Answers to questions no one asked

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So it’s funny, or a little bit funny. I haven’t felt much like writing a blog post this week because I already said a lot of what I needed to say in my book with the world’s longest title. Also, I’m trying to market it. When I think about writing, I get excited and ideas start popping up and ricocheting around and my brain starts to compose and I need to get to a keyboard so I can get it all down. When I think about marketing…I want to eat chocolate and drink.

But I do have a few things I want to share, some serious, some less serious.

Here’s a serious one: I’ve been talking with a lot of people about the book. I need it to do well. By that, I mean if I’m to keep writing, I need to succeed at writing. But I didn’t write this book because I thought it was my best shot at writing something popular, selling a ton of books, or (God forbid) making money. I told a friend today that the book feels like pastoring: I saw a need felt by a lot of people I love, so I tried to address that and speak some hope. I know we have a lot of discouraged, exhausted people. I am, too. So I tried to write the book I would need that no one else had written.

I truly believe we are in a crisis, as a nation and as a people. I’m not going to downplay or sugarcoat that. If you don’t believe it, well, I’ve given up trying to convince people that the house is on fire. I’ve decided, right or wrong, that it does more good to rally the people who acknowledge the fire to come try to fight it than scream at those who disagree while the flames get closer.

Here’s how I describe it in reflection 17:

If we were in my house, you and I, and I heard a noise that suggested someone might be breaking in, I would tell you. If I heard more noises that reinforced my suspicion, I would hope you would hear them, too, but failing that I would describe them to you, urgently, and assume you might share my concern. How long would this process have to go on before I got frustrated that none of my evidence of a break-in persuaded you? In this situation, I’m not sure I could say, “Well, to have good boundaries, we need to understand that others may not agree with us and accept that with grace.” I see other considerations, like our lives being in imminent danger. Or how my wife might feel, coming home to a house robbed of our belongings or me injured? Would I just shrug it off and agree to disagree?

Probably not. I think I would proceed to respond to the emergency regardless of your belief or disbelief. I’d have to. I wouldn’t have a good category for why I had failed to convince you—you’re intelligent, you understand cause and effect, you’re not in league with the thieves—but I’d have to let all of that go. Yes, it would be easier to deal with this crisis if you were helping, certainly if you were acknowledging the reality of what was happening to us, but failing that, I would have no choice but to address it myself and sort out our failure to communicate later. 

Have you felt this way?

I had to write this book because it’s what I could do to help. We all have to do what we can. I need to know for my own conscience that I have done what I could. I don’t know if we’re looking at four more years of this or if we get to start healing and recovering soon. But I wasn’t going to look back and wish I had spoken up.

That leads into a funny, pastoral topic. Okay, maybe a little funny. Okay, maybe funny but not funny “ha ha.”

I know friends who speak up much more boldly than I do. I also have many who are very dear to me who tell me “I’ve been encouraged by your willingness to speak out and put your thoughts into words – something I am not often brave enough to do.”

I get why some people have difficulty speaking up. For many of us, there is much at stake. Relationships, family acceptance, church acceptance, job conditions, in some cases even employment security. It’s been a process for me, too. As I’ve mentioned here on a few occasions, I take criticism (and everything else) too personally. I didn’t just magically get over that. I’m still not over that.

If you get attacked for trying to speak up, even if those attacking think they’re “helping” or “correcting” or “teaching,” that’s bullying. In fact, that’s mini-terrorist tactics, trying to make it so costly and miserable when you do speak up that you’ll decide you’re not willing to pay the cost.

I know I’ve messed up a number of times in trying to be bolder. I know what my intentions are, as well, and I know God has grace for my screw ups. I’m intensely grateful for that. I think as God helps me to let go of caring too much about everyone’s approval, I’m able to focus more on how Jesus is leading me, how to help people who feel beaten down, and how to be bold while showing grace.

That’s my hope, anyway. Some days, I get close.

Funny thing (see a theme?), but when you’ve had something so front and center in your mind for months, it takes a little while to transition to anything else. I finally got a real paper copy in my hands today (several friends beat me to that–they got their published versions before I got an author proof). I was mesmerized–words on paper in a book look much more serious, but they still started as the thoughts in your head–and a touch nauseated. I haven’t found any mistakes yet, but…

Here are some other quirky things bouncing around in my head, answers first, Jeopardy style, then the questions they answer..

  • 1,750
    How many times can you hit the refresh button on your book’s sales page in one minute?
  • You get a book. Duh.
    So what’s the difference between this “Hey, you should buy my book!” campaign and a Kickstarter campaign?
  • I considered giving the first two pages of the paperback this heading: “Praise For Authentic Faith: Feeding the Soul in Politically Divided Times“, and then leaving them blank except for a note in parentheses:
    • “(Please write legibly.)”
  • What was your best idea that you didn’t use?

Thanks for being on this joyride with me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the support and encouragement I’ve received for this book!

I keep thinking about my article on kids seeking asylum. It was on right here on this blog getting modest attention, just minding its own business…and then Relevant published it and it went viral. Same words. Same article. I think a lot of people have a strong need for the encouragement in this book. I need the stars to align for those people to notice it, but I don’t have a star-aligning machine. Truthfully, efforts at marketing feel like waving my hands at the stars. But the needed words are in the book. Same words, same book. So maybe pray with me that God would align some stars…or someone(s) influential would advocate for the book. I’m open to any star-moving God wants to do.

Whatever happens, I’m glad I offered what I could.

A Dozen Glimpses into Writing this Book

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I need to get my book formatted for ebook release, so you Kindle devotees and smartphone readers have a shot at it. But I loathe don’t wildly enjoy formatting and, as it turns out, I enjoy writing, plus I’ve neglected the blog for a stretch here, plus I know some of us have this strange affinity for reading about others’ writing process (“Oh, that’s how you do it?” “Oh, thank God I don’t do it that way!”). So, here are twelve things that went into writing this book.

1)The idea popped into my head, more or less fully formed. I share that in the introduction. I felt a little embarrassed choosing to share my friend Loren’s affirmation–I always worry such things will be read wrong by people who don’t realize I spend 60% of my life’s energy resisting the negative thoughts in my own head–but I chose to, anyway, because the lighting strike would not have happened without him.

2)The original idea was to include like 200 short reflections or meditations–seriously–and was going to be released in late spring, or maybe 2016, even though the idea came to me earlier this year. It was a little ambitious.

3)I didn’t submit it anywhere first. It’s self-published but not because it was rejected, merely because I was out of time. Even if an agent or publisher had accepted it, there’s no way it could have gotten out by when I needed it to.

4)I literally did a full editing for sarcasm. I was aiming at a positive, direct-but-not-defensive-nor-attacking tone. Not sure I succeeded, but there are pages worth that got chopped for tone. I indulged one full-blown, unrestrained sarcastic comment and footnoted it. I find it much harder to describe something that has hurt me matter-of-factly than tongue-in-cheek, facetiously…or scathingly. I meant to match my tone to my message. I really hope I succeeded.

5)I had to do another edit to cut out arguing. I didn’t write this book to convince some people that they are wrong. I wrote this book to encourage people who believe as I do to keep living their beliefs with integrity and grace.

6)I’ve never written anything with such loud censors blaring in my head. That’s a big reason I had to cut out all the arguing: I kept answering my imagined critics.

7)I’m both excited it’s out and nervously bracing myself for backlash.

8)I really am a marketing genius: if it’s true that 80% of white evangelicals still support this administration and I wrote a book for Jesus followers and other justice seekers who do not, I narrowed my field of prospective readers pretty effectively. I’m being sarcastic. I wrote this book because there are so many of us who oppose what we’re seeing and follow Jesus, who oppose what we’re seeing because we follow Jesus. Many of us feel isolated, alienated, and ostracized, but it turns out 20% of a really big number is still a big number. Further, I know a lot of people who haven’t–or no longer–use that label, “evangelical,” who love Jesus, however they understand that relationship, and who have said to me exactly what I reflect back in the book. I’m trying to encourage us by helping us grasp that we are far from alone in saying and feeling these things. That’s how a movement works.

9)I really struggled over the title. Hard. Authentic Faith: Feeding the Soul in Politically Divided Times: Encouragement for Jesus Followers, Justice Seekers, Resisters, Immigrant Supporters, and Peacemakers It’s a bit long. In the end, I chose to go overboard to make certain that no one who goes to the trouble of reading the whole title will feel misled with what they find in the book. I dislike that it has two colons–that’s a punctuation monstrosity I did not intend–but I did not want to make Authentic Faith the whole title. Why? I did not want to claim that I’m conveying the one authentic expression of faith! I always thought that the title Raising Kids God’s Way had a subtle but distinct implication. This is not the book “Having Faith God’s Way.” I lay that out as clearly as I know how in the introduction–while trying not to be sarcastic, defensive, or argumentative–and I still expect to get attacked for claiming that I know the only way to have authentic faith. You can have authentic faith and not agree with what I say in my book. What you can’t do is tell people–we!–who live this faith that ours is not authentic.

10)I also wrestled with whether to include material from this blog or to make it exclusively new material. I concluded that A)I have worked pretty darned hard on writing good stuff for this blog, B)when I try to say the same things but with different words it always comes out sounding derivative and forced,* C)the vast majority of the population I described in #8 have not read this blog, unlike you, Beloved Reader. I hope you will forgive me for giving you some of the same words again. I realized they were some of the best I had to offer and I should offer them, e.g. the series on each day’s grace.

11)Everything I’ve ever tried to write for this level of publication ends up feeling like childbirth. Joy, excitement, then anguish and exhaustion and “Would you just get out there already!” But unlike when our children arrived out in the world (after Kim did all the work), I get about 5 minutes of relief and exhausted ecstasy before the second-guessing crashes through. For this one, I pushed so hard in the last couple weeks that my level of exhaustion, paradoxically, kept the self-doubts at bay for an entire day–that day being my birthday! I felt buzzed from exhaustion for my entire 52nd, which allowed me to live the day the way I would like to live all days: mindfully, taking everything in slowly, enjoying small pleasures and blessings, seeing God present all around me. Then Saturday morning, I woke up to find that the book status had changed to “Live” and the excitement and anxiety came crashing back in. “It’s OUT! Oh, my gosh, what have I done?

