". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Monday, April 29, 2013

Yes, Virginia, There Really Are Bullies

Certain topics seem to wax and wane. Bullying is one. It has come around again, which is fine with me since it is a topic I care a lot about. But what I have noticed is that it is rare to come across a balanced handling of the issue. There are two extremes: those who see bullying where it is not, and those who refuse to see it where it is.

Let me explain. The first category consists of people who use the allegation of bullying to silence freedom of thought and expression. Another name for it is political correctness, and it consists of commandeering the means of discourse so as to mold the way people think. With this strategy, certain words or points of view become synonymous with hate so that the mere expression of them is seen as proof of guilt. Thus, if you disapprove of homosexuality it must follow that you hate homosexuals. There is no acknowledgement of the distinction between an opinion regarding a certain type of behavior and the people who engage in that behavior.

The second category consists of those who deny that there is such a thing as bullying or who broadly dismiss its significance. The attitude here may be that one who alleges bullying is a wimp or crybaby who just needs to buck up and learn how to handle the bully. Or it may even be said that people who level the charge of bullying are bullies themselves, falsely accusing as a means of attacking their opponents or avoiding a substantive discussion. I find this argument to be amusingly circular since it denies the reality of bullying by labeling those who allege bullying as bullies. Huh? With this argument also comes a different kind of political correctness wherein the very use of the word "bully" is pointed to as proof that whoever used the word ought not be taken seriously.

I think the truth of the matter is somewhere between these two extremes. In the same way that I believe there is such a thing as a hate crime, I think there is such a thing as a bully. But in the same way that the concept of "hate crime" can be misapplied and abused, so can the charge of bullying. A hate crime is a crime that is motivated purely out of animosity for a specific group. So if someone targets a black person because he or she is black, that is a crime motivated by hate. It does not follow that every time a black person is targeted it is necessarily a hate crime. Similarly, there are marks of bullying that, in isolation, may not mean bullying is happening. Bullies may call people names; it doesn't mean that everyone who gets called a name is being bullied. But the fact that some allege bullying where it has not occurred does not mean therefore that every charge of bullying is spurious.

I have met a few bullies in my day, both in my youth and in my adulthood. I have personally been the target of bullies, and I have seen people I love be bullied. I have researched the topic rather thoroughly and think I know a bully when I see one, especially if it is one I have known and watched for a very long time. Here, for those interested, is a list of behaviors that in my opinion are highly indicative of bullying behavior. The more these behaviors are repeated by the same person in a continuing, systematic way, the more likely it is that you have a bully on your hands.

Bullies . . .

. . . engage in serial name-calling. Sometimes the names may not be obvious insults but may masquerade as lighthearted nicknames or teasing. But the ongoing refusal to use a person's proper name and to replace it with a carefully selected nickname is a means of dehumanizing and objectifying the person whose name is not being used and of elevating the nickname user.

. .  . intentionally keep people off balance. They run hot and cold. Think of how an abusive husband treats a battered wife. Some days he makes her feel like dirt. Other days he showers her with affection and gifts. This is done to make her feel insecure and to maintain the abuser's position of power in determining the state of the relationship. This may happen in the workplace or in personal relationships, but the common denominator is that the relationship is always on the bully's terms and never on the other person's.

. . . run in gangs. If you're in the gang you are made to feel as though you are special, part of the bully's inner circle. To maintain that favored status, absolute loyalty is required. If you question the bully or do anything that he deems a threat to his power, you become the object of a whispering campaign whereby you are marked and marginalized and eventually thrust out of the inner circle. You are then one who must be avoided, and those who are still on the "inside" will be threatened and intimidated into not associating with you for fear that they, too, will be punished.

. . . like witnesses. Bullying can happen in private. But bullies thrive on an audience because it significantly enlarges the scope and effect of the bullying. The target of the bully feels embarrassed and ashamed; the bully's assistants feel empowered; and onlookers or bystanders are terrorized: "That's what will happen to me if I cross this person." So bullying often happens in public or in a situation that has been previously determined and set up to achieve the maximum levels of shock and awe.

