Concise Thoughts

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Caution is not the same as fear.

When you cannot be an expert on everything, deciding whose expertise you trust becomes more important.

When the issues about which you cannot become an expert involve life and death, deciding whom you trust becomes exponentially more crucial.

When disagreeing with another person, it can be hard not to judge their character as well as their position.

We shouldn’t assume that ours is the only reasonable conclusion one could reach. We shouldn’t assume that those who reach other conclusions do so due to deficiencies in their character.

Even if someone holds a position with which we disagree and it stems from a flaw/weakness/deficiency in their character, they may have other tremendous strengths. We are all a mixed bag.

As we get angrier and more entrenched in our disagreements, kindness and grace become more, not less, important.

Compassion and empathy are lacking. Period.

Doing to others as we would have them do to us takes more work than most of us assume. Considering how I would want to be treated in someone else’s situation demands more from me than assuming they must want what I want.

Dwelling on others’ criticisms of us is probably not the best expenditure of our energy.

Dinosaurs are cool.

Not everyone else is in the same place in their spiritual journey as you are. Sometimes no one else is in the same place in their spiritual journey as you are.*

Assuming an insight that quakes your world is exactly what everyone else needs to hear is evidence you’ve forgotten this truth.

Finding someone else who is, in some aspect, journeying where you are is very exciting. (And having someone belittle that really hurts.)

Our spiritual journeys are neither linear nor even aiming at the same goal.** Telling someone they aren’t “as far along” or “in a different place” (i.e. not as spiritually advanced as you) is forgetting this truth.

If we believe this, if we really believe this, then envying someone else’s success is not just a waste of emotional resources, it’s missing the point.

Judging others without considering their suffering is dehumanizing them. We do this all the time. I do this all the time. God, forgive me.

I would rather be an instrument of God’s grace than prove to people that I’m right…and this gets harder to choose Every. Single. Day.


Usually you can count on me to be more long-winded. I don’t do this often, because I like to consider things in depth and go down different rabbit trails paths of thought. But today it struck me that some things need to be expressed more concisely. I am pondering all of these. I hope at least one helps you.

*Probably not literally true but you might not have any contact or exposure to anyone else who is “where you’re at.”

**Yes, I do believe we are growing into the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13), but I’ve learned that the fullness of Christ for me may look so different than the fullness of Christ for you that I can’t accurately compare these, either.

Listen

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On a still morning, I can hear it.

We don’t have many still mornings. Gun shots, people begging to breathe, threats. So many threats.

Screaming and yelling, continuous arguments. I feel them echo in me even when I shut out their source.

Am I their source?

Accuse. Accuse and attack again. Why are they so threatened? Why does good news sound bad to them?

It’s so bad. It’s funny bad. It’s laughing-hysterically-“can-this-get-any-worse?” bad.

Now it’s worse.

“Forgive me.”

“All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything.”

“You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”

It’s worse.

I can’t bring back this child. I can’t save the next child.

The screaming is so loud.

It’s worse.

How can you be arguing still? How can you pretend not to see? Are you pretending? Can you really not see this?

Seriously?

I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.

But here are some things I know.

It’s been bad for a long time.

It was never going to get better quietly.

In one sense, this isn’t first about “us versus them.” It’s about me versus me. Will I choose a pretend truce, the relief that comes from agreeing to look away again? Will I dig in harder and confront the ugliest parts of myself?

In another sense, it is about us versus them, but I can only fight that battle when I’ve taken on me.

I have to face myself and stop being what I’m trying to oppose.

I have to face myself and stop being the hatred, the indifference, and the passive beneficiary of evil I’m trying to oppose.

They don’t want to change. I know that. And make no mistake, they have to change, one way or the other. I’m not spinning some fairytale here. I’m not suggesting that if we just feel love in our hearts, their hearts will suddenly open and bloom.

But I know I–and we–have to fight them empowered by love and not hate.

Here’s the difference: if i fight driven by hate, all i want is to destroy them. If I fight powered by love, I want to confront the evil in them–as I’ve confronted the evil in me–and open the way for them to be part of us.

I’m also not pretending there are two right, roughly equal sides that just disagree over fine points. We’re not talking about taste in music or ice cream. If you refuse to see the racism and sexism that degrade and endanger people, you have chosen a side. The wrong side.

But I don’t believe we have good and evil people. We have people, people who choose good and evil, all of whom are beloved by God and need grace. If I want to destroy those people made in the image of God, hate will work just fine. If I want to offer those people grace while challenging their choices for evil, I must commit to radical love, the love Jesus offers me, the same love that calls out–and burns away–the gross, nasty, hateful ooze in me.

That’s why I had to take on me before I could take on them. I can’t offer love that I haven’t first accepted. I can’t look at hate-filled people with compassion until I’ve received compassion for being hate-filled…until I’ve stopped justifying my hatred…until I’ve decided I prefer the anguish love costs me over the (imagined) protection that hatred and bitterness offer.

But I’m describing all of this as linear and orderly. It isn’t. It won’t be. I have to make continuous choices to love. I’ll make some of those wrong. I’ll deceive myself. I’ll let hate seep in and turn my heart cold and hard while I tell myself the other person deserves it. “Deserves.” Then grace will break through again, because that’s what Jesus does, and I’ll grow a bit more in humility and empathy. Again.

Change is coming. Statues are coming down. People who have been blind to their own racism are starting to see. Some who had stayed quiet have found their voice. More will as we speak up and press forward. Do your part now. Don’t wait any longer. Choose.

Christians who have followed lies and power instead of Jesus are repenting. Not as many as I’d hope, yet, but some. Change is coming. It has to. People have to make their choices, but the moral arc of the universe is bending toward justice, a justice driven by love.

Gods’ kingdom is coming.

And I can hear it.

Can you?

Statues and Flags

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Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, “Cornerstone Speech” March 21, 1861

People don’t like to hear what they don’t like to hear. 

It will be hard to make a more obvious or circular statement than this.

Nonetheless, I think this explains a whole metric feces ton of what we’re seeing—and arguing about—now.

If a person in my hometown had raped and murdered my grandmother but had also started a number of businesses and helped the town prosper economically, how should I respond to the statue in his honor?

If you lived two thousand miles away from my hometown, and I had to walk past this statue at least twice every day and get reminded, over and over, how my grandmother died, why my mother lived with such trauma and pain throughout her life, would you argue for that statue to remain so we can remember the honorable history of industry in our country?

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear.

What if that statue got erected not during–or even right after–the rapist-murderer-businessman’s lifetime, nor during my mother’s life, but just twenty years ago, and consciously to remind me that I can do nothing to change how I or my children still get (mis)treated in our town?

Does that change anything?

Frankly, it’s bizarre that people who have nothing to do with a town in the South argue against the removal of a statue that reminds blacks who live there that their great-grandmothers watched their husbands get lynched there. Is it really the best way to “preserve our history” to celebrate people who did evil with monuments put up generations after they died and erected for the express purpose of terrorizing black citizens during both the “Jim Crow Era” and the fight for Civil Rights?

But we don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear.

So we change the argument. We make it about “erasing our history.” Would your history in this country be erased if that statue in that southern town, where you’ve never visited and likely never will, came down?