12)You made this possible.

I’ve still never had a book published by a publisher and it struck me, as I was getting attacked by self-doubt and insecurity (see #1–it’s no small task to keep up 60%), that my sister Chris’s favorite quote really applies here: “If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.”

So here I go: I’m not going to be embarrassed or apologetic that I self-published this book; I was able to write it only because my supportive community of friends and family, Jesus followers, spiritual people and loving agnostics, readers, encouragers, and faithful hecklers, patient editors, proofreaders, and prayer warriors helped me to believe that I could. Instead of feeling sheepish that I didn’t succeed more impressively, I’m grateful that I could do this at all–because you made it possible! When I jokingly respond to affirmation by saying “I’m going to put the words on a poster and hang it on my wall”–I’m not really joking. Literally speaking, I am. Mentally, I do that. Every. Time.

These are not just polite words. I’m using my sincerest tone and raising my eyebrows of sincerity as I tell you:

Thanks. Your support means the world to me.

PS FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO WRITE, LIKE TO SOLVE PUZZLES, OR BOTH: I used this awful selfie for my featured image because in it you can identify many of the crucial tools of the writing process. Some are very obvious, others much more subtle. How many can you name?

*I know this from every time I try to rewrite a sermon, whether I was composing it in my head and didn’t have means to record it or technical difficulties (or user error) kept it from being saved. When I try to go back and recreate what I have, it’s always wooden and awful. Every stinking time.

New Book!

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My new book, Authentic Faith: Feeding the Soul in Politically Divided Times, is live now, in paperback. I’m going to tell a story, but feel free to go check it out first and then come back!

I have a birthday story. On the morning I turned 23, I woke up in a homeless shelter. I wasn’t really homeless, in a long-term sense. But my best friend Trey and I had decided to spend some time traveling the country, seeing what God was doing in different places, and looking for a place where we might get involved in a local church. We were young Jesus followers trying to live the priorities of Jesus’ Kingdom, so we were looking for our spiritual community before we looked for jobs. We were also college grads on a big road trip. But we had very high-minded purposes.

We drove from Claremont, California, where we’d attended college, up the West Coast, spending time in northern California, Portland, and Seattle Washington, then drove down through Idaho, Utah, and stopped for a while in Colorado before going through the Midwest and down to Kentucky before traveling as far south as Georgia. It was a wonderful time of seeking God and a crazy adventure and Trey and I nearly did away with each other on more than one occasion. It deserves its own book, though I may have waited too long, since not all the details are clear any more and I am certain I have replaced many facts with nostalgia by now.

But on October 9, at 6AM in Salt Lake City, Trey and I were awakened along with 20-odd other guys and told we had to get dressed and get out in 10 minutes. We weren’t wearing clothes. They required everyone to sleep naked so that no one would have any ability to smuggle weapons up to their beds and….it was a precautionary measure. You took a shower, then left all your things in a locker and went to your bed. Now it was time to reclaim our things and make our way out to the sidewalk.

Why? We had a network of contacts throughout the country, churches we knew were doing justice work, connections, friends and friends of friends. We had done fine on the West Coast, maybe because that was closer to where we had gone to college and our contacts were only one to two degrees of separation.

“Mike, do you mean to tell me you called strangers and asked to stay?”

Yes, that’s what I’m telling you. But not cold calls. People we knew or people who knew people we knew. You know, a network.

Except in Salt Lake City. Somehow, after already being on the road for about a month, we decided that God would just provide a place to stay in Salt Lake City. It’s a long drive from Washington to Colorado, where our next certain contact was, and we were tired. We got in a little before sundown and started calling churches. To our surprise, no one was really excited to have two early-twenties guys come crash at their church or stay with the pastor. Huh.*

It was getting dark and late and the calls were starting to sound more desperate. i need to add that I had been fighting something and didn’t feel well enough to camp out (which turned out to be walking pneumonia that I’d been carrying since I returned from a summer mission in South Africa. I did tell you this is its own book.) Finally, as I was talking to a pastor and trying to explain our situation: “We’re two guys seeking where God is leading us, visiting churches, and we need a place to stay,” the man asked, “Why don’t you just stay in a homeless shelter?”

I was taken aback. A little shocked. But we just graduated from a high-ranking college… We’re not really homeless, we’re trying to….

So we did.

I woke up to my first morning of twenty-three with a roomful of guys who were figuring out how they might get food or get hired for day labor. One man helpfully explained to us where the soup kitchens were that served breakfast. Trey and I got dressed, went to his car, the might Datsun 210, we drove to the Mormon Temple where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform at sunrise, because everyone told us we needed to see it while we were in Salt Lake, and as the sun rose, we drove away and didn’t look back.

That was the only time in our four months on the road that we didn’t have a place we were welcomed to stay. It was also one of the most memorable parts of our trip.

On the morning of October 9th of this year, I was still working to complete this book. I’d been sitting at my little table by the window since 5:30 AM of the 8th, with a few breaks including Annalise’s birthday dinner, but mostly trying to keep working until I had it done and could push “submit” and go to bed.

That ended up being 3:45AM. Somehow, it brought to mind my 23rd birthday. On my 23rd birthday, I called Kim, who sang “Happy Birthday” to me from Washington. On my 52nd birthday, I got up with Kim a couple hours later to help her get ready to leave for school (I make a mean travel mug of coffee and a killer peanut butter toast), checked to see if my book was live–surprisingly, two hours later it was still “In Review”–and went back to bed. In my bed, not a shelter.

I hadn’t really thought carefully about that adventure for a long time. But all our experiences form us, don’t they?

If you’re a regular here, you will have some idea what this book is about. In fact, you’ve seen some of it. Some of my posts made the book, including the “Week of Grace.” I had hoped to make this book available some time ago–to be honest, it should have come out in 2018, but I was busy returning from Nicaragua and going through reverse culture shock–but I’m hoping it is timely now.

I included thirty-seven reflections on our current crisis and how we might approach this crisis–and those with whom we disagree–with grace and love, while standing and speaking up for what we believe.

The first reflection is “Grace Frees Us to Try.” The second is “I Don’t Want to Hate.” Then “Love Your Enemies” and “We’ve All Lost Friends.”

I didn’t try to find an agent or publisher for this, because I felt like it needs to be out right now and even if I got it accepted that process would take too long. I started in paperback this time, so you can have the physical book in your hands in a day or two. I hope to have the Kindle version available by the beginning of next week.

Here’s the thing: I believe a lot of people need this encouragement. I hope and pray that is what I’ve written and how what I’ve written will impact people. I am the World’s Worst Marketer (TM) because I’ve got this silly idea that if I write good stuff, people will just read it. So if you do read the book and it helps you, I’d love for you to let others know.

I’m tempted to explain the book now, but here’s the other thing: I wrote the title so that everyone would know what it’s about and no one would accuse me of false advertising. It has this horrible double colon in the listing because I insisted on making Authentic Faith: Feeding the Soul in Politically Divided Times the title so that Encouragement for Jesus Followers, Justice Seekers, Resisters, Immigrant Supporters, and Peacemakers could all be the sub-title. It looks much better on the cover my dear friend author Jason Link designed for me–Thank you, Jason!

Last thing: you, reading this blog, have been my most faithful readers and encouragers. I’m profoundly grateful for you, even when we disagree. That’s a point in the book, too: we must be able to disagree and still go forward in love. Thank you for helping me get this far.

Let me know what you think!

*Someone wants to ask, “But Mike, would you have taken in someone who just showed up asking for a place to sleep?” Um, yes, we have. A few times. But that’s another story. I’m sure our decision to do that has been impacted by my experience in SLC.

Conspiracy Theory

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[Paul Brown is one of my best friends in the world and has been since fourth grade. He’s that friend I would call at any hour, no matter what, because I know if I needed help, he would give it without hesitation. We were out of touch for some years, unfortunately the years Paul describes here. I hope you read Paul’s post and offer it to any who need it, whether to understand better or to offer help for those stuck in a scary place.]

With Paul on a hike up Hawkbill Mountain

I was a conspiracy theorist. I spent years running in conspiracy theory circles. I’m embarrassed to admit that. Embarrassment is a small price to pay, however, if I can help others understand and hopefully escape it, like I did. To find out some specifics of how I entered and exited from it, you’ll have to read on, but I hope my experience can help foster a better understanding of this issue for anyone who chooses to read this essay. 

“Conspiracy Theory” is a term with rightfully derogatory connotations, so why has it become such a prevalent issue in the United States today? The first thing people need to know is that conspiracy theory is less a matter of truth and information than it is a matter of trust. Second, because the position is rooted in trust (and distrust) and not truth, convincing a conspiracy theorist of your point of view through truth or information becomes all but impossible. Third, conspiracy theorists do not hold speculators of conspiratorial ideas to the same scientific or truth-telling rigor as they do professionals or credentialed people who hold a more consensus view.

Before I begin, let’s define some terms. Everyone has a pretty good idea of what a conspiracy theorist is, but what is an anti-conspiracy theorist? I devised this term to refer to people who believe in the world exactly as it is presented to them, for those who believe that all things outside the main societal narrative are conspiracy theory. They are the opposite of conspiracy theorists, again based on trust, not facts. Most people fall in between these groups, but the conspiracy theory group has been growing radically in the last 20 years.

In order to understand this world of conspiracy theory, people in the “real” world, and particularly the anti-conspiracy theorists, must come to grips with some uncomfortable facts and some disturbing ideas. There are many ways to enter the world of conspiracy theory, but first I will tell you how I entered it. The study of history and the search for truth are what led me into the conspiracy realm and they are also the things that brought me out. 