. . . are great judges of character, and they will analyze yours to see how best you will serve their purpose. Will you be more useful as a target or as a member of the gang? A bully may test the waters by name-calling or making fun of others in your presence; if you tolerate the behavior, you have proven that you may serve well as an accomplice. Object to the behavior, and you may suddenly find that you have become a target.

. . . are often people who were bullied themselves. Formerly victims, they have decided that the best defense is a powerful offense. In the same way that victims of child abuse may themselves become abusers, victims of bullies may grow up to themselves become the bullies or, at the very least, to align themselves with the bully. Better to be on his side than to become the target. This strategy is not only psychologically unhealthy and morally wrong, but it usually has a limited period of success. One who lives by the bully usually ends up dying by the bully.

You can expect future posts. I have more to say on this topic.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Adding Compliment to Injury

Caitlin told me today that on occasion when Evan has been angry at her he has yelled, "Caitlin, you do not make a good mother!"

I think it says something rather wonderful about them and their relationship that this is the worst insult that he can come up with to hurl at his sister.

(And for the record, Evan is very wrong. God willing, she is going to make a great mother some day.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Remembering to Forget

We had an anniversary this weekend, but it wasn't the kind you might think. We didn't have a party. We didn't do anything to mark or celebrate the day. Still, we couldn't ignore it. For it was a little over a year ago, on April 20, 2012, that my husband lost his job.

It didn't happen immediately. He was given an end date, with about four months to look for something else. But for over three of those months, we didn't know if the "something else" was going to come. So it was a very long and difficult summer, one in which we had no choice but to face the possibility of unemployment and plan accordingly. I don't want to go into the details of the situation. Suffice it to say that while I have always considered Phillip's calling as a cantor (one who leads the Church's song) to be from the Lord, he has never been on our church body's official roster of called workers, having not come to the vocation of cantor in the traditional way. (That is soon to change, as he is close to completing the required courses for his colloquy.) In our former congregation his status as a contract worker meant that he was able to be dismissed without the knowledge or approval of the voters' assembly. I do want to state for the record that Phillip's firing had nothing to do with any of the reasons a congregation may, according to synod bylaws, dismiss a called worker: the teaching/promoting of false doctrine, leading of an immoral life, or willful refusal or inability to execute one's duties.

Losing a job, for anyone, is no small thing. It means not only the loss of income but also potentially the loss of professional status, on-the-job relationships, and personal purpose and motivation. But when a church worker loses a job, he loses all of that and more. He loses not just his boss, but his pastor(s); not just his office, but his communion rail; not just his friends, but his closest Christian brothers and sisters. And not only does he lose all these things, but his family does as well. In one fell swoop, it's all pulled away, at a time when those things are needed more than ever. In our case, we lost our church home of almost 13 years, the place where my two oldest children were catechized and confirmed and my youngest baptized. Not long after Phillip was fired the children and I quit attending. It was just too difficult, and we found it impossible to pretend that everything was fine. Phillip had to keep working there, however, so we spent months not being able to be in church together. We are thankful for the church and pastor who stepped in to provide spiritual care for me and the children. But for about four months we did not really have a church home. It was devastating.

It is sad beyond measure to know that what we experienced this past year is not all that unusual. I know of many church workers, either personally or through my reading, who have endured similar trials. They typically go through stages of grief much like those who have experienced the death of a loved one. Having lived for an extended period of time in a state of excessive and constant stress, they may experience a kind of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) in which they are always on alert for the Next Bad Thing. And having undergone the compromising of some of their most valued relationships, they may have a difficult time trusting others to the extent that they can readily embrace new relationships.

We have experienced all of these things and are to some extent still doing so. It is hard to express how thankful I am for those at our new church who have welcomed and set about making us feel loved and wanted. With that kind of care I trust there will come a day when seeing April 20 on the calendar doesn't set me to remembering. Perhaps I will eventually get to the point that I can think about the good apart from the pain. I'm not there yet. But I write this today as an encouragement to those who may be in the midst of what we experienced last year, and I write from the perspective of one who has survived and is healing. Through it all, God sustained us. He provided. And he has continued to use this very bad time to bless us in ways that we are only now beginning to see. He has humbled and convicted us, reminding us of our utter helplessness and dependence on Him. He has shown us again what is truly needful and has deprived us of people and things that were coming between us and Him. He has showed us friends we didn't know we had and has sent many to speak to us Gospel comfort. And He has led us to new people, new opportunities, and new ways of serving Him--all without having to move from our home (which would have been yet another loss and difficult transition). Sometimes I can't believe how generously He has provided. Unfortunately in my sinfulness I still sometimes manage to be unappreciative.