But it’s the idea, right? “If we start taking down statues, where does it end? The political correctness just ramps up and they start wiping out everything that doesn’t fit their politically correct agenda. Everything this country stood for, everything that helped build this country, gets erased and we give in to feeling guilty and ashamed about what should be a source of our pride.”

As Jesus followers, I think we need to look at this differently.

Does following Jesus mean standing with and advocating for the people whose grandmothers were raped and grandfathers were lynched? Or does it mean defending our country’s “history,” the story we want to believe about how we got here, however that might conflict with the historical evidence?

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear.

I had more thoughts but I’m going to share an AP history teacher’s Q&A instead, because it’s better than what I had and, surprisingly, completes the argument better.

From someone who teaches AP US History: 

If you are confused as to why so many Americans are defending the confederate flag, monuments, and statues right now, I put together a quick Q&A, with questions from a hypothetical person with misconceptions and answers from my perspective as an AP U.S. History Teacher:

Q: What did the Confederacy stand for?

A: Rather than interpreting, let’s go directly to the words of the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens. In his “Cornerstone Speech” on March 21, 1861, he stated “The Constitution… rested upon the equality of races. This was an error. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Q: But people keep saying heritage, not hate! They think the purpose of the flags and monuments are to honor confederate soldiers, right?

A: The vast majority of confederate flags flying over government buildings in the south were first put up in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement. So for the first hundred years after the Civil War ended, while relatives of those who fought in it were still alive, the confederate flag wasn’t much of a symbol at all. But when Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis were marching on Washington to get the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965) passed, leaders in the south felt compelled to fly confederate flags and put up monuments to honor people who had no living family members and had fought in a war that ended a century ago. Their purpose in doing this was to exhibit their displeasure with black people fighting for basic human rights that were guaranteed to them in the 14th and 15th Amendments but being withheld by racist policies and practices.

Q: But if we take down confederate statues and monuments, how will we teach about and remember the past?

A: Monuments and statues pose little educational relevance, whereas museums, the rightful place for Confederate paraphernalia, can provide more educational opportunities for citizens to learn about our country’s history. The Civil War is important to learn about, and will always loom large in social studies curriculum. Removing monuments from public places and putting them in museums also allows us to avoid celebrating and honoring people who believed that tens of millions of black Americans should be legal property. 

Q: But what if the Confederate flag symbol means something different to me?

A: Individuals aren’t able to change the meaning of symbols that have been defined by history. When I hang a Bucs flag outside my house, to me, the Bucs might represent the best team in the NFL, but to the outside world, they represent an awful NFL team, since they haven’t won a playoff game in 18 years. I can’t change that meaning for everyone who drives by my house because it has been established for the whole world to see. If a Confederate flag stands for generic rebellion or southern pride to you, your personal interpretation forfeits any meaning once you display it publicly, as its meaning takes on the meaning it earned when a failed regime killed hundreds of thousands of Americans in an attempt to destroy America and keep black people enslaved forever. 

Q: But my uncle posted a meme that said the Civil War/Confederacy was about state’s rights and not slavery?

A: “A state’s right to what?” – John Green

Q: Everyone is offended about everything these days. Should we take everything down that offends anyone?

A: The Confederacy literally existed to go against the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the idea that black people are human beings that deserve to live freely. If that doesn’t upset or offend you, you are un-American. 

Q: Taking these down goes against the First Amendment and freedom of speech, right?

A: No. Anyone can do whatever they want on their private property, on their social media, etc. Taking these down in public, or having private corporations like NASCAR ban them on their properties, has literally nothing to do with the Bill of Rights. 

Q: How can people claim to be patriotic while supporting a flag that stood for a group of insurgent failures who tried to permanently destroy America and killed 300,000 Americans in the process? 

A: No clue.

Q: So if I made a confederate flag my profile picture, or put a confederate bumper sticker on my car, what am I declaring to my friends, family, and the world?

A: That you support the Confederacy. To recap, the Confederacy stands for: slavery, white supremacy, treason, failure, and a desire to permanently destroy Selective history as it supports white supremacy. 

It’s no accident that: 

You learned about Helen Keller instead of W.E.B, DuBois

You learned about the Watts and L.A. Riots, but not Tulsa or Wilmington. 

You learned that George Washington’s dentures were made from wood, rather than the teeth from slaves. 

You learned about black ghettos, but not about Black Wall Street. 

You learned about the New Deal, but not “red lining.”

You learned about Tommie Smith’s fist in the air at the 1968 Olympics, but not that he was sent home the next day and stripped of his medals. 

You learned about “black crime,” but white criminals were never lumped together and discussed in terms of their race. 

You learned about “states rights” as the cause of the Civil War, but not that slavery was mentioned 80 times in the articles of secession. 

Privilege is having history rewritten so that you don’t have to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. 

Racism is perpetuated by people who refuse to learn or acknowledge this reality. 

You have a choice. 

–Jim Golden

If Mr. Golden’s answers offended or upset you, please consider why. 

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear, but that doesn’t mean what we’re hearing is wrong. 

If everything I don’t like hearing is therefore automatically untrue, I have more maturing to do. Maturity means learning to distinguish between “I don’t like that” and “that’s not true.” 

We all have more maturing to do, don’t we?

**I was just preparing to hit “publish” when I stumbled on this essay, “You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument” by Caroline Randall Williams. Again, it makes the argument I’m trying to make, but much more powerfully and personally. What I was trying to describe is her direct lineage.

I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.

If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.

Dead Confederates are honored all over this country — with cartoonish private statues, solemn public monuments and even in the names of United States Army bases. It fortifies and heartens me to witness the protests against this practice and the growing clamor from serious, nonpartisan public servants to redress it. But there are still those — like President Trump and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell — who cannot understand the difference between rewriting and reframing the past. I say it is not a matter of “airbrushing” history, but of adding a new perspective.

I am a black, Southern woman, and of my immediate white male ancestors, all of them were rapists. My very existence is a relic of slavery and Jim Crow.

Caroline Randall Williams (@caroranwill) is the author of “Lucy Negro, Redux” and “Soul Food Love,” and a writer in residence at Vanderbilt University.

Please read her whole essay and let it sink in.

We don’t like to hear what we don’t like to hear–but we need to hear it so badly. I do.

Trolling

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[My favorite troll in the world, drawn by James Marshall from the book Troll Country]

To be clear, this is on how to respond to trolling, not a master class on how to be a troll.

I’m getting trolled again. I’m literally interrupting writing another post–draft saved–to write this because I can’t get my mind to stop chewing on it. So here are some thoughts on trolling. Primarily I’m referring to when people we know do this, not strangers who appear to enjoy attacking others.

If you find that participating in social media negatively impacts your emotional, physical, or spiritual health, I’m going to recommend you make a change. I have also long held that we need to remain open to dialogue, especially with those with whom we disagree. I still believe this.

However, “dialogue” is none of the following: being heckled, gaslighted, or called names.

I do not have friends in real life who pop in or call me on the phone, criticize me or my beliefs in one sentence or less, and then take off again or hang up without saying more. Certainly I don’t have friends for whom that is our sole form of interaction.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m not looking for friends like that.

