The Man in the Arena

Standard

We are now three weeks away from the end of 2016.  And what do I say?  What do we say?  What can anybody say?  I guess we can start with the shared understanding that this year happened.  It did.  I think we all agree there.

Because it happened I suppose it is up to some of us to comment on it whether for better or for worse.  And I certainly do have remarks to make considering both the cultural journey this year and my own personal journey.

For starters, yesterday I read the 96th book that I have read this calendar year!  It was a ridiculous book about Generation Z and how hard it will be to reach them with the gospel, especially considering most of them still wear diapers and throw food across the room.  Be that as it may, I am actually going to achieve my goal of reading 100 books this year!

This was also the year I completely paid off my student loans.  This should have been celebrated with cheers and laughter and champagne (or the Nazarene equivalent, Sparkling Cider).  Instead the student loan provider sent me a letter detailing how much money I had just given them over the last 5 years.  Let’s just say it would not have paid for a house but probably I could’ve afforded half of one with it.  On top of that over the last two months I have realized that I spent the equivalent of 10 years and $120,000 becoming educated for ministry and despite that massive investment I can barely afford health insurance and only contribute mere penny’s to my 401(K) every month. To add insult to serious injury a denominational leader explained to me last week the cruel reality that despite 10 years and $120,000 I am still not old enough to be of much use.  The sparkle disappeared from my cider and has put me in a foul mood ever since.

Reading 100 books in one calendar year didn’t come with sparkling cider either.  For sure it will stand as my single greatest accomplishment of the year and for that I am proud.  However, I am more cynical now than I have ever been about my own ability to have any grasp on truth.  Reading that much from such a wide variety of perspectives and backgrounds has awakened me to just how deep the chasms in our world run.  We don’t just disagree about the color of the sky.  We disagree about what constitutes “sky” and just how to define “color.”  Our culture is in a mess.

So this great grand goal of reading 100 books has deprived me of the joy of thinking I actually had something to say or to contribute to this world.  How do I tell people the sky is blue when they disagree about “blue?”  This has made preaching difficult because, as I have all ready written elsewhere, I am not sure of the veracity of anything I say from the pulpit.

But people are still trying to tell you the sky is blue or gray or green or whatever and they are as arrogant as ever in assuming they are right and they alone have the monopoly on truth.  Most of them don’t even have college degrees and haven’t read one book this year.  But here I am having completed 95 books and paid off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and still completely unsure I have anything worthwhile to say.

The thing is, we have become a culture of arm chair quarterbacks who never played football.  We are critics without cause.  I realized we were in a mess when I was listening to cable news pundits critique the US President about what he should have said.  They were not taking issue with what he actually said but instead what they thought he should have said.  It suddenly occurred to me that we have become so violent in our slander that we now think we have the authority to tell people exactly what they should say.  And we claim we are for liberty and freedom.

With that in mind, this year has not been a complete loss for me.  I would never be so pessimistic as to claim that.  In fact if there is anything I have read this year that has given me great help it is this quote from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech:

I have thought long and often of those words this year and as we look to 2017, I have learned that what we need moving forward are more readers and less writers.  We need more doers and less critics.  We need more governors and less campaigners.  We need more listeners and less talkers.  We need more actual quarterbacks and less arm chair quarterbacks.  We need more men and women actually in the arena, faces marred by dust and sweat and blood but also marked by a more outstanding courage, a courage that courses through their veins and inspires us all to a better, albeit more humble, greatness.

And as the popular Christmas song sings out, “Let it begin with me.”

Advertisements

Beyond The Talking Points: Last Tuesday’s Election and America’s Silent Majority

Standard

Like many of you I have spent the last week trying not to read too much about the election while reading everything that flits across my tablet screen.  Trump’s victory has been hailed as a major victory for everyone in America, except of course the Democrats.

In fact, if I had a favorite article from the last week it would have to be this one from CNN which compiled the 24 often conflicting reasons Trump won.  It was social media but it wasn’t social media.  It was the millenials but it also had nothing to do with them.  It was the Democrat’s fault but not really.  I loved the subtle humor and satire there.

If you have read as much as I have you know this election defined the reemergence of uneducated whites or probably not.  And if not them, then certainly rural farmers had their day.  .  .or didn’t.  And if not, then certainly white supremacists are now, well supreme, or really not at all.  If not them then the Evangelicals but not really.  And if not them then definitely the Republican party won.  .  .or maybe just conservatism in general.