As much as God has worked good through this situation, it is still something I wish had never happened. We are healing, but we will bear the scars forever. So I plead with you, if you are a lay person or a church worker who some day finds yourself in a position of responsibility or oversight, to do what you can to care for the bodies and souls of all involved. For "if one member suffers, all suffer together" (1 Cor. 12:26a). Sometimes there are irreconcilable differences and the best thing is to acknowledge that fact and say goodbye. At all times, though, love should reign, and often in our fallen state it does not. May God have mercy on us all and knit us together in Him even as the inept works of our graceless hands unravel before our eyes.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

♫ Notes of Encouragement ♪

Several days ago the Cantor received an appreciation gift from the first graders at our church's day school. It consisted of handwritten notes from the students glued to a large piece of poster board. In the interest of both sharing and preserving for future enjoyment, here is a sampling:

"Your the best. Thank very much!"

"I like it very nice."

"Thanks for the help."

"Good job."

"You are the best."

"Thak you Mr. Magise."

"Tak you for help us doing sing."

"Thack you. :-)"

"I love you."

And my personal favorite:

"Thank you. You are the one how shud get the credit."

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Adventures in Homeschooling, Driver's Edition

Sometimes I think God created homeschoolers just to challenge the rest of the world.

We went to register Caitlin for Driver's Ed today. (Yes, she is learning to drive later than the typical teenager. In this, as in most things, we are non-conformists.)

She will be taking the course this summer through our local school district. In preparation for registering for the class, I found information and materials online. The instructions said that we should show up on registration day with a completed registration form, a grade report signed by a school administrator :-), proof of residency (so as to get the lower in-district rate), a form of payment, and a student ID. The first four items were easy enough, but I wasn't sure what to do about the last one. She's never been a student in the district; why would she have an ID? In lieu of such, I added her passport to the pile.

We were warmly greeted at the door of the school and directed to the first table. It turned out the first step was getting one's student ID number checked for unpaid charges. The nice lady behind the table was confounded. What to do with a student with no ID? (It didn't seem to matter that the lack of a student ID equated to never having been a student and therefore never having had a previous balance.) She called for help, and we were again warmly greeted, this time by a gentleman who said, "Don't worry. You can take the class. We just have to figure out how to get you through the system." He left to work on it.

While we waited I chatted with the ID lady and her table partner. My fellow homeschoolers may recognize some of the dialogue.

"So you've never been a student in the district? You've never taken any classes?"

Nope. Not until now.

"And you've never used the school for services or extracurricular activities? For example, speech therapy or sports?"

No, we haven't.

"But you pay for these things with your property taxes. You have access to them." By this time, deep befuddlement was spreading across Nice Lady's face.

Believe me, I know we pay property taxes. Probably over $70,000 in the last thirteen years. I don't see that as a reason to utilize services we don't want or need.

"But aren't you required to register with the district even though you are homeschooling? So that they know about you?"

Well, no, we aren't. One of the things we like about Illinois is that there are no notification or reporting requirements.

"But what about tests? Don't you have to take tests? How do you get into college otherwise?"

Um, actually, testing is not required. And as for college entrance exams, not everyone goes to college. But amazingly enough, those who do are able to take the entrance exams without a school ID card.

By the time we left that table I think we had totally short-circuited that poor woman's synapses.

Next we were taken to another table manned by an extremely helpful assistant principal who temporarily waived the ID requirement so as to sign Caitlin up for the class. She told us, however, to go to the administration building next week to register as a student with the district and to get a student ID because ultimately we would need one to get credit for the class. From the assistant principal we were sent to the final table for payment and, expectedly, the first scene repeated itself. "I can't process your payment without a student ID number." "But Mrs. Smith said we could do this today and get the student ID later in the week." "Well, I'll try, but I don't think the system will take it."