I have had acquaintances, most often (for some reason) at church, who seem bent on making rude, snide, or critical comments when they see me. I have chosen, in many cases, to keep engaging, extend grace, and return kindness for rudeness. Full disclosure, in a few cases, I’ve just tried really hard to avoid the person. But as I look back at these relationships, I’d say with most of them I have seen change in the person with whom I tried to turn the other cheek. Returning kindness for rudeness will not always change the other person, but it will always impact my heart. When I lay down my “right” to avenge myself and make myself vulnerable, which creates space for God to work…God works. Especially in me.

I believe in this kind of radical, Jesus-following love. People have impacted me most by loving me when I least deserved it. I’m profoundly grateful for those friends–and my wife!–who have shown God’s love to me when I knew bloody well I had something else coming. Grace catches us most powerfully when we recognize it as grace.

And that may take time. Just because we act like jerks doesn’t mean that we know we’re acting like jerks; we are endlessly creative at rationalizing and justifying our jerky behavior.

I try to follow these same principles for loving others on social media. I try to return kindness for rudeness. I try to remain silent or offer civil discussion in return for snark or attack, explicit or implicit. But I’ve realized that this doesn’t seem to have the same impact in virtual space. When someone can type a quick attack, hit “post,” and move right on, forgetting me half a second later, my returning gentleness has no influence. If I stay silent, they may not think of me or the interaction again, or they conclude they got the last word and therefore “won.” If I try to engage politely, often they double down their attack in response. At times I have tried to engage with direct messages, and I think this has the most hope of impact–we’re not having this impersonal, drive-by-and-fling-words-at-each-other spat.

My overarching goal in life is to embrace and extend God’s shalom. I’m learning to love God and love my neighbor as myself. “Learning” is the operative word here. I’m trying to help people believe that they are beloved and that God’s grace for us is greater than our brokenness and sin. I’m always three steps forward, two steps back in living this belief for myself. I’m trying to join in seeking justice and reconciliation.

I’m painfully aware that I live all this inconsistently. I talk about grace so much because I know how much I need grace merely to live through today– grace both from Jesus and from you.

I consider all of life a dialogue and a dialogue within relationship. In certain ways, social media promote this and are perfectly suited to my personality. But social media also may be disintegrating relationship and even community.

So that’s a concern.

Back to people drastically reducing or quitting social media altogether. I have many friends who have done this. I respect and support their decisions. I’ve seriously considered doing so myself. Trolling makes this decision very appealing. I’m still hoping to have a positive, shalom presence in the virtual world–which, let’s acknowledge, is part of our real world since it impacts real people directly.

I’m hopeful. Generally speaking. That doesn’t always come easily; sometimes I have to fight for it. I like the opportunity to reach and encourage people. I mean you. I like the opportunity to exhort and challenge people. I mean you again. Thank you for the opportunity. You’re choosing. Thanks for your choice. Thanks for the mutual encouragement and support. Thank you, those who disagree with me respectfully, who can model dialogue from different perspectives that doesn’t involve personal attack, rudeness, or belittling others.

Trolling, like racism and manipulation, is in the eye of the beholder. I’m certain some of the people trolling me would be shocked and indignant to hear that I consider their behavior “trolling.” So, because this is a dialogue (you know, like all of life!), and in case it helps some of you with your boundary setting, I want to give not a definition of trolling nor an exhaustive list of possible trolling behaviors, but trolling that people might not recognize as such. All of these are real life examples. If you call me a snowflake for making this list, well…hope I don’t have to explain.

If you comment on my posts and ideas exclusively to disagree and let me know I’m wrong, you are trolling.

If you make dismissive, one-sentence comments on more than one or two posts, you are trolling.

If you use one of my posts to go off on a tirade about all that you think is wrong with how “those” people believe and act (a loosely-veiled description of me), you are trolling.

If you express your opinion as absolute fact, repeatedly, as a means of correcting me, you are trolling.

If I call you on it and you explain to me how I don’t understand or know what I’m talking about, then you are trolling and gaslighting. Congratulations on the two-fer.

Now, because I’m a positive guy who believes in building up, here are some things I don’t consider trolling:

Disagreement, per se.

Occasionally or even regularly disagreeing with me, even when you do it briefly and a bit abruptly, in the context of lots of interactions with my thoughts, ideas, and hilarious humor (much leeway if you’ve laughed at my jokes. Ever.).

Disagreeing with me expressed as your opinion, preferably substantiated with why you hold that opinion. NOTE: I may disagree with your source(s) with which you substantiate your argument, but at least we’re trying! I appreciate the effort.

Any effort to identify what you appreciate, agree with, or affirm, to balance the points with which you disagree. If you and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and you can find nothing in any of my views or posts to affirm (which is not infrequently biblical Scripture by itself or pictures of baseball players or nature), then you should be posting your views for yourself, not correcting mine, because that’s not ever going to be dialogue. But I try to be generous-hearted and I give points for even minimal effort.

I have a handful of people who like–or feel compelled–to disagree with me frequently, but they take pains to present their views as their own, communicate respectfully and even with a smidge of humility, and look for other things about which we can agree. Are they a pain in my heinie? Yes, at times they certainly are. But this is not trolling, it is dialogue, and remember, I’m the beholder here. I particularly appreciate when people are conscientious to differentiate between disagreement and accusation. “I” statements come in great handy for this.

I suspect some people feel obligated to correct me because I’m doing my Jesus-following wrong. In their opinion, of course, but that position is not regarded as “opinion”…of course. On the flip side, I’ve also had numerous people–including some of you–ask how I can put up with the: patronizing, disrespect, talking down, demeaning, scorn, arrogance…let’s see, did I forget anything? I’m pretty sure those are all direct quotes.

I’m very flawed in my judgment but I’m learning to set healthier boundaries. There are some people I have decided I need to block. I felt sad about each one, even as I felt relief. When I started trying to have a voice on social media, I decided to interact with anyone who asked and who I thought I could benefit. It took a while for me to accept I could continue to pray for a person but not continue to accept their abuse. I’m going to say this a third time because it’s that important: the beholder gets to decide when “dialogue” has crossed into “abuse.” And the beholder–okay, let’s say “I”–might be wrong, or overreact, or be oversensitive. That’s life. We’re agents of grace, not perfection.

I do not believe we should cut everyone out of our lives whom we find draining or challenging or difficult to love. That perspective of “only allow people in your life who build you up, make you laugh, and give you chocolate” is very appealing…but it’s not the Gospel. Jesus calls us to love difficult people who require much grace from us. Somehow we learn to do this while also learning to maintain our health and sanity.

Choosing when to cut off contact with someone abusive is a topic that needs a blog post–or book–of its own. But I will say this, as general counsel: cut off contact with someone who is abusing you. Allowing someone to hurt you knowingly does not help them change, be healed, or know God’s love.

Therefore, we live in this tension. We do suffer for others. We do bear others’ burdens. We do forgive, repeatedly, and we do continue to extend grace.

We do not choose to be abused. We don’t continue opening ourselves to hurt–and yes, I’m including trolling here–when the other person cannot or will not see the problem. Further, if the “relationship” with someone is limited to interaction on social media–especially if there is no shared history of relationship in person–then even I, in my hope-filled-or-clouded mindset, am learning to recognize when I am having no visible positive impact on them but they are having a measurably negative impact on me.