One of the first things I learned when I really began to read a substantial amount of history is that most of what we have been taught is BS. Now, let me clarify that statement before you tune out. The facts we have been taught are accurate mostly, what isn’t, is the narrative constructed around the facts. Our history, like every other country’s history, is terribly myopic and carries a primary mission of painting the country in the best possible light. “The winners write history” is a maxim for a reason. World War II was the historical event that got me interested, then I moved on to the Korean War and Vietnam. During my Korean War reading the subject of the CIA came up and I started branching into that area along with NSA. 

Once you start into the “alphabet agencies” as people refer to them, you can really go down the rabbit hole. You suddenly find yourself in a whole other world that is real, but few know anything about, and from this point on it can become self-perpetuating because of a few uncomfortable but incontrovertible facts that those who consider conspiracy theorists to be crazy-ass wing-nuts have a hard time swallowing. The first of these is that some things that have been labeled “conspiracy theory” in the past have indeed been true. I mean now acknowledged, documents declassified, straight-forward true. 

The second is that the label of “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” have been used to discredit information that powerful people do not want to become common knowledge. Third, some of this stuff is pretty unimaginable to the average person: testing LSD on military personnel without their knowledge or consent, spraying chemicals over cities again without knowledge or consent, infecting poor people in Central America with syphilis, conducting propaganda campaigns inside the country through ghost writers writing to main stream media outlets, denying the existence of military bases like Groom Lake (Area 51). These few are probably the most well-known, but there are many other less well-known incidents that are damned frightening. These were all considered conspiracy theory until information either became declassified or too much information was available to hide them. 

Herein lies the problem: the narrative of truth becomes blurred. What people are calling “conspiracy” and labeling you crazy for believing actually turns out to be true in some instances. Now you begin wondering what is true and what isn’t, how much of what you know to be compromised history to begin with is outright falsehood? How much of what you believe and had believed is information fed to you to hide the truth? From there it isn’t difficult for people with partial information to construct a narrative that sounds plausible and seems defensible but in reality is usually guesswork and porous facts strung together into what we refer to as a conspiracy theory. 

BUT–and it’s a big “but”–the difference between a person who studies this for a living and a conspiracy theorist is that the conspiracy theorist loses perspective and usually doesn’t have the depth of knowledge to regain his or her perspective. This is one of the dangers of self-study, I think, though I am a strong believer in self-study. When you are being taught history, professors give you a much broader view than what is simply written in a text. To use an English literature example (my area), I remember hearing several college freshman comment on how much they loved Shakespeare and that they didn’t think it was that difficult to understand. But Shakespeare, as are most other canonical works of literature, cannot be thoroughly understood unless you know the history of the time in which it was written. Oh you can read it and enjoy it and understand much of it, providing you have no trouble with the language, but there are so many inside jokes and comments on current events of the time and criticisms of politics that you will never appreciate unless you are taught it or are such a student of history that you are aware of the context already. A good history professor does the same, they teach you not just what is written, but what is going on all around it, and that gives you much better understanding and keeps what you are learning in perspective. 

Most conspiracy theorists lose perspective. When they read about these few conspiracies that have turned out to be true, they usually begin to believe in almost all of them. At that point it should become obvious that your thought patterns have become irrational, but it doesn’t work that way most of the time. The fact that they discovered lies and propaganda cause distrust of information from most reputable sources, assuming that those sources are either being duped or are part of the conspiracy. At that point it becomes self-perpetuating: they won’t believe anything that they feel to be compromised, which ironically is anything that disagrees with what they believe. Eventually, almost everything is a conspiracy, nothing is real, the world is a lie. 

Interestingly, one of the best pieces of information I’ve ever heard on conspiracy theory came from a physicist who was considered a conspiracy theorist because of his views on unidentified flying objects. Obviously, the man is quite intelligent (can’t be a physicist without being brilliant), and despite the world considering him a conspiracy theorist, he stated, “Obviously, 95 percent of these sighting are bogus, what I’m concerned about is how to explain the other 5 percent.” This shows me that he is not your garden-variety conspiracy nut. He admits most of it is garbage, misidentification, whatever, but the other 5 percent are things that get shoved in the bin under “we don’t really know what it was, but it couldn’t have been a UFO.” Most of the people I know and knew in these circles would never say something like that. It would be the reverse. They’d believe 95 percent of reports and say 5 percent were probably misidentifications. 

Fortunately for me, I had several things going in my favor. I had read enough history and had studied a ridiculous breadth of economic, crime, tax and health statistics before I entered, so was able to recognize that most of the theories were partial truths and that, though there are quite a few conspiracies that have ended up being true and many more we don’t know about, they are a drop in the bucket compared to the number of conspiracy theories out there that have proven false over the years. In other words, perspective. 

It’s very much like gambling addiction. You pump loads of money into gambling and then hit a big jackpot. But in order reach that “big win” you’ve lost a huge percentage of the time and more money than you won. Still the perception is that you’ve won. If you believe all sorts of pseudo-science and questionable data (and there are TONS of it out there), you are going to hit some big wins eventually, especially in our country where secrecy is commonly used to hide troublesome issues. What conspiracy theorists are willing to forget is how many times the theories are incorrect. Also, I am married to a veterinarian who can explain to me much of the medical information that shows up in medical conspiracies. Additionally, I am fortunate to know professionals or experts in several other fields who can clarify or explain issues in those fields relating to conspiracy theories. 

Lastly, but most importantly, I have a burning desire to know the truth, not prove a conviction or ideology. When I began realizing that there are many unknown facts that conspiracy theorists learn, but that most of the theories they put together are anything but factual or truthful, that they rely to a great extent on coincidence and minimal evidence, then build extensive belief systems that are flawed from the beginning and get further from reality as they continue to expand from one assumption to another, I realized I would never find the truth there. The partial truth is a powerful tool. It works particularly well on people who are intelligent but without much deep knowledge of a subject. What they do have, though, is confidence in their own intelligence and their ability to recognize fallacy even without much knowledge, and thus they become ensnared.

When looked at from the outside, the world of conspiracy theory works exactly like a cult. It is a cult. When people think “cult” they usually think of radical religious organizations. What most of those have in common is that they control information, often by isolating cult members from society. By doing that they can tell them whatever they want and they will have no reference to dispute the information. Plus, the members trust the cult. But without interaction in society at large they lose their reference points, they cannot see what the lies are and no one is there to influence or guide them. In conspiracy theory, they do this by discrediting any source of information that conflicts with the theories. They create online spaces that become echo chambers for increasingly radical versions of reality. But once you are in this deep, you have usually completely rejected any sort of consensus from the other 7.9 billion people on the planet. Every scientist, every teacher, every doctor, every specialist, everyone who would potentially know anything has become a part of the machine to control you. Even worse than that, the people who become trustworthy are the ones who often have little to no knowledge, or are ostracized by their own professional colleagues, because, the logic goes, they must be telling the truth since they are being outcast. In short, the only professionals or knowledgeable people who are not compromised are those who defend the conspiracy theory. Essentially, they become critical of any error or falsehood from knowledgeable sources and label them compromised, but ignore the mass of errors and falsehoods from sources with little to no expertise. It’s a colossal logical fallacy that is endemic to the whole movement.

As ridiculous as this may sound to those who have never ventured into it, it can be extremely compelling. If you know a bit about something, the theories can sound airtight. Reinforced by some real conspiracies that have been covered up and some that are undoubtedly ongoing, it’s easy to fall prey to your own limitations and fears. Upon reading about a myriad of individual historical tales, most of them dealing with intentions and causation of commonly known historical events and contradicting the pious narrative we have been spoon fed, I fell into conspiracy. Many of the issues I had unearthed were at least acknowledged on these websites. As is always the case, the best deceptions are always based in the truth. There is no doubt that a large amount of individual facts, incidents, policies, etc. dealt with in the world of conspiracy theory are unknown to the general public andtrue. The problem comes in the stringing together of these individual facts using illogical and unproven assumptions, and putting a preponderance of value on coincidence, to create narratives that are untrue. 

People do not handle the unknown very well. We are much more comfortable with answers. What you discover with covert operations research and undercover history is that there are fewer answers than you thought, much less certainty than you’d like, little hard evidence to go on, and a lot more underhandedness and double-dealing than you can imagine. It makes you feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you. Then along comes a sub-culture that puts that core back by reinforcing what you already believe and incorporating the uncertainty into a group of theories that lay blame for the uncertainty on everyone else in society that believes differently. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of propaganda, completely self-contained and nearly unassailable to the initiated.

Then there is the allure of secret knowledge. When you read about CIA, NSA, FBI, there is a thread of this allure that runs through many people who become agents. Many acknowledge this desire to be involved in covert, secret, elite operations and be privy to secret knowledge, the real world that no one knows about. It’s a thrill and a feeling of camaraderie for some conspiracy theorists to live vicariously in this world. And it also draws some people who want to feel superior, to be one of the few who are really “in the know” while others are living in a fantasy world.

All of the above ironically give the conspiracy theorist the belief that they are gifted critical thinkers and that anyone who doesn’t see and believe what they do are “sheep” or “sheeple.” There are many definitions of “critical thinking,” all of which include rational analysis and evaluation, informed by evidence. Instead, what you find in conspiracy theory circles is an overwhelming reliance on synchronicity. There is usually little evidence to tie the conspiracy narrative together. In the majority of cases you have some facts and then timelines that coincide and from this they make huge leaps of logic and create narratives. 

There is a radical difference between questioning everything and being able to assess data critically. Questioning alone does not make you a critical thinker. Additionally, from the conpsiracy theorist’s perspective their information, no matter how paltry, will always be better than yours, they have always “researched” more than you have, they have always “critically evaluated” better than you have, they can never be fooled by false information the way you have been, and their answer is always the right answer. They will tell you to “read a book” and if you say you’ve read 10, your books will all be from compromised sources and their one book legitimate. Like every cult, you can never break them out, they must want to come out, and tragically, many (or most) never will. The most disheartening thing for me is that those who most need to hear this, those I truly care about, probably won’t be able to. 