Guess what? For once the computer was easier to convince than the human being. Our payment went through without a hitch. I guess "the system" likes adding to its balance sheet.

I was impressed by our district's openness to homeschoolers when Caitlin took the PSAT (we didn't need a student ID for that); I was impressed again today by the desire of the school personnel to find a way to make it work in spite of their difficulty figuring out what to do with us. I am surprised that we seem to be such a rare breed. Certainly they have encountered people like us before? Wait. Maybe I don't want to hear the answer to that question.

Caitlin told me later that while I was talking to the school personnel she was doing her best to put on her "normal teenager" face. (If you ask me, she looks a lot more normal than some of her peers in line today.) As for me, I'm a little disappointed that we weren't able to get her through all twelve years of school without having to acquire a student ID number. But we have decided that we need outside help with this endeavor, and sending her to a private driving school would be at minimum twice the cost of taking Driver's Ed at the high school. Obviously our rebelliousness has its limits. Goodbye, weirdness; hello, driver's license!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Intrepid Lutherans

We are having floods in Chicago. Schools have cancelled classes and activities, cars are falling into sinkholes, rivers are breaching their banks, and sump pumps are working overtime. But did that stop our middle grade choir from keeping their scheduled date to sing at Concordia University-Chicago this morning? No, it did not. These are Southsiders, after all. They are made of tougher stuff. And they have a leader who allows very little to come between him and the liturgy. (Of course, that meant his accompanist had to make the trip, too.)

It goes without saying that the children sang beautifully, receiving many accolades from students and professors alike. The drive to and from CUC was uneventful, if a bit longer than usual. Many thanks to everyone whose support made this day possible!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Allergic Lutherans

I see it all the time. Someone, somewhere on the internet says something and all hell breaks loose. Certainly you have seen it, too:

You want to talk about what the sanctified life looks like? You must be a pietist.

You reverence the cross and chant the liturgy? You must be one of those repristinators.

You sang THAT song? Your church must be on the road to Contemporary Worship.

You are being critical of a pastor? You must have no respect for the pastoral office.

The list could go on, but you get the idea. It seems that in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod today it is almost impossible to have a meaningful conversation about any number of things because of the speed with which the line is drawn any time a "hot button" issue comes up. We are frankly more polarized than the United States Congress. "You're on that side; I'm on this side; you are not, therefore, to be trusted. You are, in fact, to be marked, avoided, and demonized." From that point, it's all downhill, as the competing viewpoints choose up teams and congregate on blogs and Facebook walls. Snarky comments are written and funny pictures and songs posted that refer vaguely to the opposition and that are understood only by insiders, and much fun is had by all; if someone comes along and questions the behavior, he is told he can't take a joke. Well, maybe he can't. But maybe that's the point. I think we may be so very divided, with so much invested emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, that it might in some (most?) cases be best to forgo humor, snark, satire and the rest. Maybe if we spent more time trying to earnestly understand and then to respond in kindness and love, we would actually make a little progress towards finding our common ground.

(N.B. I'm not holding my breath.)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

When Crazy Is Not Crazy

I saw this excellent article linked on Facebook.

The Depression Epidemic

It's long. But if you or someone you love has ever struggled with depression, it's worth your time to read. One of the things I particularly liked about it, apart from the Christian underpinnings, consisted of some observations about both the causes and the treatments for depression that I think are frequently missing from the discussion. We are accustomed to hearing these days that depression is primarily a physical problem that can be traced to biological causes: genetic predisposition, chemical imbalance, vitamin deficiency, etc. We are also accustomed to hearing that the most effective treatments for depression are those which focus on helping the depressed person manage his "condition" either biologically with medication and diet or psychologically with cognitive behavioral therapy. What I appreciated about this article was an acknowledgment throughout that there are causes for depression, and for its increasing incidence in modern society, that exist outside of the depressed person. No, depression is not merely feeling sad about sad things.  Everyone does that. At the same time, bad things do happen. And sometimes so many bad things happen, and they continue for such a long time, that an individual can find it difficult to carry on normally. Frustration, anger, lack of motivation, and hopelessness set in and sadness turns to something more.