None of this has convinced me.

It seems to me that in an election when both candidates had approval ratings below %45 and when the deciding states were all within 50,000 votes and when one candidate won the states and another candidate won the popular vote and when half of eligible votes sat the thing out that this wasn’t an election that was about anything except the huge leadership failure in American culture that has been building up for years.

I want you to hear that last stat again, half of eligible votes did not vote!  And yet I have been unable to find one article in the deluge of information about them.  HALF of Americans said “NO!” to the entire system but nobody is talking about them.  Who are they?  Where are they?  Why are they?  These questions are being entirely ignored by the media.

But these are the questions that defined the election right up until Tuesday.  I found scores of articles about the non voters before Tuesday but after the victory, they seemingly have disappeared from my news feeds.

Yet they are still out there.  And they sent a powerful message to the country, a message far more powerful than the 18,000 or so voters in Wisconsin or wherever.  Their message was, “no confidence.”  They have no confidence in the Republicans or the Democrats or the Libertarians, or the Green Party or even pretty looking Independents like Evan McMullin.

They have no confidence in any type of Republic style government.  They don’t believe in the value of voting, whether it be for a President, a Congressperson, a State governor or down ballot measures like sales taxes.

This should be alarming to us.  It certainly is to me as one who pastors these people.  I should add I am not one of them.  I did vote and I took every ballot measure seriously including the one that changed two words to the city constitution to make it more intelligible.

But the fact I am surrounded by people who don’t have any confidence in this system scares me to death.  It means a far more serious revolution than the victory of a reality TV star President may not be far away.  Donald Trump’s victory probably did nothing to pacify their strong antipathy.

And if I were a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian or the Green Party or even a pretty Independent I would use this election as a mandate to start listening to those %50 of people.

Let’s hope the entire media, from the mainstream to the “new” to my friends who insist on posting ridiculous memes, gets their act together and starts listening to them.

Why I Am Not Writing About Which Lives Matter or Who Should Be President or The Weather

Standard

When I was a kid there was an old proverb going around that I think had been going around for a good century.  It went something like this, “Do not talk about politics and religion in polite company.  Better to stick to sports and the weather.”

I’ll never forget the moment I realized the last sentence in that tidbit wasn’t true any more.  I had moved to a small town in Eastern Oregon from the Midwest.  I was sitting in the local sandwich shop that sat a block from my church.  I was trying to get to know the owner, a bright woman with an entrepreneurial spirit and fun personality.  Somehow we got to talking about the weather, probably because we were polite people.

I made some statement about the fact that I was glad that I wasn’t in tornado alley any more.

She stopped and stared at me and said, “Oh, we get tornadoes here” as if she was genuinely concerned that I had been misled.

I almost laughed out loud.  Northeast Oregon is surrounded by 9,000 foot tall mountains.  They do not get tornadoes.

“Well I suppose you get little dust funnels out on the farm fields but not like Missouri where people’s homes get destroyed.”

The tone of the conversation changed drastically.  Her concerned expression turned to a glare.

“No, you need to know here that the wind blows pretty hard.  In 1967 a tornado knocked a single wide trailer right off its cinder block foundation!”

I suddenly realized I was in an argument I didn’t even want to win and so back tracked and said, “Oh really?  Thanks for letting me know!” and changed the subject to sports which she gratefully knew nothing about.

I could list thirty more conversations I have had that are very similar to this.  When I started my current assignment I made the horrible mistake of asking my worship team to pray right before our worship service.  I thought, “Everybody loves prayer!”  I am still paying for that horrible request.  Right after that I suggested to the wrong person that we look into painting our fellowship hall.  He let me know in no small way that I was not to touch that fellowship hall and still, a year later, won’t meet with me outside of Sunday morning.  I can’t open my mouth about anything any more without some unexpected backlash.

This illustrates that keeping polite company any more is a brutal chore.  People don’t value civility any more.  Instead they value their own opinions and how right they think they are.

Some of my friends have given up entirely.  They seem to adore the national and theological arguments that are destroying politeness.  Every time something goes down regarding guns, the LGBTQ community, women’s rights, or national elections their Facebook profile is instantly water marked and their statuses hashtagged with activism.  Whether conservative or liberal, they seem to love the chance to post divisive cartoons, tired talking points, angry blogs and partisan articles.  They seem sincere in this, like they genuinely believe they are doing society some good.