You have to decide what you can handle. For me, going by what I “should” be able to bear and absorb often gets me into serious trouble. Mike in his twenties felt responsible to fix everyone and equated abusive treatment with the suffering Jesus calls us to endure. I think that gives me credibility to tell you this: if you need to stop someone from trolling you, it doesn’t matter if you “should” be able to handle it. Two of the people I have blocked would absolutely reject–and argue cogently and indefatigably*–that they have done nothing wrong and I have misunderstood, misinterpreted, or been oversensitive. But you know what? My interacting with them on a daily basis was costing my family. I remember specific moments when I was so frustrated over a debate with them that I spoke unkindly to my children.

“Wait, Mike, isn’t that your problem?”

This is what I’m trying to tell you: it had become my problem, in my family, and I had to fix it. Am I too sensitive? Do I lack healthier boundaries? Do I take things too personally and need to distance myself better? What if I’m the one who’s wrong? Even if it’s all of the above, God has grace that I couldn’t take what they were dishing out and when it became clear to me that this was true and they would not change their approach, I had to set a more absolute boundary.

In the end, I decided that I am doing some people some good. Loving my children well must remain the priority. I’m okay with having shortcomings. I do live with my own limitations, including dealing with depression. I want to encourage and love people. If spending my emotional energy getting entangled in arguments prohibits or sabotages these, those argument have to–had to–go.

I offer this to you. I know there are dangers of “cancel culture” and of simply cutting off anyone who disagrees with us. That, too, is a tension in this discussion. Again, you have to discern for yourself in which direction you might err. Are you more likely to cut others off too quickly or let negative treatment go on too long?

One final thought: I might be someone else’s troll. We want to imagine that trolling is all or nothing, that horrible, abusive people come home, get on their devices, and continue their venomous behavior. There are some like that. But I might be the person irritating or harassing someone else. Like racism, trolling is not just an absolute either-or. As with racists, certain people have given themselves over to it, but most of us can also fall into the category sometimes. And someone else treating me negatively can make me more likely to mistreat someone else.

Knowing that I might inadvertently** troll others helps me to approach this with humility. I can set healthy boundaries when necessary and still remember that there might be a plank in my own eye. I can decide someone is harmful for me and remember that my need for distance isn’t some absolute measure that they are bad.

Funny Pin, Weirdo, Pinback buttons, Lapel Pin, Made in Canada ...

There’s grace in remembering this, too.

*About time I got to use that word!

**Because of course we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. I would never intentionally troll someone else…would I?

MY Problem

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I’ve been reading a ton lately. I knew our country had racist roots, so much so that we say things like, “Well, that was in the past and people didn’t understand then.” I think people always understood that if you owned a slave and had sex with her, she didn’t have a choice in the matter. But if we’re saying that people didn’t understand it was wrong to force someone else to have sex, no wonder we still have such a long way to go, on both race and gender violence.

Here we go, ready?

It’s wrong to force someone else to have sex with you.

It’s wrong to own another person.

It’s wrong to own another person and force them to have sex with you.

So let’s assume that you’re still reading and haven’t shrugged me off for stating the obvious.

Racism is on the rise in the United States.* Hate crimes have increased. Teachers report more incidents of racist behavior. We’re not getting better. We’re going the wrong way. Or at the very best and most optimistic, what was previously hidden in the dark has crawled out into the light for a look around.

Here’s what I have to say, since a friend recently reminded me that I have a voice and **** well better use it.

We can’t make other people not racist. That’s a subset of “We can’t make other people anything.” We have no power to change other people’s hearts, attitudes, or morality.

However. This is a big “however.”

We can challenge people. We can confront them. We can refuse to accept racism as a given. We can speak up.

We can change laws. We can cause laws to be passed and enforced that identify, prohibit, and punish violence based on race, including by law enforcement. We can help establish better laws in our own country.

We can appeal to people’s consciences. We can speak to those who may be quiet, or passive, or uncertain, or still comfortable, and do our best to wake them up.

We can–and I believe this is the most important thing and the step we’re most tempted to skip–search our own souls and examine our attitudes and behavior to and see what still might dwell in us. “Search me, O Lord…”

The more I read, the more I grasp that we must stop acting as if racism is an all-or-nothing proposition. It isn’t. That’s like saying manipulation or verbal criticism is an all-or-nothing proposition. Have you ever manipulated anyone? Are you a Manipulator? Have you ever hurt someone with your words? Are you a Verbal Abuser? Remember that for both of these, the reality lies not primarily in what you think you’ve done or what you’ve experienced from your end, but how you’ve impacted the other person and what they’ve experienced. Manipulation is in in eye of the beholder.**

Yes, I have manipulated people before. I know I have. I’m not proud of it, but I’m honest enough to recognize it and believe God has grace for me. Does that make me a manipulator? We mean something much worse, much more severe and categorical, when we say that someone “is a manipulator,” or even “that person is manipulative.” We mean that we’ve identified a life pattern and you cannot trust that person not to attempt to manipulate you.

I am not a racist. I’m guessing you’re not, either. I have not given myself over to racist actions and attitudes, any more than I have given myself over to manipulative actions and attitudes. But just like I sometimes commit manipulative acts, sometimes I do racist things. Sometimes I say racist things.

It does not help us in our most crucial step to consider racism as an either-or, all-or-nothing category. The woman in Central Park who threatened to call the police and lie to them that a black man was threatening her when she was the one breaking the rules and he was confronting her, afterward declared, “I am not racist!”

What the what?

She believes herself not racist because she understands the term as either-or. If she “did a racism” in this situation, she must be racist.

She will not own that she DID a racism—she could not possibly have DONE a racism, because that means that she IS racist. And to her thinking, that would be an always and forever proposition. We see this a lot, often about whether someone has racist bones in their bodies. Rather than, say, “I did something that was racist and I commit to educating myself to better understand why what I did was so harmful and to make better choices in the future.” Owning harm, working to change, and, I might add, offering amends of some sort to Christian Cooper. Rather than acknowledging, e.g., that we all live in a white supremacist society & takes a lot of work to fight the messages we have all internalized. “Racist” here is something that you ARE or ARE NOT, and if you ARE, you are BAD in an unchangeable way. (Some people are racist, don’t get me wrong. And that is bad. But it’s never unchangeable for people with the will to change.)”

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, shared from Twitter

“It’s never unchangeable for people with the will to change.” We “do racisms” all the time. I do. We judge others by the color of their skin and by their culture. We stereotype. We assume negatives. We fail to question or confront stereotypes. We believe news about someone because of how we categorize them. And those are just our personal actions.

We live in a country that has some unjust laws and enforces other laws unjustly, based on race. Bryan Stevenson makes this point about our legal system’s treatment of black minors in his TED talk. If you haven’t seen or read Just Mercy, please watch and read it. We don’t want to believe we live in a country with systemic racism. We would–I would–so much prefer to believe that there are a few bad eggs, a few Klansmen and neo-Nazi White Supremacists causing these problems and if we could just put them away, we’d go back to our fair, just, and equitable society. But that isn’t true. We have many states that have stopped using the death penalty because it’s been proven that we have enforced it in a race-biased manner.

Let me say this again, because it’s a big deal: we have enforced our worst legal consequences, taking people’s lives, in a racist manner. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of laws, but it’s also one of the most horrifying, because there is no rectifying taking a person’s life.

I want to dig in to this. We have a responsibility to change the injustice in our country. If it doesn’t touch us directly so we look the other way or “tsk” at it but do nothing, we are doing racism. Passive racism is still racism. Looking away from evil is still evil.