This paragraph on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular stood out to me:

But cognitive behavioral therapies have been criticized for focusing on the person as such and ignoring the context of the person within society. Psychotherapist Robert Fancher believes the CBT approach "devalues those attributes of mind most likely both to create culture and to take us beyond the status quo—imagination, passion, and the courageous, painful process of bringing new ways of thinking and living to birth. It amounts to an endorsement of the middlebrow life under the authority of 'good mental health.' " To put it more simply, cognitive therapy tends to reinforce the social norm, focusing almost exclusively on assisting the individual to adapt to the environment.

Did you get that? Sometimes people have a hard time adjusting, or being happy with life, because of life! Who would have thought? Could it be that the depressed person is contending with a troubled home environment or a dysfunctional work situation? Are those things that one should have to learn to adapt to? Is it healthy for someone to learn to function in an unhealthy situation?

I do understand that when faced with things that are beyond one's control to change, the sensible course of action is to learn strategies for dealing with them. My mother lives with me. It is difficult at times. In the way that I react to certain things, I can either compound the difficulty or ease it. Best to seek out strategies for doing the latter! At the same time, there is a limit to what coping strategies can accomplish. There is also a limit to what they should accomplish. There are certain things we should not have to get used to.

I am reminded of the name originally used for many public schools in this country. They were called "normal" schools because their purpose was to "normalize" children--to make them behave in a certain prescribed way that was thought desirable by the government. We still see this carrying over in institutional schools today. Those children who easily acquiesce to the specified expectations--who are obedient, malleable, and accepting of structure--are "normal" whereas those who rebel against the arbitrary nature of the system are "problems." I say this as one who was one of the "normal" ones. What is abnormal about a child who would prefer to play outside, interact with people, and engage in truly stimulating activities rather than sit in a desk, be quiet and do mind-numbing worksheets all day?

We live in a world in which "normal" is going about one's business and looking the other way while newborn babies are stabbed in the necks by doctors who say that in doing so they are providing "health care." Those who try to bring attention to the horror are "extremists." No, nothing to be depressed about there.

In one of my favorite books, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, the main character Yossarian is faced with a dilemma. He is a WWII bombardier who doesn't like war and doesn't want to die. A possible escape hatch would be the attainment of a Section 8 (a discharge for those considered mentally unfit). The problem is that to get a Section 8, one must request it. But if one requests it, one thereby demonstrates one's sanity, which in turn disqualifies one from the requested discharge.

Some years ago a friend's baby died. The child was born with a congenital disease and lived barely a week past birth. For a time my friend and her husband were supported in the unimaginable grief that they were enduring. But there came a point when people expected them to get back to normal. Why were they still having so much difficulty? When would they return to full functioning? Unfortunately some of this came from the Lutheran church and school this couple served.

The world and its institutions--our workplaces, our schools, our churches, and yes, even our friends and our families--call upon us to adjust. But sometimes the sanest thing we can do is refuse. Barry Goldwater said, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Perhaps behaving "abnormally" in the face of abnormal conditions isn't either.

 Crazy like a fox.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Carmina Burana

This video from last month was just made available. It was taken a week after Trevor's performance of the Rachmaninoff Second on the University of Nebraska Symphony Orchestra's Concerto Winners concert. Here Trevor and the graduate concerto winner team up to provide piano accompaniment for the University Singers' presentation of Carl Orff's setting of Carmina Burana. For those not familiar with this work, the text dates from the Middle Ages and consists of a set of poems covering all manner of worldly topics. It was originally scored by Orff for orchestra but he later reworked it to be accompanied by dual piano and percussion so as to increase the ability of more choirs to perform it. Not everyone has a symphony orchestra lying around! It's an enjoyable, exciting work, and I encourage you to listen. It runs a little over an hour. Turn it on while you're cleaning the house. It will keep you moving!

(Side note: when not accompanying the University Singers, Trevor sings with them.)


Sunday, April 7, 2013

He almost didn't let me share this one.

He's still getting over a bug, and the voice is a little stressed. (Or so he says.) He had to transpose this into a lower key last night so he could sing it.