Disturbingly, we have had a surge of both conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists in this country over the last couple of decades. As a fringe issue, conspiracy theory is somewhat innocuous (though not to the conspiracy theorist), but as a movement that is gaining prominence in our society it’s a totally different story. Left unchecked, it’s the death of truth. And with the death of truth comes the death of freedom.

When a Life Matters

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I’m going to try to approach this from a different perspective. If you’re willing, come along and we’ll think through this together. 

Do lives objectively matter, in the cosmos?  Why do lives matter? 

When we say that “A Life Matters,” it begs the question “To whom?” 

In the big, physical-existence only picture, the answer is “no.” Not really. Go back and check the size of the universe. Then check how many people will die today. Happens everyday. More people die, more people are born, the stars shine and go supernova and black holes swallow up light and does any of it really “matter?” No. It just is. I’m describing an answer to the question if we don’t immediately ask “To whom?” Based on the best scientific evidence, we’re a blip, a blink, just passing through with no impact and no real relevance. Then we’re gone, decomposing in our physical form, switching to other forms of matter–so do we matter? Yeah, the pun is almost too strong to resist. But I will. 

If I tell you that you matter, I mean you matter to someone

The great and shocking truth of Christianity–and this is a belief, not a scientific fact I can prove for you–is that bigger than the universe, greater and older and infinitely more than the universe, exists a God who answers that question, who in fact initiated that question so you would know the answer. 

Genesis 1, describing the chaos that was pre-creation, addresses the ancient belief that existence is without order, ultimately threatening and either utterly indifferent or even malicious toward human existence. The writer of Genesis conveys, “No, God who created everything brought order and, from the beginning, bestowed both value and purpose on humanity.” We are all made in God’s image to share God’s value and God’s purpose–and God, we learn, is love. We matter to God. God loves us. God loves us and shows grace to all of us, meaning God doesn’t stop loving us or love us less when we hurt others or ourselves. 

Now if you don’t believe in God’s existence or you reject that a creator God loves us, you have to answer “To whom?” differently than I have. Humanity has attempted to answer that question apart from God. I won’t recount all those various attempts; I’m taking the long way around, but not that long. I’m just pausing here to say you still have to answer the question. 

Okay, from the abstract to the very personal and immediate: you live as if some people matter more than others. You might say “All people matter equally,” or ‘All people matter equally to God.” Perhaps this means all people have a right to matter equally or “All people have equal value” (which is really a different issue). But none of us live as if all people matter equally to us because that is impossible. We talk to some people and not to others. We spend money on some people and not on others. If one person is rushed to the emergency room, we drop everything and go; others are rushed to the emergency room and we say a prayer…or simply don’t notice at all. Remember, we’re talking about lives “mattering” to us, not whether lives have value to God. Who matters to you? I think it’s probably self-deception to say “Everyone matters equally to me but I just pay attention to certain people and not to others.” If you got the news today of someone’s death, you would not respond equally to that news regardless of who died. Neither would I.

When I lived in Nicaragua I realized that Nicaraguan lives did not matter very much to most people living in the United States. It was a bizarre experience, yet probably one shared by nearly everyone who lives abroad and comes to love the country and people of their adopted home. These lives, Bismarck and Juan Ramon and Mileydi and Exequiel, were abstractions to my friends from my native land. I had the strange honor of trying to make them real to other people I love. 

But I’m not claiming I’m special, I’m just describing my experience. If a person in Burkina Faso dies tonight, that person will be an abstraction to me. I don’t know that person. If I somehow found out and it was a little girl, I would feel grief in that general, abstract way we do over the world’s pain, injustice, how children should not die before their parents. But in the past week, I learned that Manuel, who lived in our barrio–no, we lived in his–and who watched out for us as his gringo family, died. Manuel was an alcoholic. He treated his body horribly and we knew his life expectancy couldn’t be terribly long. But he was younger than I am and now he is gone and I grieve. He matters to me. Of course he didn’t matter to you as much as he matters to me if you never met him. When I told you he was an alcoholic, he may have mattered to you a little less; you might now think, just a little, in the privacy of your heart, “he deserves what he got.” 

But people can not matter to us when we know them, too. Jesus tells a parable about a man living in poverty named Lazarus and a rich man named…”rich man.” Unsettlingly, Jesus doesn’t give the rich guy a name. But the rich man steps over Lazarus at his gate, ignores Lazarus’s suffering and needs, and continues on with his comfortable, pleasurable life. 

We’re not like the rich man, of course. At least, I’m willing to bet we have all told ourselves that we’re not and gathered our reasons to back this up. 

“But Mike, you’re being unfair! A life can matter to me even if I don’t interact directly with that person! I can value a person’s life from a distance. I can say that person matters without having to feed him or dress her wounds or clothe their children.” 

Hold that thought. 

My life matters. To whom? It matters to me. I value my own life. I feed myself and exercise and try to take reasonable care of my health. I also try to enjoy myself, to do things that give my life meaning by my own measure, and to be a person I can bear. I try to love others even when they don’t love me, to show kindness to those who refuse to show kindness to me. 

My life matters to me because my life matters to God. I can’t say the following with certainty–I don’t have a control group to test my hypothesis–but I believe I would not be alive if I didn’t matter to God. We usually phrase this as “Because God loves me.” In the mysterious, inexplicable ways of God, not only does God love me but Jesus has taught me that the very the purpose of my life is to do what I can to help others know that God loves them, also. You. Nicaraguan friends. Ultimate players. My kids. Strangers on the street. 

Can lives matter without purpose? They can, but I think it’s harder for us to accept. We still matter to God if we feel we have no purpose at all, but part of Jesus’s conveying to us that we matter is inviting us to join in God’s purposes. Those are big. Reconcile the world to God in love (as opposed to at gunpoint). Redeem and restore all that we’ve damaged with our hate and violence and our disfiguring of creation. Build shalom community. In fact, I would say our purpose and our love, both given by God, cannot be taken away. Even if we lose our ability to do everything, God still works through us to love and heal. That’s grace. 

We convey that others matter by affirming their beloved-ness. We recognize and call out their reflection of God’s image, by which I mean that they are both loved and capable of loving. The more abstract this is, the less it touches people. The more specifically and truthfully we can tell and show people they are loved, that they have purpose and value and significance to us, the better chance we have of helping them to know that they matter. 

Yet numbers work against us. Can you love a thousand people? A million? Can you love twenty people? Twelve? Only two?

Of course, the answer is that we can love different numbers of people in different ways. For how many people would you rush to the hospital? That is one very specific expression of love. That you would not rush to the hospital for everyone does not mean you don’t love everyone, but again, you don’t love everyone equally. We have limits. We could smile at everyone we meet, but we can’t listen well to every person we meet (believe me, I’ve tried). We can share our food with some but not with everyone. We choose. 

As Jesus followers, we trust that God, who is infinite, can and does love everyone while we seek to love those within our reach. Even for those within arm’s reach, we have to choose how we can love them. We who are finite do our small part and believe God uses our small part for the whole, what we call “God’s Kingdom,” God’s overall work in the world. 

Complicating these matters, I’m both sinful and broken. I love imperfectly, even when I’m crazy about the person. Some people I flat don’t like, or don’t enjoy, or don’t respect, or don’t accept. Jesus literally commands us to love everyone–including enemies–and not just abstractly—not the empty gesture of “thoughts and prayers” without real prayer or active love—but specifically to love them as we would want to be loved. 

Of course, my failures and shortcomings in loving others don’t mean they are less lovable. Nor that they matter less to God. But it means little for me to say people matter and yet demonstrate by my action or inaction that they do not. 

Our church has a sign above the door that says, “You matter to God, so you matter to us.” That’s our calling that we recognize from Jesus. Jesus says they matter, so they matter, and consequently we seek to help them to know that they matter, to show by what we say and do and don’t say and don’t do that we affirm their value. To God. To us. 

Therefore, if we have a movement within our country insisting that certain people matter, of course we have the calling to affirm this truth. Jesus makes that clear. I have never, in my thirty-plus years of following Jesus, felt the need to convey to anyone that they matter less. Have I needed to confront some people’s pride and ego? Of course. But not their value. Not that they matter to God or to me. 

Going back to abstracts and specifics, of course every person in the whole world matters. But how many people feel specifically loved or valued by my declaration that “everyone matters?” Notably, our sign doesn’t say “Everyone matters to God so everyone matters to us.” Of course we believe that and try to live it. But my calling, now and in each moment, is to help you know that youmatter. You won’t feel that more if we tell you, “Yeah, everyone.” It is everyone. But you have to hear that it’s you. YOU matter to God. So YOU matter to us.

In Mark 5, Jesus went rushing off with Jairus, a very esteemed and powerful man in his culture, because Jairus begged Jesus, “Come, heal my daughter!” But on the way, Jesus got stalked by a woman. She came up close to him–violating her culture’s laws, by the way–and touched his clothing. Stalker. This touch healed her. You may not believe that, but I do. But the story isn’t that Jesus magic-healed her without trying; Jesus stopped and asked, “Who touched me?” Remember he was rushing to heal a dying girl with the girl’s father, a man who mattered very much within the hierarchy of that culture. Jairus’s daughter mattered very much to Jairus, Jairus beseeched Jesus for help, Jairus mattered to Jesus, and Jesus charged–until this. This lowly, sickly, impoverished woman (all strikes against her) did not believe she mattered to Jesus at all.  Not even enough for him to lay eyes on her. I can just touch him, she thought, get healed, and he won’t ever have to see me or know I exist

Jesus stopped. Jesus demanded, “Who touched me?” Peter said, “It’s a crowd. Everyone is touching you.” Yep. Everyone. Everyone matters. Jesus didn’t ask that. “Who touched me, for I felt power for healing flow out of me.” What? But the woman knew she was busted. She fell to her knees in front of him–have you ever actually dropped to your knees before another person? I don’t think we can even quite get how demeaning, how lowering this act might be. Jesus spoke with her. He raised her up. He listened. He affirmed her. He told her, “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” 

Then, and only then, did he resume hurrying to the emergency of Jairus’ little ten-year-old girl. 

