. Many members of my first congregation after seminary, in 1977, deep in the segregated South, did not want to hear anything about race relations. Or, about peacemaking. Or, about an expanded role for women in the church. They heard it anyway. They grew (at least some of them did). I grew.
  6. The Christian faith, while acknowledging sin and failure, also highlights faith, hope, love, joy, peace, freedom, gratitude, being born again, resurrection, salvation, hospitality, rites of passage, baptism and blessing. Churches that find occasions to celebrate, to eat together, to laugh, to praise God, and to acknowledge successes are doing something right.   Have you ever noticed how important festivals and holidays (holy days) were in the history of Israel? Milk and honey, bread and wine. Find reasons to recognize, honor and dedicate people, places, events, or memories. Your church and your pastor will, by doing so, not only be more faithful, but happier as individuals and as a congregation.
Categories: Faith/Spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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