These protests and demonstrations throughout our country and throughout the world, they are an attempt to make people pay attention, to convict us that we have gone along with racism, actively or passively, and that is why it still exists. It still exists because it’s in us. Not just the Klansman or the woman in Central Park. Us.

It’s wrong for people to own other people and force them to have sex.

It’s also wrong to kill people who can’t defend themselves and then excuse the people who did the killing. And if we “tsk” or turn the other way, we are allowing that systemic, racist injustice to continue. If we decide it doesn’t hurt us directly so it’s not our problem, we’re passively giving it permission to thrive in our country…because it still thrives in us. That’s how we got here.

If you find yourself arguing in your head–or shouting at your screen–then I’d ask you to read. Read how black people are experiencing our laws and our law enforcement. Read our history, recent and older, and not the sterilized, we-had-the-best-intentions version. Consider why every black parent has to have “the talk” with their children to explain how they must behave with police–and I don’t mean “obeying the law”–to try to keep from getting killed. If you truly believe that the problem is black people refusing to obey the law or media that overreport violence, I ask you to research more. You may have to consider other sources. We have violence committed against people of color every day, most of which goes unreported. When Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Rayshard Brooks gets national attention, you can assume that this, too, is the tip of the iceberg.*** When a black man jogging is chased down by white men in trucks with guns and murdered, do these men go to prison or do they not even get arrested until public outcry makes it happen–months later? That isn’t how our laws and our system should work. But we have a systemic problem.

If we are Jesus followers, we have a clear commandment: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” If you were screaming that laws were being enforced unjustly and lethally against you and those who look like you, would you have others listen and respond and join in your outcry? I would. If I were on the direct receiving end of this, I would want others to speak up with me, not tell me what I’m doing wrong when I know we’re getting killed for no reason. When we’re being shot to death while sleeping in our beds, and the official report states, “no cause of death,” I would want others to join me in shaking heaven and earth to make this stop. Loving our neighbor as ourselves requires this.

But even more, as a Jesus follower I have to stop pretending this is a problem black people have for which I might offer some help. If there are bullies at school, the problem isn’t that a few kids are getting targeted and it’s really those abused kids who have a problem to solve but I might decide to lend a hand, maybe speak up and say “bullying is wrong.” The problem is with the bullies. Right? Yes, I want to support the kids who are being bullied, AND it’s a school problem, a systemic problem, not just a problem for the kids who get picked on.

But now the bullies are part of my circle at school. I’m not a bully. Of course not. But sure, sometimes when they shake kids up and steal their money I get treated to ice cream from the cafeteria. Once I got a new backpack and I didn’t ask where it came from, because that would be looking a gift horse in the mouth, right? I didn’t punch anyone.

It’s tempting to tell myself that I’m innocent, I’m not doing the bullying, I would never do that, and therefore it’s not my problem.

“I’m not racist. I don’t hate black people. I don’t own slaves or call them names or wear a white hood. It’s not my problem.”

On every level, it is my problem. I need to recognize that it is. It’s my problem because my people, the ones who look like me, are doing the bullying. It’s my problem because I’m benefiting from the bullying–and historically, have benefited inordinately from it. It’s my problem because I follow Jesus who commands me to identify with those who are abused and bullied, who suffer injustice and persecution. It’s my problem because I, too, carry these racist attitudes and do quiet little acts of racism, usually passive, that help sustain this systemic injustice.

We can’t make other people change but we can change ourselves.

I need to help change this because it’s my problem.

*Though to many this statement, too, seems patently obvious, it’s hotly debated, including how to obtain compelling evidence either way. Statistics of reported and prosecuted crimes are themselves a matter of scrutiny and debate. I’m more inclined to believe those suffering racism who report their experience.

**Yes, there are severely unhealthy, narcissistic, and boundary-violating people who would accuse you of manipulation or verbal abuse for trying to set a boundary or speaking truth they don’t want to hear. “Eye of the beholder” works for a measure until you’re dealing with someone, well, abusive and manipulative.

***If you have an explanation why each of these cases was justified–including Breonna Taylor shot in her bed when she had been sleeping–I literally beg you to look at more sources to understand what really happened.

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 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 but 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. But none of us live as if all people matter equally 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; if others are rushed to the emergency room, 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, 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 measures, 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 meaning of my life, the purpose, is to do what I can to help others know 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 God’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, can’t 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 live as if others matter by affirming their beloved-ness, by recognizing and calling 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? Or twelve? Or only two?

Well, of course the answer is that you 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 choose and also trust that God who is infinite can and does love everyone, while we seek to love those within our reach. 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.

You know at some point I’m going to shift gears. Not yet.

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, 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.

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 you matter. 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 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, unhealthy, impoverished woman (all strikes against her) did not believe she mattered to Jesus at all. 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.

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.

Grace in a Time of Covid

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[I tried to express this so that you can identify as “I,” whichever side of the division you might take. Trying to see both sides in this manner helped me.]

I know we’re all upset. I don’t know how to show grace.

I’m angry with the choices you’re making. I think you’re wrong.

How do I show you grace?

I don’t like your reasoning. It makes no sense to me. It’s so easy to ridicule and mock you.

How do I show you grace?

I suspect the motives behind your conclusions. You decide what we should do based on what you want to see, not on what facts tell us.

How do I show you grace?

I hate how you’re behaving in this. I hate how you’re expressing your disagreement. I hate how you’re treating us.

How do I show you grace?

I wish there didn’t have to be “YOU” and “US.” I’d hoped we would all pull together and come through this more united, recognizing the same concerns, working together to solve our common problems. Instead we seem more divided and I’m horribly frustrated with that, and with you.

How do I show you grace?

I know whom I follow. I know one who showed grace when hated, rejected, mocked, scorned, and scourged by “them.” One who taught grace, offered grace, lived grace. Jesus didn’t hate them. He didn’t attack or belittle them. He refused to accept “us” and “them.” He offered kindness, wisdom, and unconditional love to everyone. When they murdered him, when they knew his death proved they were right–all along, about everything–he gave himself to atone, forgive, and show grace to all. He gave himself to break down “us” and ‘them.”

Did the result show how true their condemnations, how justified their mocking, how deserved their beating?

They were wrong.

Even then, he offered grace.

Even now, when I feel these things toward you–and act so unlike him–he offers me grace.

How do I show you grace?

Shelter at Home, Grief, and Culture Shock

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I started a different post and realized it was going to be too intense, so I’m writing this light and frothy one, instead. Just kidding. It’s intense, too. It’s just not intense and controversial, like the other one will be.

Two emotional states I’ve experienced in the past are severe grief and culture shock. Many of you have experienced one, some both, and some neither. Truthfully, I’ve hoped never to go through either one ever again.

I feel aspects of each right now.

As always, I offer this to relate, validate, and empathize. If it’s not you, it may be someone you love.

Not everyone experiences these states the same way, so I offer them as my experience, not the “normal” or even “average” way one goes through grief or culture shock.

In severe grief, your world stops. Everyone else’s goes on, which adds to the out-of-body, dissonant sensation. A reason for living is gone and other people didn’t blink. You are suddenly staring down a a chasm between you and those not grieving.