I’ve heard people say, “Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was sick in his time. He didn’t help everyone who was poor.” It’s like they understand that Jesus imposed human limitations on himself yet also don’t understand. Or conveniently forget. Jesus loved and modeled loving. He didn’t come so that he could directly heal and love everyone–even though he certainly loved everyone–but so that we could learn how to love as he loves us and spread this love, person by person, throughout the world. He showed love all the way to and through his death, and to his followers’ shock, even after his death through his resurrection. He atoned for our sins in that death and imparted his life to us in that resurrection. 

Yes, now we’re there. Gears shifting.

If someone tells you their life does not matter, as a Jesus follower you have one clear answer. If someone tells you, “I’m worthless, I want to die,” you may not be able to change their mind but you know with certainty that they have worth, love, meaning, value. They matter. 

If someone tells you, “I feel as if I don’t matter,” you have an answer. We know our calling. We know why they matter. We can address what in their life makes them feel they don’t matter. 

If Lazarus says to you, “The rich man steps over me. I don’t matter,” you must tell him, “The rich man is wrong! You do matter, God loves you, and that indifference and neglect by that nameless wealthy person cannot negate your value. You matter!” 

If people feel like it’s debatable whether or not they matter, our part, always, always, is to affirm how much they matter to a loving, grace-extravagant God, and to us, imperfect and finite but loved by God and learning to love like God. If we love others as we want to be loved (i.e. the way Jesus commanded), we know we want to be reminded of and upheld in our value. We may do that poorly for others, but we know the truth; we know our calling. 

If Black people tell us they experience that their lives do not matter within our culture, why on earth would we do anything other than affirm with them–through words and action–that their specific lives do matter? 

As Jesus followers, we affirm to people that their lives matter. Any response that waters this down, or questions or attacks why they bring up the question–imagine answering someone who is suicidal, “Why are you even talking about that?”–works against what Jesus did with the woman he stopped for, what Jesus does when he stops for us. As Jesus followers, we can only be on one side of a discussion someone else raises about whether or not their life matters: 

Yes, you are right. Yes it does.  Your life matters.

Tarnished Treasures

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TW: Racist image and language

My friend Anna made a comment that has me thinking. Good friends will do that. We’re both Generation X, affectionately Xers, folks born between 1965 and 1980. We’re the generation that, in a recent widely-viewed CBSN piece on the differences between generations, were forgotten. Left out completely. Yep.

“Don’t you forget about me…don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t…”

If you have that tune in your mind now, that doesn’t guarantee you’re an Xer, but I guarantee if you are an Xer (and grew up in the U.S.) you now have that Simple Minds song playing in your head.

The quickest search on google declares that our generation is “typically perceived to be disaffected and directionless.” As a writer, I appreciate that both “typically” and “perceived” can be taken as qualifiers. That’s just a stereotype and it is merely how others view us, not necessarily objective reality about the 60-plus million of us who are left. I can’t resist riffing on this for one moment before I go on: we, the generation left off of a chart of generations–no one noticed that little gap between 1964 and 1981?–are perceived to be disaffected? Huh. Now why would that be?

I’m a guy who believes in God’s grace for each of us individually, so I’m not inclined to lump huge groups together that often, but I have a deep fondness and affinity for our generation. We were children of the Seventies and Eighties. We survived being dressed in pull-over velour short-sleeve sweaters with zippers in the Seventies. We recovered from our self-inflicted mullets in the Eighties. The last Xer born on December 31 of 1980 still got to enjoy Michael Jackson in his prime and could understand, at least to some degree, what it meant that Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and the Berlin Wall came down. We still love our music and maybe we are disaffected but if you don’t, you’re missing out.

Back to Anna’s comment. She told me she wants to show her kids some of the beloved movies from our childhood, but they have glaring racism.

“Oh? Wait, which ones?”

I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive survey of the movies we watched in the Eighties and how they influenced our lives, but Anna is, of course, right. Sixteen Candles. Goonies. Oh, Lord, Goonies. We all loved Goonies. We still speak of it fondly in my family. Some of you are balling your fists because I’m mentioning it pejoratively right now.

Well, this is exactly the point I’m hoping to make: it’s easy to see the blatant racism in cultural fixtures for which we feel no connection. Whites-only baseball. Segregated schools. I’ve repeatedly seen this photo and am appalled and sickened each time.

This is from a fair in Wisconsin in 1943. “Versions of the original ‘African Dodger’ were still found in the 1950s.” And yes, unfortunately it’s real.

That didn’t happen at our county fair, which my little Illinois town, as the County Seat, hosted each year. I also have fond memories of the Fair. We didn’t have a lot going on in our town, but that week every year, people flooded in, we rode The Zipper and Tilt-a-Whirl, threw the ping pong ball in the fishbowl to win a goldfish that would die three hours later, and ate the cotton candy, corn dogs, and elephant ears. I saved money all year to blow at the fair. We had a Miss Henry County pageant, a demolition derby, and even quasi-headliners in concert, there in our own little town. I hope you can feel the nostalgia bubbling up in me. I spent countless quarters to win stuffed animals for girls who saw me as a “good friend,” which was basically death for a seventh-grader, but slow, staked-to-an-anthill-and-basted-with-honey death. Like I said, great memories.

Time for one of those uncomfortably honest moments. We didn’t have “hit the N—– baby” at our fair. Thank God. But I loved our fair and therefore I can see how someone who also loved their fair could feel some affinity and fondness, even though something so appalling as this was played. Some folks from the Silent Generation still around today played that game. I enjoyed Goonies and Sixteen Candles, which, among too many other things, in the former made a character who was dropped in acid as a baby and, because of that deformity is now chained like an animal, the punch line* and in the latter discusses date rape so casually that we’re led to assume it’s the norm (which, tragically, it was). Both movies depict extreme racial stereotypes of Asians.

I’m not saying that laughing at Goonies is the exact equivalent of winning a prize for your sweetheart by playing “Hit the N—–Baby.” I’m saying the cultural entertainments, especially those that became fixtures of our culture and our generation, become easier to excuse, accept, or even defend.

Consider Back to the Future. If I was playing softball before, this is hardball. Sixteen Candles and even Goonies are blips on the cultural landscape compared with Back to the Future, which is a franchise with staying power even now. When they do the five-image montage of the 80’s, you’ll see this movie poster.** Of course there’s racism in Back to the Future. No, I don’t want to have to admit that. I want to love Back to the Future like I always have. Especially now that I’ve read Lucky Man. In Back to the Future II, Marty goes back to Lyon Estate and it’s gone to hell. It’s poor, it’s violent, and…oh, there’s a Black family living in Marty’s house. But don’t worry, these aren’t those bad, violent Black people, like the rest of the neighborhood. These are good Black people.

Oh, and Goldie is the mayor now. One of two Black characters in the original movie.

Um…

Damn it.

Another honest confession: when I dig into this stuff, I feel tired. I find myself trying to explain it in my head to people who don’t want to see what I see–imagine, then, how exhausting that is for Black people to try to explain–and also grapple with the part of myself that resists examining these things without my rose-colored lenses. I want to pretend that this “innocent” enjoyment has no lasting effect on my attitudes or perceptions of race. I have to work to make myself keep looking at it honestly and as objectively as possible.

So would it be any different for me if I came from a different generation and our “innocent” entertainment was more starkly full of racial stereotypes and motifs that make us Xers (and many others) cringe?

I titled this post “Tarnished Treasures,” but that probably isn’t adequate. “Tarnish” is a loss of luster due to exposure to air or moisture. We’re talking about inherent flaws. Maybe flawed treasures. Or, less charitably, rotten spots in the fruit that spoil the whole thing.

You tell me. If I said, “Yeah, I loved that county fair we used to go to, and sure, there was that one maybe racist game that they played, but that doesn’t mean the whole fair was bad.”

Remember, this is hard work. It’s good and necessary work. It’s much easier to define racism as “bad people want to lynch Black Americans and call them ‘n—–‘ and I don’t.” But you know what? I’m not helping the current racial conflict nor dismantling systemic racism by reminding everyone that I haven’t lynched anyone. If “suburbs” functions as a code word for “where it’s safe for white people to live,” then I have to acknowledge that a movie I’ve enjoyed from my youth reinforces that stereotype. If I am willing to admit that Asians are suffering race-motivated violence because “they” (every Asian, regardless of birth place) are accused of bringing us the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, then I must also admit that Data in Goonies and, even worse, Long Duk Dong, the utter stereotype from Sixteen Candles, contribute to Asian stereotypes and, unless I address and rewrite it proactively, continue to influence my views.

Okay, I can hear the voice saying, “Come on, Mike, my view of Asians isn’t effected by Long Duk Dong and neither is yours!” Do me a favor? Go back and read my friend Stephen’s post he wrote for this blog. Where does this stereotype of “meek” come from? In addition to making fun of Asian accents and his, um, romantic inclination, the main trope of his character was weakness. Or consider,

“Asian Americans who grew up in the second half of the 1980s complained that they were called ‘Donkers’ in junior and high schools,” Grace Ji-Sun Kim, a researcher at Georgetown University, wrote in the book Theological Reflections on ‘Gangnam Style.’ “They were taunted with quotes of Dong’s stilted English lines, such as … ‘Oh, sexy girlfriend.’ “

From the above cited article, “What’s So Cringeworthy about Sixteen Candles?

Here are my conclusions:

1)While it’s worthwhile to call attention to racism in our collective national history (and I do this often), it’s harder and more personal to consider our own direct exposure to racism , especially any that has gone unconsidered.

2)The more fondly we connect to something, the more difficult it will be for us to think on it critically. That’s just an obvious truth. But it’s really important in the context of racism.

Is our church racist?

“God, I hope not! I love my church!”

