To Church or not to Church?

Most Americans go to church regularly. That’s almost unique among nations in the developed world. If you’ve traveled in Europe, you know how few people go to church at all. Does that make us somehow holier in God’s eyes? Nah ! I don’t think so. William Sloane Coffin, a minister himself, once said, perhaps a tad cynically, “Many of us Christians who feel so at home in our churches, may in fact, be miles away from God.”

Oddly enough, I think most church-goers would agree with Coffin. Most folks go to Church, not because we think we are close to God but rather because we realize that we have a long way to go. Oh, there may be a few self-satisfied types who have convinced themselves that they are in God’s inner circle of friends because they attend church on Sunday. But most of us realize that just putting our butts in the pew every Sunday doesn’t make us better people. We remain flawed human beings just as surely as those who sleep in or spend their Sunday mornings on the golf course.

Our common sense tells us that being a good person has much more to do with the way we lead our lives than being a member in good standing of St. Alphonsus Church or the Jewish Temple. God, I suspect, doesn’t give a hoot about our church attendance, unless it leads somewhere, namely, to being a better human being.

Ay! There’s the rub isn’t it? To love our neighbor as ourselves; to treat others as our brothers and sisters; to forgive those who have wronged us; to visit the sick; to stoop to help a child; to live our lives with integrity; to mourn with those who mourn. Heck, we all know what it takes to be a good human being. Going to Church can help us along the way but living a life of integrity and compassion begins after we say our farewell to the Reverend at the end of services.

So why go to church at all? Good question. Many of us, I suspect, attend worship services more out of habit than anything else. We go to meet friends, catch up on churchy gossip, maybe kick in a few bucks to a worthy charity. There was a time people dressed up for church. That was kind of cool. You still see remnants of that, especially on the east coast, but today you are just as likely to see folks in jeans or shorts in church. A part of me kind of misses those “dress-up” for church days. But I miss 25-cent movie matinees for kids and 5-cent candy bars, too.

There are less lightweight reasons that many people haul themselves out of bed for Sunday morning services. A friend of mine expressed it nicely, “I go for the God-talk. I need my spiritual fix; you know what I mean ?” I do know what he means. We live in a secular society where you don’t hear a lot of references to goodness, or responsibility to one another or decency. When’s the last time you heard anyone refer to right or wrong? Church is one of the few places where you hear that winning is not the only important thing and that making more money is not the sum total of our value as people. Where else do you get the idea that our marriage vows are serious and even sacred and meant to last a lifetime? Granted that being reminded of how we should act towards our neighbor is not the same as actually walking the walk but heck, it’s a start.

The End of Childhood?

End of Childhood?

A bevy of child psychologists and other experts on childhood behavior in England recently took the unusual step of sending an open letter to the London Daily Telegraph expressing their concerns over the demise of childhood.

“Britain’s children are being poisoned by a “junk culture” of processed food, computer games and over-competitive education. They need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed junk), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), and regular interaction with real-life significant adults in their lives.” May I add my AMEN to the childhood experts in Great Britain.

It’s been said (but pretty much ignored) that the “work of children is play.” I believe that don’t you? Oh, we give our children and grandkids plenty of toys. There is no shortage of “ game boys “in our kids’ Christmas stockings. Kids from middle class homes in our country are definitely not deprived of “stuff” to play with. It’s the “people” thing that is missing, what the British experts call “real-life significant adults in their lives.” The problem, most of us are quick to point out, is that we are just too busy.

Damn, we are busy, too. We really are. Parents don’t make a conscious decision to spend so little meaningful time with their kids. It’s just with both parents working or with only one parent in the home; there are only 24 hours in the day. We can only do so much or so we tell ourselves.

I don’t know the answer to this dilemma. Maybe grandparents can help more than we do. Maybe some two-parent families can live on one salary and do without some of their adult toys. Maybe we have to give less time to getting our bods in shape at the fitness center and more to shaping the souls of our offspring. Maybe if our weekends were not so chuck full of organized leagues, we might have some one on one time with our kids. The “maybes” pile up but the issues raised by the open letter to the Daily Telegraph do not admit of an easy solution.

What a pity we can’t figure out a way to let kids be free to play and for parents to have the time to interact with their children. I know. I know. Single parents have to work and it seems that most two-parent families feel that they can’t make on one income either.

But these are our kids, our future. We owe them more than a “junk culture” of video games, processed food and parents and grandparents with too little time for them don’t we? Well, don’t we?

What I do know is that more and more kids are ending up in foster care because of parental abuse or neglect. What I do know is that childhood depression is even a greater problem than childhood obesity. What I do know is that we, as a nation, are failing our kids and all the Zoloft and Prozac and Ritalin in the world won’t make this kind of “boo boo” go away.

Hank Mattimore is a resident of Santa Rosa and a surrogate Grandpa at the newly opened Children’s Village.

Needing Someone To Worry About You

Someone To Worry About Me

Many years ago, my neighbors owned a basset hound with the unlikely name of “Courtney.” She was a wag-the-tail, people-friendly old pooch who seemed most content hanging out with kids and lying on her back getting her ample belly rubbed. With her distinctive physique (we never quite knew if she was sitting down or not) she was the kind of dog that made you smile just looking at her.

So, last week, when I went looking for a dog for our Children’s Village, the first place I looked was the Basset Hound rescue website. I wanted a clone for the loveable dog I had known when I was a young man. Voila! Within a matter of days, the folks at Northern California Basset Hound Rescue found me a six-year-old female named “Penny.” It seemed fitting somehow that this rescue dog should find a home in a village for neglected and abused kids.

Penny’s affect on our little village has been almost magical. Last night I’m fixing dinner for myself when I hear this timid knock on my back door. Standing there is one of our littlest guys, six years old with a missing front tooth. “Grandpa Hank, can Penny come out and play at our house?” So I hand him the leash and off he goes to his home just across the driveway. I’m not sure which of the two is happier.

The kids vie for the job of taking Penny for her walks. (The realist in me knows that the kids, being kids, won’t always be eager to walk Penny or clean up her business but what the hey, I’ll take the help when I can find it.) What is important now is that a bunch of needy kids have a funny looking, four-footed companion who both tickles their funny bone and gives them unquestioning and unconditional love.

Just one week after acquiring our pooch, she got loose in the neighborhood. Panic time. Where is Penny? Kids, parents and grandparents all took off to find her. The concern was tangible. The little guy with the missing front tooth asked me “Grandpa Hank, are you worried?” I told him “Yes, I am very worried.” Two minutes later, one of our little girls, the anxiety showing in her young face, repeated, “Grandpa Hank, are you worried?” “Yes, honey. I am worried. I want Penny back home.”

Well, I’m happy to report that we found her just about a block away from our house. We all felt relief. But to me, even more important than finding a little lost dog, was gaining a new understanding of what our kids are going through It was no accident that several of our kids asked me if I was worried. They needed to know because abused and neglected kids wonder if they are important enough for anyone to worry about them.

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What they were really asking is do we parents and grandparents at the village worry about them. It’s a pretty basic human need when you stop to reflect upon it. Kids (and we adults, too) need to know that there is someone in our lives who will worry about us, someone who cares enough to be concerned. Kids who live in our village who have been traumatized in their young lives already know what it’s like not to have someone “worrying about them.” They want to know that this time it will be different.