That's Evan turning around to grin at me. (And yes, he did comb his hair this morning--why do you ask?) Caitlin is next to him.

The congregation loved this. Little do they realize that some day they'll be joining in on that refrain. :-D

Psalm 148 from Cheryl on Vimeo.

Friday, April 5, 2013


A few months ago a friend posted the video below on her Facebook wall. I found it very moving at the time and have thought about it more than once since then, particularly as I have spent the last several months watching my mother struggle to recover from a broken hip. The video imagines what it would be like if we could see inside the lives of those we meet in passing. If we knew what they were facing--divorce, childlessness, a cancer diagnosis, chronic pain, a dying family member--would we treat them any differently? Would we be gentler, kinder, more patient and tolerant? I'm guessing we would all like to think that the answer is yes. And yet so often it seems that even with those whom God has put before us, those we are close to, our knowledge of their trials does not always translate to our treating them with charity. If we sometimes find it difficult to be magnanimous towards people we know, are we likely to have much empathy for strangers?

More than once while she was in rehab my mom said of the nursing staff (with whom she was rarely happy), "They don't understand! They don't know what it's like to be in my position!" On one particularly trying day I told her that she was right. They didn't understand, and neither did I. There was really no way any of us could. But I then asked her to consider that she also didn't understand what the nurses were dealing with in their own lives. What problems were they facing at home and professionally as they tried to care for their patients? What health issues or physical pain were they trying to ignore as they worked long hours caring for my mom and others?

The more I think about empathy, the more I question the extent to which it is possible for a human being to truly experience it. I think we are most likely to have empathy for those we love dearly: our children, our spouses, our close friends and relatives. When they hurt, we hurt for them. And yet we can never truly feel what another person feels. We are limited to the body in which the Creator has placed us and the perspective with which He has provided us. With those limitations, the best we can do is to be as caring as we can while we try to understand. And if we have experienced a similar trial, perhaps we can feel some real empathy. But even then, I think empathy is elusive. One person's grief or loss or pain is not going to be the same as another's.

The dictionary makes a distinction between empathy--actually sharing in another's pain--and sympathy--acknowledging and caring about that pain. I think empathy is sometimes seen as having a higher value. Sympathy is a superficial greeting card emotion, whereas empathy is something we experience personally. Yet empathy is rare. Perhaps it is not even all that desirable. Why would we want to include another in our pain? What is gained by our experiencing the pain of another? But sympathy--ah, sympathy. To care about a pain that is not our own and to want to understand and help ease it. That is not greeting card stuff. That is love.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Looks About Right To Me

Evan recently watched a Looney Tunes cartoon wherein one of the characters (I don't remember which one) was giving his friends stereotypical nicknames. Evan decided to replace the Looney Tunes characters with members of his family. Here's what he came up with.

Evan: "the smart one"
Caitlin: "the gifted one"
Trevor: "the golden boy"
Mom: "the saint"
Dad: "the dependable one"
Grandma: "the jock" ☺

The Best of Easter Sunday

For those interested who might not see these otherwise.

Our Middle Grade Choir totally rocked this one with text by Gerhardt, music by Magness. Rise and shine!

"Awake" from Cheryl on Vimeo.

Worldwide premier of this new organ Prelude by our friend Rev. Jon Vieker:

Prelude on GAUDEAMUS PARITER ("Come Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain") from Cheryl on Vimeo.

The piano man doing what he does.

"Christ Has Arisen, Alleluia" from Cheryl on Vimeo.

One of our favorite choral works, composed by our friend Kevin Hildebrand. Trinity's choir has not done a great deal of a cappella singing, but you wouldn't know it from this performance. Kudos to them for their hard work and dedication. And yes, they have a pretty good director. :-)

"I Am the Resurrection" from Cheryl on Vimeo.

And finally, some full-out congregational singing with rockin' brass. I was a little too close to the brass section, so the brass-organ balance is not reflected very well in the video.

"Jesus Christ Is Risen Today" from Cheryl on Vimeo.

I will probably put up a few more--if you are interested, keep checking my Vimeo page. By the way, I attended three services yesterday, so even though I did some videotaping I had plenty of opportunities to just sing. Happy Easter. He is risen!