Yes, me too, but is it?—-

3)This leads us to dig in hard to a better understanding of “racism.” Correct, I have never owned slaves, whipped anyone, nor called anyone “n—–.” I have never done that. Being innocent of these actions does not clear me of racism. Further, racism is neither all-or-nothing nor, if I am racist in some way, such an absolute damning of my character that I am therefore pure, irredeemable evil. I think the question “Did I commit a racism?” is more useful than “Am I racist?” I’m not given over to racism; I do racisms, mostly not consciously.

4)Therefore, this being true, my work–I hope our work–is to become more conscious of the ways I do racisms, the way I still carry unconsidered racist attitudes, assumptions, or stereotypes, and, most challengingly, the ways our culture perpetuates and reinforces these that I do not see but that benefit me. Identifying and confronting these “small” things like recognizing the flaws in our treasures, the seam of racism that runs throughout not just “U.S. history” but my personal history, help us to speak up against racism, even in ourselves, rather than defend and deny it…even in ourselves.

A theme I keep seeing, and of which I need constant reminding, is that how I feel about all this is not the center of the issue. How we treat one another in our country is the center. Worded differently, how we love our neighbor is the center.

By the way, as it turns out, “disaffected” does describe me and, I hope, most of my generation.

Disaffected is defined as “Dissatisfied with the people in authority and no longer willing to support them.”

*I know, the Goonies help Sloth. It’s that whole light-hearted, torture-of-a-disfigured-family-member-as-kids’-entertainment thing that leaves me unsettled.

**Along with Thriller, Pac-Man, Magic and Bird, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And the Miracle on Ice. And The Empire Strikes Back. And these.

U2 - Live / Under A Blood Red Sky (CD) | Discogs
U2 - War - Amazon.com Music
U2 - The Unforgettable Fire (1984, Specialty Pressing, Vinyl) | Discogs
U2 - The Joshua Tree - Amazon.com Music

But that’s more than five.

Exhaustion

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This is how much of a mess I am right now: a few days ago I was driving and a red pick-up in the next lane over started to switch lanes and then wildly swerved back again to avoid slamming into the Honda that was already there. Blind spot, I’m guessing. We’ve all been there. I was the car behind these two. The car that almost got sideswiped sped up and got out of there. The driver who was trying to change lanes, now running out of space before we turned to cross the bridge, signaled. So I slowed way down to let him in–I was already going slower from that cold sweat down my spine when I thought the cars right in front of me were going to crash. But I definitely went out of my way to let him in and he knew it. After he changed lanes, he stuck his full-sleeve tattooed arm out the window to acknowledge the kindness. 

And I got teary.

His simple acknowledgement of my act, a tiny little drip of decency in a raging hurricane sea of hostility, and I choked up. 

After my last post, which was a touch serious, I intended to come back with something light-hearted. It’s high time I did a post on disc golf. But the chill out post won’t come, even though I know we’re at the point in the plot where we desperately need a breather and some comic relief. Kim has worked 14-hour days the last couple, and when she describes what she’s going to have to pull off to teach this year, it sounds like two full-time jobs. The freaking NBA protested the police shooting of Jacob Blake. No playoff Wednesday or Thursday. I was trying to express how overwhelmed I felt with this latest shooting–and the shooting after that, a 17-year-old killing two, injuring a third–when the WNBA, NBA, as well as some MLB and MLS teams, brought their games to a screeching halt to defend and advocate for black lives. 

I’m profoundly encouraged to see this because these are people with a major platform and powerful voices. If you hope for non-violent protests, these are the epitome of speaking up non-violently. 

Of course, there’s much more than this going on. In case it slipped by you, we’re in an election year. As of today, 184,000 have died from COVID-19, a horrific number which is still likely underreported. Somehow arguments against wearing masks to prevent its spread continue. 

“Look around, look around at how lucky we are
To be alive right now.” You know, from Hamilton.

In 2020, it’s tempting to sing that sarcastically. But then with so many dying of this virus, that feels like sacrilege, doesn’t it? The pandemic began raging in the U.S. in March. It’s only August. My friend Luis survived it but his wife Connie describes

It’s been a month since Luis came back home after his ordeal of 103 days in the hospital-rehab isolation venture due to COVID-19. His days are mostly spent in bed due to the ulcer wound that continues to heal. He still has no sensation in his feet, and unable to walk yet.

Luis is younger than I am. We keep praying for him and his family. 

I have a friend who is an ICU nurse. She just gave me the update on her hospital. 

We are able to care for 16-18 patients, but it is a strain on our staffing to do so long term. We are attempting to hire experienced ICU nurses, and we have 8 nurses in the residency program training to become an ICU nurse but that takes 3 months. Our nurses are working overtime, and we have currently acquired the most traveling nurses that we have ever had.  Travelers are an expensive way to go because they cost the hospital much more than hired staff.  (The hospital pays the nurse and the travel company).   We currently have 14 or 15 travelers!  Normally, we hope to have none, but occasionally have hired 2-4.  This current trend is unprecedented. It is a good thing I live in an attractive place to work and play, so we can attract travelers to our area.  I am sure some areas in the country struggle with attaining travelers.  

This is a response I got to my last post. Pay attention.

I have noticed that I am thinking about death much more lately. Some of that probably has to do with me and many friends being in our 70s, 80s. Feeling less and less time, Your words help me a lot. And this upcoming election scares me to death. I have actually found myself thinking of how to leave life if 45 wins. But then your words help me feel love for my family, friends, and associates. And I smile. I pare down the size of my world. Then I can handle that.

Like I said, I couldn’t find the humor. We’re in crisis and I’m not the only one feeling it. So when a stranger acknowledged me, just that simple arm-wave, the universal signal for “Thanks,” I got emotional. 

Jerry Falwell, Jr. resigned “under duress” as President of Liberty University and I think about how many heard him declare Trump is “the Christian’s dream president.” He’s going to receive a severance of $10.5 million. How many Christians did he impact with his actions, his words, his legalism, with his unreserved support of this administration? How many who aren’t Christians took his words and behaviors as speaking for all Christians? 

It’s so much right now. Nicaraguans are still poor, in fact poorer than ever, and I still want to remind people and speak for my friends, the land that will always also be our home country, a place and people we love. But we have these crises exploding around us. The derecho in Iowa, people trying to pick up the pieces. Hurricane Laura hitting Texas and Louisiana. We’re praying and holding our breath, watching reports come in. 

Perhaps most upsetting, for every issue I just named there is a pitched battle raging among us, with the possible exception of Hurricane Laura. 

In contrast to the driving incident, that same outing I stopped by the local mall on my way home because I‘m a mall rat desperately needed the restroom. Twenty feet from it, an employee told me, quite harshly, “The mall is closed. You need to go the main exit and leave. Now.” I wasn’t the only non-employee still there, by far. It wasn’t two hours after closing. And I go to that mall so rarely that I don’t actually know their closing time. 

“You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny!” I did not say that to him, but the urge came welling up, hard. Now come on, Mike. He’s an employee mopping the floor after the mall is officially closed. Yes, he could have spoken nicer to me, but he has every right to want to go home from work when it’s time. And it’s not his fault how his mother dresses him. I spent my drive home (this was my second failed attempt to stop for a bathroom) uncomfortable and working through the steps of putting myself in his shoes. Because to do to others as we would have them do to us, we have to identify and empathize. Getting angry is easier than identifying and empathizing. SO much easier. 

Here we are. Small acts, not even necessarily of kindness but simple civility, make me cry. Small acts of incivility hit harder than they should–than they normally would, if I can even remember back to what “normal” felt like. I read about people getting angry at being asked to wear a mask and physically attacking the requester, whether a teenage employee or a stranger. I want to judge the heck out of them–and I do think that’s a horrible thing to do–but I’m also aware that I, personally, am running on approximately zero margin. I’m not excusing horrible acts or awful decisions; I’m acknowledging that we all have more going on right now.

I have. I recognize both of these tiny incidents as symptoms to which I must pay attention. 

So here are my takeaways:

1)It’s right to react strongly to injustice and horrors going on around us. I’m not feeling bad that I’m feeling bad about all this. When I stop caring, I’ll worry. I’m questioning anyone who doesn’t carry these things heavily. Knowing how to retain peace and centeredness in turmoil is not the same as indifference.

2)That means we have to increase our self-care, too. As my friend described, we may have to pare down our world. If we can’t handle all that’s going on, we must make healthy choices to step back and breathe, increase our capacity for what we must handle, limit or mitigate the damage we’re taking if at all possible (not always the case), and, in my humble opinion, keep speaking up and standing up. 

3)How do we keep loving in the midst of this? It seems as if people are getting worse. Behaving worse, attacking more viciously, reasoning even poorer or less (which frankly I didn’t think possible), and somehow nevertheless more convinced of their rightness and righteousness in all of these. And I mean it looks like this to folks on both sides of the political spectrum, looking across the divide. I know with absolute certainty I’m not the only one feeling “those people” are harder to love right now. Therefore, we need a soundly biblical understanding of “love” to keep loving right now. Love does not mean pretending that evil is not evil. Even forgiveness demands calling sin and darkness what they are and calling them into the light. Love never means calling evil good. Love does not mean turning away from sin and choosing harmony over truth. “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” –MLK Jr. If we can follow this truth in love, seeking God’s Shalom through loving our neighbor while confronting injustice…

Oof. It’s exhausting. I’m emotionally stretched to my limit. I know that. I want to acknowledge that. I want to respect my own limits and yours. I believe everything I just wrote, I will try to live this, and I’m exhausted. 

This is all I’m telling you today. Many of us feel exhausted. If you roll your eyes and call me a “snowflake,” that’s fine (especially if I don’t hear you). But if you can relate, I’m offering you this: love is still the right path. I know it’s ridiculous to get teary when a stranger just arm-out-the-window thanks you for letting him merge. But trying to listen to God’s Spirit, I took that to mean small acts of love mean even more right now. 