You older, anti technology types should not be fooled.  This did not start with the invention of Facebook.  I know a lot of people I meet with face to face who are just as boisterous.  They yell and share their opinions with anyone who will listen and they want to bait you into the argument so they can drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.  They have succeeded to do that to me more times than I can count.

But don’t get me wrong, I am envious of their freedom.  I wish I felt like I had the freedom to just post whatever opinion I wanted to.  In fact sometimes I feel guilty for not chiming in and joining my “side” with my carefully informed and well formed opinions.  I bet I could even articulate them better than half the internet and that alone might do some good.

Or it definitely won’t.

Because every time I do chime in, whether online or in real life, I instantly feel guilty.  I cried for days that I had let the color of our fellowship hall come between me and a beloved parishioner.  I am still in mourning over insisting my worship team pray during a time that just would not work for them.  I should have reversed harder and quicker.  I definitely did learn my lessons though.

When I do chime in on my opinions, it is almost like I had just smoked my first cigarette.  There is a rush of rebellious satisfaction followed by nothing but guilt and a hacking cough as I wonder:

What will my church people think?

Will I lose my job over this?

Does that person still love me?

What will my liberal best friend or my conservative uncle think?

What if this new couple who has just started attending our church disagrees and decides our church isn’t right for them because of it?

Then I delete, delete, delete.  Or if it is in person, apologize, apologize, apologize.

In today’s world having and sharing opinions is just too costly.  The price is too high, especially for pastors.  In ages past you were allowed to think differently than someone without losing your salary, your position, even your ordination and definitely your friends.  This is not true any more.  People care more about the weather and what color their fellowship hall should be than they do about each other.  I don’t want to be one of them.

My friendship with you is far too important to me.  If you are going to terminate it because I think Oregon doesn’t get tornadoes than by all means, “watch out for those funnel clouds!”  If you want me to liberal, I will be liberal for you.  If you want me to be conservative,  I will be conservative for you.  If you love our fellowship hall just the way it is, than it is the most beautiful fellowship hall I have ever seen!

You can call me wishy-washy but know that I am not.  I know what I believe and I do act on it.   My best friends and wife will certainly attest to that!  I just try really hard not to let you know what I believe because I would rather keep being your friend.

Rather, you can say I am a coward because I am.  You can say I care too much about what people think because I do.  You can say I like having money to feed my family more than I like “the gospel.”  That is fair, though I would argue my opinions and your opinions about national affairs are NOT the gospel.

Ultimately we now live in a world where pride is alienating us from each other and I desperately crave true, civil, Christian friendship.  And if the price of my friendship with you is letting you have your opinions while thinking (most times wrongly) that I agree with you, than so be it.  I want to be your friend and that is worth the price of constantly biting my tongue and not clicking the “share” button.

Of Racist Guns and Holy Churches

Standard

Just yesterday I explained to my wife that I had not posted anything of substance on the blog for awhile because the creative energy that fuels these posts was seemingly gone.

Like most writers and artists I have found that when the creativity is on, it is really on.  Words flow like crazy through my harried mind into my crazy fingers through this makeshift keyboard onto the blank screen of the internet.

But when the creativity is off, it is really off.  It takes every ounce of mental strength to force my fingers to type those words.  During those times, it is excruciatingly difficult to even piece together a decent sermon.

And the last couple of weeks, that has been my life.

But last night, shortly after lamenting about this to my wife, things got turned back on.

My muses this time around were Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore.  I found the former’s words last night about the South Carolina church shooting to be very poignant.  Along with Larry Wilmore and the various comments online, turned my writing juice back on.

The first slew of comments on social media were people asking for a conversation.  This is a rather new phenomenon when it comes to controversial events and topics, as if we are now so suddenly scared to start conversations that we waste our words asking someone else to go first.

Putting that aside, there were still people willing to start conversations.  You can divide those conversations along political lines.  The more conservative want to talk about arming America and the value of nuclear families.  The more liberal want to talk about gun control and racism.

The conservatives, as usual, are only right enough to get to the point of being horribly offensive.  For evidence see Larry Wilmore’s montage of Fox News’ anchors trying to make it sound like the attack was somehow directed against white evangelicalism, not by a white evangelical against black pentecostals.  For the record, it was that montage that really turned my writing juice back on!