Grief is loss, and the brain takes time to comprehend, accept, and incorporate loss. That leaves you shocked all over again, every time the loss slips your mind and then comes back…like a brick upside the head. You don’t forget so much as your brain keeps trying to register the world the way it should be. With your loved one still here, for example. That’s the world you’ve known. It’s hard enough losing that world–the world with my little boy in it–but having to keep losing it, over and over, just seems unfair and cruel.

Grief is disorienting. You have to figure out how to live in a world that is wrong, that should not be this way. Even the most mundane things stop making sense and become wearisome, burdensome. “Who cares if do this? He’s gone.”

People, especially those who have been mercifully spared from being dropped to the bottom of this pit, will struggle to understand how wrong he world is now. They know you’re sad. They’re sad, too, sad for you and sad for the loss. But being sad and having your world ripped from you aren’t the same thing. They think you’re both going through the same thing, different only by degrees, and since they’re not behaving irrationally like you are, you really just need to sort that out.

Again, this only intensifies the isolation: People don’t get it. You’re alone in this wrong world. You’re in the Upside Down. They’re not.

I will tell you honestly, though the grief I’m recalling happened over twenty years ago, just letting my head get in that space to describe it puts me right back there again. In that sense, it never “goes away.” The loss of a child is like an amputation; you never regrow your arm, you learn to cope without it.

So here we are, in this Strange World of 2020. We’re all grieving the loss of our accustomed world. But we’re grieving it differently and we’ve lost different things. Some of us are grieving the deaths of people we love. Some are grieving loss of livelihood, vocation, financial security, graduation. So many different things. We’re stuck. Then, as an added bonus, we have the range of responses to what is happening, and I don’t want to wade into this right now, but Man, that is disorienting!

You look out the window at a spring day and the flowers are blooming, but inside you the world isn’t right. How can you even put words to that? But it takes a toll. You have to keep going, so you do, but… But. It’s incomplete. Something is missing. And the loss keeps coming back, even after you think you’ve adapted to this new (not right) “normal.”

When Isaac died, the grief was so disabling for me that I walked in the dark for six months and God disappeared (subjectively, not theologically) for three years. The most loving people didn’t try to fix it for me, or explain how I should be sorting it out. The most loving people–most of whom had also been there–simply stuck by me while I writhed and thrashed and kept praying that I would come through.

And I did. But it was hell, and I would not wish it on my worst, most wicked enemies.

Eighty thousand people in the US have died, so all those families are suffering this loss. None of my children or other family have died during this pandemic, but even so I’m experiencing certain emotions that compare more closely with that period than anything else in my life–and I would say I’m seeing others appear to experience that body-slam-after-a-horrible-fall shock and disorientation.


Culture shock works differently. You also don’t feel like yourself, but it makes less sense. No one asks, “Why don’t you feel like yourself?” after your child dies (unless they’re–never mind. Don’t get me started.) Often in culture shock, you’re functioning at a very low level but don’t fully realize or acknowledge it. I went through a long, nasty stretch of culture shock when we moved to Nicaragua. I knew there was something wrong with me, but damned if I could put a finger on it, make sense of it, or shake it off. You know you have culture shock but knowing doesn’t solve it or even clearly define it. My friend who moved there with us described it as “I’m stuck and I can’t seem to get any traction.”

This part feels very familiar as I hear people describe their current emotional state.

In culture shock, your brain is trying to adapt because the world you knew really is gone and you have to learn to navigate this new, strange one in which nothing works right (i.e. the way you’re accustomed to having things work). People suffering culture shock feel exhausted, irritated, confused, and short-tempered. Sound familiar at all? They feel like they should be getting more done. Instead, they find themselves pulling inward and seeking familiar comforts (which are suddenly in short supply).

One common strand between enduring grief and coming through culture shock is choosing to move forward and live in the world that is, not the world that should be. The person adapting to a new culture must choose to embrace difference, see the positives, and let go of the frustration that comes with experiencing this discord.

In a weird way, we’re all suffering a version of culture shock right now and, I would say, it’s a particularly unsettling one because everything mostly looks and sounds the same! I’m not suffering the headaches I had for my first year in Nicaragua, due to a combination of squinting, brains-splittting “I don’t get this” and good old dehydration. People are still speaking a language most of us understand. The driving is the same, though maybe less of it right now. The physical spaces and the faces are still the same, though maybe more confined and perhaps on screens instead of live.

BUT.

But. It’s not “the way it’s supposed to be,” certainly not the way it was from February on back.* I would posit we’re all suffering a bit of (confusing, disguised) culture shock and many of us who have never experienced this before are feeling really angry with…someone. Someone whose fault this is. Someone who caused this. Okay, some of us who have experienced culture shock are angry, too, but I’m hoping we have at least an inkling that our anger is caused by something more than just “them.”**

Common symptoms of culture shock: depression, weight gain, interpersonal conflict, and discouragement. Falling back into or even developing new addictions. Frustration that flares into rage.

Good times, right? Does any of this ring a bell right now?

I have different advice for coming through grief and culture shock, but the overall message boils down to: survive.

Do what you need to do to get through this while causing yourself and those around you as little damage as possible.

In my first year in Nicaragua, my supervisor told me, “A good day is one in which you get up, don’t hurt your children, and don’t leave.” I loved him for that. It alleviated much of my feelings of failure, which I desperately needed in order to keep on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other. I would not have spent seven years in Nicaragua if I could not have gotten through the first year and I could only get through the first year by accepting that the culture shock phase sucked and that was life and I just had to survive.

This sucks and it’s life and you just have to survive.

If you do better than that, awesome! I mean, really awesome! If you can smell the flowers or plant flowers, teach children or paint (a wall, a painting, your fingernails), write or read or keep going to work that has gotten so much harder (or stranger), freaking hooray for you! I’m serious. The bar is very low right now. I see us coming apart at the seams, turning on one another, growing hostile, looking for someone to blame. This phase, for many of us, sucks.

A good day is one in which you wake up, don’t hurt yourself or those you live with, and don’t give up.

You may not be experiencing the pandemic this way. You may be thriving and have no idea what I’m talking about. More power to you and I think you should look around and see whom you can help.

I am doing okay. As I said, I can see elements of both heavy grief and culture shock in myself and, perhaps, even more in others. I say “perhaps” because I’m interpreting what I see and of course I could be wrong. A friend suggested that some people’s apparently irrational behavior during shelter in place is in fact trauma response. That made sense of it for me. I’d started thinking along these lines already and his statement brought the dots together to make a picture.

I offer this to you. If it rings true, I encourage you to consider this lens not only for your own responses but for others’, as well. None of this is meant to excuse terrible, self-destructive choices, but if the heaviest thing you’re carrying right now is negative self-judgment, I urge you to set that down. Yes, easier said than done, but let yourself try. As I said in my satirical “I Did Better Last Pandemic,” attacking yourself for feeling awful isn’t going to make you feel less awful, but it can make things worse.

Some people can give themselves grace and others of us need to be convinced. God offers us grace all the time. We may not be so generous to ourselves. But you know what? People in grief, folks in culture shock, they deserve a break.

Including if that’s you.

*Whether or not that was “the way it’s supposed to be” is a different and much longer conversation.

**Misdirected anger caused by culture shock is one of the big reasons missionaries don’t get along and not getting along with other missionaries is the number one reason missionaries “fail” on the mission field. I’m not even certain anymore if “fail” is the right term for it, but I’ll tell you it sure doesn’t feel like succeeding.