Yesterday, I was driving a little fast and then saw a boy, maybe nine, standing with his bike at a crosswalk. I stopped abruptly, which inspired the truck coming from the other direction to stop even more abruptly. The kid looked nervous and hustled across before either of us ran him over. So I rolled down my window and called out to him, “Good job!” smiled, and gave him a thumbs up. Safely on the opposite sidewalk, he smiled back and returned my thumbs up. Small acts mean more now, I’m convinced. Loving others while we’re near our breaking point (or feel that we are) is still where we encounter God. Loving our enemies when they have doubled down and committed themselves to enemy-like behavior will always be the path of life. If by some miracle you are reading my blog and disagree with all my positions and think of me as your enemy (and maybe God’s), well, then this applies between you and me.

This isn’t the light, comic-relief, here’s-a-breather post I had in mind, at all, but I want to make this statement. Some things we have to say not because we’ll change others by saying them but because not saying them will change us. I’m not going to lose my soul in all this. I’m not going to become or give in to the hate I’m beholding right now. I know people deny that it is hate, and maybe it’s fear masquerading as hate. That’s not for me to judge. I just know I’m not going there. Grace still applies and I’m still loved by Jesus in spite of all the bad stuff I think and say and do. I’m not righteous, I’m saved by grace, and I refuse to let myself believe that I am good and others are evil. I refuse to turn a blind eye. 

“I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!” 

shouts Elliot Ness in The Untouchables. Great line, strong movie, but no. Absolutely not. I also refuse to fight against hate with hate and let myself become the hate I stand against.

As Bono sang,

They say that what you mock
Will surely overtake you
And you become a monster
So the monster will not break you

I’m encouraged that I get teary at minuscule responses. I’m glad God’s spirit still moves in me to offer children affirmation when I can. Many of my thoughts and inclinations right now are not encouraging. I mean, genuinely concerning. You may see some of those in yourself, too. 

But God is with us and, by God’s grace, we will not become what we behold. We will keep trying to speak–and live–truth in love. 

“Be imitators of God and walk in love, as Christ loved us.” These words have never sounded more concrete and tangible to me, because the choice never before looked this clear. 


I had written this and then, that night, found out Chadwick Boseman died, and I couldn’t even. It felt like a gut kick, or lower. That news both underscored the premise of this post–there’s so much and it’s so bad–and doubled me over. We need leaders and role models, people of character and courage. We can ill afford to lose those we have. Go with God, Chadwick, and thank you. 

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What Matters

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It’s the middle of the night, 4:30 AM. I know that’s close to getting up time for some of you. I’ve been trying to keep more reasonable hours, go to bed around 1. “Reasonable” for me. That didn’t work tonight.

I’ve been thinking a lot about getting older. It changes your perspective. I realize I’ve been trying to say a few things in my writing and I keep coming at them from different perspectives, hoping to zero in.

What we do matters. What we say matters. We have a chance to make a difference.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote ” I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.” My dad lived sixty-eight years. Rachel Held Evans died at 37. My friend Fred only twenty-nine. And you might think, “Of course you’re thinking about death–it’s the middle of the night!” But I’ve been thinking about these things all the time.

Big events are happening now. We’re in an election year. People are screaming and arguing that this is the best President we’ve ever had, the worst President we’ve ever had, that the fate of the world rides on this election. We’re trying to change a racist, sexist culture while some fight back that our attempt at change is the problem.

We’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. We’re learning to do life differently, those of us with the resources to protect ourselves and rearrange our lives. Many more can’t protect themselves. I’m watching my wife, Kim, relearn how to teach after twenty-plus years. We laughed today that it should make her feel young, trying to figure out how to do this, just like she did when she started.

Everything feels huge right now, oversized, overwhelming. We’re enduring too much stress. We’re debating over masks. We’re debating if the sky is blue, if water is wet, if U2 is great (duh). But it’s intractable because somehow both sides believe they have reason on their side, both sides are shouting, “No, this is what ‘wet’ means!”

So I find myself thinking about death a lot, and meaning, and purpose. What of this, if any, would matter to me if I knew I weren’t going to be here. I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.

I was missing Nicaragua today. It hits me hard some days, catches me off guard, slams me in the ribs, knocks my breath from me.* I was driving this afternoon, when suddenly I missed people and that time and place so badly I literally gasped in pain. But our life in Nicaragua wasn’t Shangri-La; I wasn’t in some perfect state of bliss there. Sometimes I was miserable. I had insomnia for seven years.**

So here it is, what I’ve been trying to say: First, none of this will go as you plan. It isn’t under your control. God didn’t give you that power to make it work as you see fit. Today Kim left for a meeting expecting she would have one school year and returned knowing she would have a completely different one.

I had so many plans and such determination to make things go a certain way and, for the most part, they haven’t. Do I despair? Quit? Try harder? What matters?

Here’s my answer:

I will love you in this time that I have. It’s getting light now. Day is coming.

I will love in this time that I have. Love is attention and love is encouragement. For those who can, love is fixing plumbing or sewing masks. We express love in a million ways. Love is forgiveness. Love is helping others see they are God’s beloved, beautiful, and worth loving.

Today I heard from a friend who has had it–like when Dad shouted “I’ve had it!” Done. Rudeness in exchange for her kindness. Incivility flung at her civility. She concluded that people suck…but she said it a lot stronger. We’ve all been there. Actually, I’m more concerned about anyone who hasn’t been. If you’ve never gotten overwhelmed trying to love these horrible people–I mean, people–then either you are the most shalom-centered, spirit-filled person I know…or else you’re choosing not to love.

It’s such a cliché to tell you that we don’t have much time so you should love people…but we don’t have much time. So love people. Give yourself for the people who can receive love from you. Spend yourself on them.

I feel like we’re following Jesus into the darkness, into a world that gets meaner and smaller and harder all the time, that mocks us for offering or expecting anything different. “When someone is polite to you why can’t you respond? Why do you give filthy looks or just ignore me altogether?” It becomes horribly tempting to do unto others as they’ve done to us.

I’m overwhelmed and exhausted and so tempted to lash out. So bleeping tempted.

My friend matters. Today. My friends who haven’t quit loving and my friends who feel tempted to quit. So I refuse to give in to that temptation. Jesus, give me strength to love and not hate.

No to returning hate for hate.

No to meaner and harder and smaller. No to “everyone lies so what does it matter?” No to “there is no truth.” No to “kindness is meaningless in a world like this.”

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Yes to that.

I ache for my time in Nicaragua because I gave my heart there, not perfectly or even adequately at times, but with intention. Heart longing that feels like an elbow slammed in the ribs is a strange reward, but I wouldn’t trade it. Yes to giving our hearts.

Here again, in this vastly wealthier place, I don’t know how to love well or even adequately, and it’s hard here for all different reasons and sometimes I’m miserable, but the light shines in this darkness, this “land of plenty with an empty soul.”*** Yes to that light.

Yes to offering what light we can, what light Jesus gives us, in this darkness.

Yes to believing light is coming.

Yes to loving our children, even when they don’t like us.

Yes to loving our friends and remembering to tell them we’re grateful for them. I’m grateful for you. I hope you know that. Please know that.

Yes to holding out hope that the people in darkness, including those who seem willfully ignorant and callously cruel, who look to me like the dwarves in The Last Battle, choosing darkness and refusing light, will yet have love break through. Yes to praying for them. Yes to offering them light, even still.

I’ve realized, probably a little slow, that for some I am the enemy. I talk about Jesus and believe in God’s love, compassion, and justice. I don’t fit their party lines. I insist on seeing a bigger picture. I won’t turn a blind eye.

Yes to following Jesus, even against party lines.

Yes to loving those who call me “enemy.”

Yes to loving you, friends who give me hope and carry me when I’m hopeless.

Yes to Jesus.

Yes to what matters.

*Much like trying to box out Boone, who is one of the people from there I miss.

**I know, I know, but the difference is I can choose to sleep now.

***”They were making available the dreams of the past
For a limited time, while the supply lasts
Got in line, and I gave the man my cash
I was buying fake diamonds, buying fool’s gold
I keep them in a big sack shot full of holes
In a land of plenty with an empty soul” –“Offer” Bill Malonee, Vigilantes of Love

Unlearning to Love Our Neighbor

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[I had a conversation with my friend Tad, AKA Donald Sternin-Stearns, and what he told me was so good I asked him to write a post about it. I hope you have friends like that and conversations like that. He wrote it. Here it is.]

It was the day before they announced businesses would be closing due to Covid that my wife and I actually started looking for a house to buy in earnest. We had just gotten married October of this year, and the conversation of buying a house always felt like a hypothetical. Much like traveling to Europe, or having children. Much to our surprise we were able to knock off two of those hypothetical’s in a week. And not just any week, but the week my wife turned 40, we closed on a house and got a positive pregnancy test. In one week I had gone from a poor, (currently) jobless, renter, to a home-owning father. It’s a reality that has been so far away for so long, a part of me never thought it would happen. 

A bit of backstory on me, my name is Donald Sternin-Stearns. I am a longtime smoker, borderline alcoholic, foul-mouthed Christian. Born in Seattle and raised in Wenatchee, despite not being particularly well off I always considered myself to be incredibly lucky. Being a white male in Wenatchee it was always so painfully clear to me how easy I actually had it. I’m not what you would call “educated,” so finding a job that pays more than minimum wage is just not likely. Somewhere along the way I had decided for myself that I would, in fact, never be anything more than a renter. Living paycheck to paycheck. I know with 100% certainty that if I had never met my wife, that’s exactly where I would have stayed.

With the crazy new reality setting in of being a first-time parent and home owner, we had on rose colored glasses. In our excitement we completely overlooked the glaring flaws with our new house, namely the hollow core back door that had a dog door cut out of it, compromising its already weak structure. The night before Father’s Day, only having the keys to the new house for less than a week, while staying at the old house, someone pushed in that back door and was able to walk away with easily over $2000 worth of stuff. New electric lawn mower, laptop, blah blah blah. You know the story, anything they could sell or use themselves.