So too, the gun control rhetoric is equally alarming.  The idea that if everyone has a gun, no one will fire it certainly sounds good on paper but it has never worked in real life.  The psyche of the criminal mind desires violence and loves retaliation.  This has been well documented.  The shooter in South Carolina would have loved nothing more than to turn a place of prayer into an all out firefight.  And the day firefights break out in churches is the day Satan has won.

But don’t me wrong, as usual the liberals just seem shallow.  The question about where the shooter got his gun is frivolous and misleading.  And as far as gun control, or any type of government control is concerned, I have lost complete faith in our capability to enforce our own laws.  Furthermore you can’t just un-invent guns.  They are out there now and I am not sure how successful we can ever be in reigning them in.  After all, by outlawing marijuana we made it twice as accessible to teens as alcohol.

So too, I am having a horrible difficulty connecting with the more moderate conversation about mental illness.  While it certainly plays a part in all mass shootings, I know several people who struggle with what we call mental disabilities.  They don’t just pull ideas out of nowhere.  They are much like those of us who consider ourselves normal.   Original ideas are as hard, if not harder, to grasp for them as for us.

And as far as the conversation is concerned I believe the mentally disabled are the best mirrors for society.  They reflect and amplify our cultural values in ways the rest of us resist.  As proof, I have known several with mental illnesses who grew up in loving and caring families and communities and who reflect and amplify that love in profound ways.  This is why they are so valuable for us.  It is offensive to suggest that all mentally ill people will just randomly decide to buy guns and kill people.

So instead of talking about where the shooter got his guns, it is more helpful to talk about where the assassin got his ideas.  In what little we know, I see two ideas at work.

The first is the idea that black people are a problem needing to be solved.  We thought this idea was close to being eradicated from our country but recent events have reminded us that it is still there and was just waiting for an opportune moment to resurface.

I have seen where racism was hiding.  I lived in an inner city area, surrounded by a loving community of blacks.  The white people I worked with told me that it was a bad neighborhood.  The black people I worked with told me it was a lovely area where they wanted to live.  That was hidden racism.

So too the cops in the white neighborhoods would see a black man walking down the street, stop, pick him up and take him to the edge of the black county.  They would “graciously” inform him that, “They have help for you over there.”  That was hidden racism.

In a small town a fundamentalist youth pastor has conversations at the dinner table about the safe ways to assassinate our black president without killing any white secret service members in the process.

In the same small town one of the few teenagers who went to church lovingly referred to our President as, “The N&^*#er in the White House.”  He was rewarded with laughs for doing so.

If you want to know where the assassin got the idea that blacks are a problem needing solved, look no further.

The second idea seemed to be that shooting problems is the best way to solve them.  The problem here is not so much the existence of guns but the idea of weapons.  I hesitate to repeat the age old adage but, “If all you own is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.”

And if you buy a gun to solve problems, every problem will look like a target.  This is the dangerous idea being preached at political rallies.  We just need to buy more guns to shoot more bad guys.  But what happens when we can’t figure out who the bad guys are or when we get them wrong?  What happens is what happened in South Carolina on Wednesday night.

Here I agree with the social conservatives to a point.  Ideas seem to come primarily from parents.  For that reason, there is a discussion to be had about good parenting.  If you have parents that teach their kids that black people are a problem and we solve problems with guns, you get mass shootings at faithful churches.

But the solution here is not to litigate and legislate nuclear families because a particular family’s values are more important than the makeup and living arrangements of that family.  A nuclear family that brainstorms ways to assassinate a black President will still raise children full of hatred and violence.  More than father figures, we need good fathers and mothers, parents who reject the ideations of guns and racism while teaching godly love above all else.

We need that love taught and emulated at every level of society.  We need to get rid of these ideas that people are problems and that problems are targets.   In its place we need love to dwell in our churches and in our communities and in our nation.  After all, those who live by the gun die by the gun but those who live by love die by love.

And I would rather die by love.  The victims at Mother Emmanuel AME Church died by love on Wednesday.  That is the way that I would love to go.  They are not only heroes but martyrs in our peace seeking faith.  And they will now receive their robes of white under the altar in our glorious heaven.

As I was running this morning I was thinking about all of these things and what I might write.  As I did, the lines of the wonderful song, “The Love of God” kept coming to mind over and over.  This isn’t just a love that God displays for us.  It is also a love that we are called to embody and display for the world.

So through my tears and in memorium or our most recent martyrs, I post the lyrics below:

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.
When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,

When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.