“Help Them as a Priest!”

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When I make a Top Ten list of movies, most often I put The Mission near the top. It’s not a movie I could enjoy watching all the time, as I could another contender for number one, The Princess Bride.

But though I’ve seen The Princess Bride ten times more often than The Mission (maybe twenty), certain lines from The Mission stick with me as strong or stronger than Princess Bride quotes. That’s saying a lot, considering I can lip-synch the entire script of PB along with Inigo, Fezzik, and Westley.

I’ve also come to realize that though The Mission excoriates seventeenth century colonialism and the slave trade, its perspective is now dated. I love it for its music and imagery and powerful depiction of redemption and grace. You should probably stop reading this and go watch it for yourself before continuing.* But in case you don’t, I’ll provide context for my quotes. Spoiler alert for those of you who have been meaning to get around to watching it…since 1986.

Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert DeNiro) is a horrible, brutal man who, among other things, hunted and sold people as slaves and murdered his own brother. Then, through a process of penance and redemption that is at the heart of the movie, Mendoza leaves behind his life of violence and becomes a priest. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is the Jesuit priest who establishes a mission in northeastern Argentina and eastern Paraguay and who helps lead Mendoza to a point at which Mendoza can accept forgiveness.

However, the macro conflict of the movie–and it’s at least rooted in historical events (The Treaty of Madrid, 1750, and Guarani War 1754-56)–comes between the Portuguese government that wants to profit from slave-trading, the powerful leadership in the Catholic church, and these Jesuit priests who have established this mission. Thus, we have this climactic scene near the end of the movie.

Mendoza: I want to renounce my vows of obedience.

 Gabriel: Get out. 

Mendoza: I want to explain… 

Gabriel: Get out, Rodrigo. I won’t listen to you. 

[pause]

 Gabriel: Just you? 

Mendoza: No, it’s Ralph and John too. 

Gabriel: What do you want captain, an honorable death? 

Mendoza: They want to live, Father. They say that God has left them, He’s deserted them. Has He? 

Gabriel: You shouldn’t have become a priest.

Mendoza: But I am a priest, and they need me. 

Gabriel: Then help them as a priest! If you die with blood on your hands, Rodrigo, you betray everything we’ve done. You promised your life to God. And God is love!

Some might take this to mean followers of God should not get involved in politics. But Gabriel himself does get “involved” in politics. He confronts the evil and corruption he sees by speaking truth to power. He puts himself between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Gabriel rebukes Mendoza for turning back from his commitment to love–from following and obeying Jesus–and returning to violence-as-solution.

Great art should help us to see ourselves.

So should friends.


Two days ago, my friend Jeremy challenged me whether I spend as much time praying for Trump as I do criticizing him and his administration. Yet my friend made it clear that he wasn’t rebuking me for my criticisms–in fact he said, “I agree with you about all of it.”

I found that fascinating and challenging.

When people tell me I should “pray for Trump more,” usually loud but implied is “You should shut up and pray for Trump more.” It’s more a shaming rebuke than a real exhortation to prayer. But his was a genuine question.

As a result, I prayed more for Trump yesterday than any other day I can remember since this whole [insert your word here] began.

I’ve been very vocal that we should shelter in place, listen to and support our doctors and nurses, and protect others’ lives by helping flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases. We’ve all seen this go from uncertainty to concern to conflict to hostility. Today, conspiracy theories are circulating that the shelter in place and face masks response is an organized effort to increase government control and/or strip our liberties. I have good friends asking me what is true and what is distortion, clearly because I play a doctor on TV. (I don’t really.)

“Help them as a priest!”


Okay, I’m a pastor, not a priest, and I don’t currently hold an official position or title as “pastor.” I still know what I am and who I am. People ask me because I’m their friend and their pastor. Jeremy was right; I need to pray for Trump more. In this crisis, I need to call us to the way of love, not the way of violence. I’m not saying we should stop speaking up about the situation–political or pandemic–because we must speak up; I’m saying we can’t answer hatred for hatred, attack for attack. I can’t. I’m tempted to. It’s easy to dismiss, ridicule, and, when people attack me personally, fire back.

At the conclusion of the above scene, Gabriel states: “If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.”

I think about this often, too. It reminds me of Paul’s quote: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 19:13) I believe in Love, not the fuzzy, feel-good, greeting card sentiment that means little (other than for marketing) in the “real world” of dollars and politics and power but the water-in-the-desert, stronger-than-death, worth dying for and worth living for Love of God because God is Love (I John 4:8). God loves us and therefore we have the power and the calling to love one another. I know billionaires are getting richer from this pandemic. If people who love money more than other people have this world right and making the most matters most, if might is right, then I have believed the wrong stuff and I deserve pity because I’ve squandered my chips in the only real game.

But I don’t believe that. If love has no place in the world, then I don’t think it’s a world worth living in, anyway. I don’t believe we were supposed to teach our children that dog eats dog, kindness is weakness, and they need to get ready to fight to the death, to add to the ugliness all-too-present in our world. I hope you don’t believe that, either.


I’m not urging people to stay home and protect themselves and–more importantlyour more vulnerable neighbors from COVID-19 because I’m trying to “bring down the President.” I’m praying for Donald Trump today. His actions and words are bringing him down, not me. I am staying home and doing what I can to keep the virus from spreading, to follow Jesus and love my neighbor. I know we’re all in crisis here and I am offering what help I can, using the means Jesus taught and modeled.

Jeremy caused me to ask myself, sincerely, have I let myself slip into fighting hate with hate? Have I, like Mendoza, renounced my commitment to Jesus’ way of love? The most insidious version of this, of course, is when we take up violence but tell ourselves we’re not, or we convince ourselves that we’re justified and this is still the way of love.

I spent a long time yesterday evening talking with my friend Debbie, who is an ICU nurse. She described how precarious our local situation had been, how close the hospital came to being swamped and overwhelmed by our local COVID-19 cases. I had no idea. They had to pull personnel from other departments to join in ICU and separate the Intensive Care Unit into two parts, one for COVID-19, the other for everything else. She told me how much money the hospital is losing because so many other departments have been shut down. She also explained how a member of her family is suffering because of the shut down of his small business. All of these things are true.

A close friend is flying today, on the one flight still available, hoping and praying to reach his father’s side before his father dies. My friend oversees pharmacies in nine hospitals (he’s with the pharmacists, not Big Pharma, to be clear) and has kept me updated from his perspective on how we are faring with the onslaught of COVID-19 cases. At one point he worked forty-two days straight or some such ridiculous number. He told me the news of his father last night. He knows the risks of contagion better than most. He would not be traveling if it were not literally his last chance to see his father alive. All of these things are true.


“Then help them as a priest!”

Now I’m talking to you, not just me. Jesus followers are the priesthood of believers. We incarnate God’s spirit–God’s spirit of Love–and offer it, offer ourselves, to this weary, beaten, brutal world. That’s what we do. That is our calling as Jesus’ image, those who live and bring God’s Kingdom here and now.

Help them as a Jesus follower. Help them as the priests we are.

If you’re struggling–of course you’re struggling, not “if”–then let that struggle be part of what you offer, your own empathy, our shared sorrow and grief, and even your anxiety. You don’t have to be “strong” or pull it together to help others as a Jesus-follower-priest. Jesus gave himself in weakness. So do we. It’s one of the things we are most tempted to dodge in this calling.