When we noticed everything missing, initially I was furious, obviously. We went around to our neighbors asking if they’d heard anything, called the cops, checked out pawn shops. Just the thought of a stranger going through our things like that, it led us into a cycle of emotions, anger, fear, rage, hate, depression, rage, rage. That wore off in about a week, to an extent. What I’m left with is empathy. I’m positive that whoever robbed us did not do it for kicks, they did it to survive, they did it because that’s what they know. We were lucky enough to not have everything we owned here. Sure, it was an invasion of privacy, but no one was hurt and ultimately we didn’t lose anything that can’t be replaced… Save for a few scandalous pictures of me in a tool belt, to which I say to my robbers, “You’re welcome.”

Not but a few days after this took place, my wife and I walked over to the neighborhood Safeway to get some dinner. Walking into the parking lot, to our right we saw a minivan, completely packed full of boxes and personal items. It looked as if they were moving. Except for the back passenger window being totally blocked out by towels. Our conversation stopped as we walked passed the van to reveal a mother braiding her daughter’s hair in the empty parking spot next to the minivan. The girl couldn’t have been older than 7, with her brother right next to her, maybe 5. Suddenly our problems seemed very small.. The stresses of moving, getting robbed, not working, playing phone tag with incompetent workers at companies that couldn’t care less about you, your lost money, time or sleep. It all suddenly was irreverent. Even though our problems are still real, in perspective, they are minor annoyances.

Immediately upon walking in we are confronted with a guy at the register screaming at the cashier because she didn’t give him a second receipt. Our knee jerk reaction was to intervene, but we are currently in a pandemic. On top of that, its not our own lives we have to worry about but also the life of our child. Our pace slowed as we walked approached the altercation but picked back up as we passed. Turning the corner around the self checkout to ask from afar if we should call 911. The man had already paid for his few items. He could have just left, like a normal person. But he was furious and he selfishly unleashed his hate onto this teenage black girl making minimum wage. Ultimately he left and she went on break. And we were left furious at the scene we had just witnessed.

I couldn’t help but wonder if all of this was somehow connected. People being so desperate that they will risk their own lives to take what isn’t theirs, a woman living in a minivan pretending for her kids that they’re just on vacation, the man so irate that he didn’t get what he wanted that he was actually spitting in the face of an innocent girl. I truly believe that the real problem here is not political, or what our socio-economic might be, or even (God forbid) lack of prayer in schools. The problem is, we are slowly unlearning how to love our neighbors. We isolate ourselves in front of our phones and only surround ourselves with friends and those who believe the same as we do. There is no doubt in my mind that I would not be here today if it weren’t for the positive influences I’ve had in my life. People that showed me extreme love and patience even when I was a total asshole. I challenge you, dear reader, make yourself uncomfortable. Meet your neighbors! Not just one of them, all of them!! Be there to give that crucial advice when someone really needs it! Here’s the thing, if you’re trying to change the world over Facebook, it’s not going to happen. If you’re looking for hope, find it on the micro scale. Help people that actually need it!

Good job on making it to the end! Hope you got something out of it! 

Jackie Robinson Did WHAT?

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Jackie Robinson signed a contract for $5,000 with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 when he was 28. He played 151 of 154 games, batted .297, and won Rookie of the Year. The Dodgers made the World Series and Jackie played all seven games, batting .259, while another rookie, Yogi Berra, hit .169 in that Series and Joe Dimaggio batted .231. Nearly every baseball fan still knows about Jackie Robinson and for non-baseball fans, his is one of the most -recognized names.

Classic conversation:

“Do you like baseball?”

“No.”

“Do you know who Jackie Robinson was?”

“Sure. He broke the color barrier.”

Jackie played for ten seasons–twenty-eight years old is an old rookie–and retired with a lifetime batting average of .311, including being named Most Valuable Player for 1949 after hitting .343 with 124 runs batted in and leading the league in steals (37), and, for you true baseball nerds, Wins Above Replacement (9.3). He stole home twenty times in his career.

I love baseball, baseball statistics, and baseball biographies, so I could go on for a long time.* But it struck me that, until recently, I have accepted all this unquestioningly.

Specifically, we declare and propagate this statement: “Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.”

He broke the what?

Language matters. You know a writer believes that. But it does. Words create. Words build. Words destroy. How you talk to your mate, your children, your parents, your co-worker, the person serving you coffee, changes their lives, for good or bad. I hope I don’t have to convince you of that. The terms in which we think impact how we understand and act in the world.

I’ve started imagining that on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson put on his uniform, pulled on his cleats, grabbed his glove, and ran through this barrier of color, shattering it, sending shards of…well, color(?) in all directions. Are we talking like a rainbow here? Or like something American Ninja Warriors would have to smash through?

I could go on amusing myself with these descriptions all day. But I would argue Jackie Robinson didn’t “break the color barrier.” He did sign a contract and play professional baseball, very successfully. What was this “color barrier?”

You mean racist people who opposed and literally fought, with every means at their disposal, against letting blacks play professional baseball in the Major Leagues not based on those players’ ability. One part of this story that any baseball fan of my age knows: Jackie Robinson was not the first black player with the ability or talent to play Major League baseball. Not close. Many baseball fans also know that a Hall of Famer and one of the early great players, Cap Anson, took a loud, public, aggressive leadership role in forcing blacks out of profession baseball. History–meaning REAL-LIFE events, today will be history tomorrow–has many crossroads. Baseball began to integrate and could have continued as an integrated sport in the 1880’s, which arguably could have changed how Major League Baseball formed and, later, how professional basketball and football followed baseball’s lead (as they did by enforcing segregation). Instead,

“Regrettably, Anson used his stature to drive minority players from the game,” wrote Society for American Baseball Research historian David Fleitz. “An 1883 exhibition game in Toledo, Ohio, between the local team and the White Stockings nearly ended before it began when Anson angrily refused to take the field against Toledo’s African-American catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Faced with the loss of gate receipts, Anson relented after a loud protest, but his bellicose attitude made Anson, wittingly or not, the acknowledged leader of the segregation forces already at work in the game. Other players and managers followed Anson’s lead, and similar incidents occurred with regularity for the rest of the decade. In 1887, Anson made headlines again when he refused to play an exhibition in Newark unless the local club removed its African-American battery, catcher Walker and pitcher George Stovey, from the field. Teams and leagues began to bar minorities from participation, and by the early 1890s, no black players remained in the professional ranks.”

Quoted from “It’s Time for Baseball to Acknowledge Cap Anson’s Role in Erecting Its Color Barrier.

That doesn’t describe a “color barrier” that just appeared one day or existed ex nihilo, certainly not one dropped by God from heaven. That’s a racist man taking action that leads and influences others. Leadership matters.

When we talk about Jackie Robinson “breaking the color barrier,” we make impersonal and objective something horribly personal and subjective. If you haven’t watched the movie 42, please see it. I can’t fathom how many times Jackie was called “nigger” or endured other racist actions. That wasn’t “a color barrier.” That was racist people expressing their racist views of a tremendous baseball player and, as we learned, a tremendous human being.

We’re not those people, of course. I’m guessing none of us sat in the stands and shouted “Nigger!” while Robinson made a play at second, stole a base, or hit a double. (What I wouldn’t give to sit in the stands and watch Jackie play a game!) We quickly–I’m going to say instantly–distance ourselves from “those people.” They don’t represent us; their actions and attitudes do not reflect ours. Wouldn’t we rather sit and have dinner or a beer with Jackie Robinson than with any of them? Obviously.

But I want to ask why we use terms like “color barrier?”

Someone, probably not you but someone you know, will object, “It’s just words. We know what we mean!”

I wish. I wish it made no difference how we talked about these things and we could all rely on our invariably good intentions and our follow-through on those intentions. No, it makes a huge difference. When we use neutral terms, we more easily convince ourselves it wasn’t so bad and certainly we have it fixed by now.

We’re inclined to distance ourselves; we prefer to neuter and sterilize these parts of our history. Makes it sound nicer to say “Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier!” than “Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and others in the Dodgers organization overcame the blatant racists and also all the passive racists who benefitted from an unjust system, i.e. systemic racism.” Remember, there was no written rule stating black players could not play. It just so happened that from the 1890s until 1947, not one black player was found who could compete at that level. Or…the pressure and certain backlash against any team’s owner or general manager choosing to sign a black player kept any of them from signing a black player. What do we call that? Bigot barrier? Racist gauntlet? Maybe systemic racism.

“Mike, Jackie played! He did it! Look how many black players and every other nationality Major League baseball has (and overpays) now! Why bring this up?”

If we can admit this “color barrier” euphemism whitewashes a confrontation with our racism and white supremacy (yes, white supremacy: only whites were allowed to play Major League baseball, in spite of the reality that many black players were as good or better than the white players in said League**), we take a step toward having the courage to acknowledge and examine how we euphemize our current systemic injustice. What racism do we allow to pass unconsidered today?

Language matters. Language provides the framework through which we understand, describe, and interact with our world. Language and culture literally form our thoughts. It’s easier to talk about 1950’s racism than current racism, just as it’s easier to talk about blatant acts of racism by others than it is to identify aversive racism in myself. But confronting our acceptance and minimizing of racism in our history demands self-reflection on why we have chosen comforting denial over painful truth.

I’m not an expert or authority on any of this. I’m just doing what I do, putting my journey into words and inviting you to think through with me how we got here and where we go next.

What are other examples of current terms that either hide our past from ourselves or sanitize it to make it more palatable?

*I also love baseball cards and collect cards of Robinson. A 1949 or 1950 Bowman Jackie Robinson is a dream for me. Or a 1948 Leaf Robinson. Or a 1952 Topps…

**Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were as good or better than Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, for example. I’m not stating that as inarguable fact, but demonstrating my point. How do we prove black players were qualified, when they weren’t allowed to play and prove themselves? We consider comparisons with the first generation of black players post-integration. Or we ask were Josh Gibson and Satchell Paige better than the worst contracted MLB white players in 1937?