People are angry. Dear friends have let me know I have no idea what I’m talking about and a few have implied, if not stated, that I’m a dupe for a threat that either is not real or else is horribly, manipulatively overblown. “Help them as a priest.” I’m not screaming back. I’m not attacking. I’m not even defending (in case you need evidence of God’s existence, this happens to be a miracle). I’m praying. I’m breathing. I’m trying to understand what they’re feeling that they respond this way. I may be wrong. Clearly I, too, have limited understanding and limited information.

I have tried, throughout this crisis, to urge everyone to take the threat seriously and to protect one another. None of my friends in the medical profession (and I realize, when I stop to count, I have a surprising number of those) have expressed in the slightest that our response to this pandemic is disproportionate. I have had several express that we’re not taking it seriously enough. When I read the epidemiologists’ reports and models for the second wave, the threat is far from over.

I hate how much everyone is suffering and that we have a situation in which all of our possible choices will cause suffering. I am still convinced that the better we exercise precautions now, the sooner we will come out of it. I’ve communicated a lot of information about the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, to urge others to take this pandemic seriously enough. I realize (with some friends’ help) that too much information can also be unhelpful, when people already feel overwhelmed.

“Help them as a priest!”

How do I, as a Jesus follower, help you? How do you help me? How do we love, help and, when necessary, carry one another through this crisis?

I don’t have all the answers to these, but I know now I’m asking the right questions.

Thanks, Gabriel. Thanks, Jeremy.

*On second thought, The Mission is intense with depictions of tragic violence, and since I got feedback that even reading Charlie was a bit much right now, you may prefer to hold off. I leave that to you, but thought I should mention it. I’d also be interested what you think of it, if you decide to watch it. Does it successfully critique colonialism or reinforce the White Savior Complex?

A Glimpse from Here

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Annalise and I went to see a matinee of Call of the Wild in the theater because it had Harrison Ford in it. That was March 6. Everything was just beginning to close down, though nothing had been announced officially yet. We had not only our theater to ourselves, we were nearly the only non-employees in the whole cinema. Later that day, the governor would announce school closures for the state.

That seems like a long time ago now. I mean, a different period of my life long. Trying to wrap our heads around the passage of time is one of our current challenges.

Last night, our teenage daughter and her cousins* had Prom on our back porch. They dressed to the nines and danced and had punch and snacks. The dogs got excited about the whole event and started wrestling each other on one side of the dance floor; my wife said they took the place of those guys who always went out to the parking lot to fight. This event may have been our family’s best “making do” thus far. I wasn’t invited, so I made myself scarce. Apparently I’m not a teenager, however I might behave.

A friend asked recently what I’m doing to be okay right now. I’ve been looking at flowers more carefully. I’m taking the time, not just to “stop and smell the flowers,” but to take them in, study them, wonder at their symmetry and color and texture. I’m trying to let their wonder seep into me.

I’m walking a ton. I am socially-distanced solo walking for miles. And miles. Plus walking the dogs. Annalise bought me a Fit Bit in January, when she took a trip out to see my family. I promptly misplaced it, due to my organizational challenges. I remember telling my mom at one point, “Counting my walking steps isn’t really my mode of exercise.” Then we began quarantine. No ultimate. No basketball. Can’t hike with friends. I found my Fit Bit again. I now kick myself when I wake up and stroll around the house without putting it on. “You’re wasting steps!” Okay, I’m exaggerating. But I do feel like its continuous cheering messages–“Only 149 steps away!” “Hooray! You made your 250 steps for the hour!” “Congratulations! You hit your 10,000 step goal!” “You overachiever! You took 4,000 extra steps!”–have become my main source of affirmation right now.**

Having folks explain to me that “people with depression are struggling more with this situation” feels a little like having them explain to mermaids that life without water is dry. Yes, it’s dry for all of us, but for some of us it’s especially dry, and thank you for letting me know.

While I’m making comparisons, the debate between “people need to stay home so they don’t catch COVID-19” and “people need to work so they can earn money” strikes me as a debate between those who say, “People need to breathe!” and the ones who insist “People need to eat!” Right. And right. And also, if we’re not able to breathe, eating isn’t going to do us any good. And vice-versa. Forgive me while I indulge in sarcasm for one (more) moment: Perhaps if we shout louder that we need to eat, that will cancel out our need to breathe? So here we are, trying to figure out how to go forward killing fewer people, ruining fewer lives. It’s cold math.

None of this is easy. When it started, we all joked about how we could help save the world by staying home and bingeing Netflix. Those of us staying home, I mean. The divide between we who can help best by staying put to help flatten the curve and those who get to/have to keep working feels enormous now. I read their stories every day, nurses and paramedics, doctors and chaplains, grocers and nannies. They’re living a different existence than we are. I’m grateful for them and want to cheer them on and honor their sacrifice. But it also feels awful, especially for those who fear for their lives. I don’t want any sacrificial lambs getting slaughtered on my behalf.*** I’m especially sad for those who are underpaid and still considered “essential.” That’s a horrible contradiction, isn’t it?

I have hoped that we can come together as a people who are suffering a common affliction, working together and helping one another to get through this. That would be a tremendous redemption of this horror. I see many people helping others. I get lots of good news, people extending generosity and proactively looking for ways to love their neighbors. We are doing it!

Yet politically, we’re also more divided than ever. I’m inexpressibly saddened by this. I feel helpless and impotent in the face of so much suffering, nearly all of it beyond my control. I know I’m depressed in part because I’m refusing to release control–my illusion of control–over things completely beyond my power. One “secret” of contentment, perhaps one of the worst-kept secrets yet one that eludes many of us, is “Lord, grant me the strength to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I’m overwhelmed by the misery so many are suffering and I know, in response, I am louder and more insistent about how we got here and keep getting ourselves in deeper. I try to evaluate myself. It reminds me of culture shock: I know it’s affecting me, but I can’t tell exactly how and merely knowing doesn’t mean I can correct it. I can only try to be more aware that my reactions may be off and try to keep a closer eye on them. To put it mildly, I’m not certain everyone is self-evaluating in this manner.

Catan!
Photo used with absolutely NO permission.

This morning, I served Kim breakfast in bed. She is working harder than I’ve ever seen her work before, between learning to provide distance learning for kindergartners and working on her national boards. I’m not telling you this for anyone to praise me, far less to get anyone in trouble–“Hey! Why don’t you do that?” In truth, it had been a long time. I mention it because I am looking for ways to be the me I can be, within these strange constraints. Corin and I have a one-on-one Catan series going (because no one else in this household will play with us) and I have finally drawn even after he demolished me the first couple games. I’m connecting with old friends on phone and even Zoom. During my walks, I breathe more consciously, deeply, with intention (not so much when I’m with the dogs). I pray for the people I know who I’m afraid will die from COVID-19. I pray for our country. I pray for us.

Family visits through the window, 2020. ❤️
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*We’ve functioned as one household with them throughout the shelter in place because we functioned the same way before this

**In fact, I’m looking into something comparable that I can also wear on wrist and that will affirm me in other parts of my life: “You just washed a dish!” “Only ten more dishes and you will have cleaned the kitchen!”

***Not wading into Christology here, obviously. Jesus chose to atone for my sins. Different conversation.