I Don’t Have to Listen to You.

I don’t have to listen to the voices of African-Americans — because of Al Sharpton.

I don’t have to acknowledge the voices of Christians — because of Pat Robertson and this hypocrite I once knew.

I don’t have to listen to the voices of the impoverished — because I once saw a person with no initiative taking advantage of the system.

I don’t have to acknowledge the voices proclaiming their anguish or pain — because there are those that flourish in worse conditions.  

Our modern political and social discourse is little more than an exercise in justifying our refusal to listen.  There are bloggers and political pundits whose entire approach is to frame their ideological opponents as so extreme that brazen indifference toward them is justified — even noble.  

There are a myriad of ways a reluctance to listen is manifested:

1)  One of the most prevalent is finding a voice within a defined community to hide behind.  “Even Carefully Chosen African-American/Christian/Muslim thinks that . . . ”  So we embrace that voice because it mirrors our own, then pat ourselves on the back, disregarding that we still haven’t opened ourselves up to the experiences of others, while living in a meticulously defined cocoon — carefully avoiding anything that would challenge our identity or induce dissonance.  

2) Stephen Covey noted, ” We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.”  It’s a perfect formula for venerating ourselves to a position where our disregard seems warranted.  

3)  We confuse applications for principles.  Imagine my wife loves fresh flowers every Friday — and because I love her and know it’s meaningful, I do my best to consistently bring her the freshest flowers I can find.  If you don’t deliver flowers to your significant other on Fridays, does it mean you don’t love them?  Of course not — but it’s the same underlying template used in political and social debates.   Because you disagree with an approach, you must disagree with the underlying principle.  

“Politician X hates America because his policy differs from mine. “

“Tim must not care about Y because he’s going to vote for X.”

We often care deeply about the same things, but because of our education, background, and experiences — we  diverge on the appropriate path forward.  Yet it seems our discussions never advance to a point where we witness the faint outline of common ground — and is rather mired in shouting past our opponents, ridiculing their perceived misconceptions, and never pausing long enough to actually hear them.  

To be clear, xenophobia, sexism, and racism exist — and many people are indifferent to efforts to find common ground.  There are those who have willfully corrupted the Bible for political or corporate gain.  There are liberal appeals that are simply mechanisms to assuage the conscience and to avoid meaningful sacrifice.  I’m convinced however that many of the discussions we have involve well intentioned people that want to see society progress.  

I have a well worn groove in my brain that can respond to any argument that differs from my own — and while I hear just enough to respond, I often fail to listen adequately — justifying it because I avoid name calling and attempt to remain civil — or remain steadfastly focused on the veracity of the argument.  But it’s not enough.  

Like everyone else, I’m going to be tested this election cycle.  There are issues I am intensely passionate about and can feel my impatience with the lack of progress boiling just beneath the surface.   I am deeply committed to logical coherence, healthy skepticism of claims, and the scientific method.  I detest propaganda and linguistic charlatans who can make up appear down or introduce confusion where none needs to exist.  But does it matter?  Is this self-ascribed virtue of “caring about the truth wherever it leads” another sophisticated mechanism to avoid listening?  

What if we weren’t so concerned about being right and asked more questions?  What if we gave others the grace we expect for ourselves?  What if we just listened?

I’m off to read my daily e-mail of scientific facts and political research, then argue with some woefully uninformed soul on the Internet.  And seriously, if anyone conflates Bernie Sanders with communism and the Soviet Union, it’s clear they’re uniformed — and want to see the United States become an oligarchical wasteland where the poor are trampled and puppies have no viable future.

A Difficult Goodbye

I am increasingly troubled by Americanized Christianity.

No doubt friends and family have discerned this undercurrent in my posts or interactions with me.  The subtext is also one of disillusionment, of doubt, and frustration with a church that often wraps the cross in an American flag and presents a bastardized gospel to protect corporate interests.  It’s a church that too often has allowed consumerism, military strength, and a quest for power to obscure the message of the gospels.

The disillusionment reaches even further however and touches a realm where heartfelt doubt is seen as antithetical to morality, and where unquestioning certainty is venerated, while the hard questions are quickly swept away — or replaced by platitudes and trite responses.  I’ve observed schisms between denominations and biblical interpretation differ almost as widely as the space between belief — and non-belief.   I’ve watched the quest for personal piety becomes its own end and its own form of self-centeredness.

I’ve watched an unnecessary divide grow between science and religion, where I was expected to deny the scientific method as a way to prove group loyalty with little regard for the truth.  I’ve watched the church respond to environmental concerns with glib platitudes while defending the destruction of our earth with pious indifference.  I’ve watched as thinly veiled xenophobia was defended and couched in spiritual terms that allowed bigotry to thrive.

It has left me saddened — even angry at times.

We’ve spent the last month searching for a church home in Oregon and I dreaded every Sunday morning.  The services left me empty and I could have gone the rest of my life, happy to never step foot in another church.

This changed last Sunday morning when we visited a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  For the first time in probably over a decade, I cried during a service.  I typically wouldn’t find emotion during church necessarily indicative of anything deeper.  This time it was.  We worshiped alongside Christians and atheists, Buddhists and wanderers.  Old Testament prophets were referenced along with passages from Frederick Douglass and MLK.   The choir sang John Lennon’s Imagine.   I listened to an appeal for a reinvigorated prophetic imagination with a desire for voices willing to challenge the status quo, to speak out against systems of power, and to radically address the causes of the disenfranchised.   I heard a message of love and justice — and of a personal ethic that extends beyond the confines of our home and church.  I listened to a heartfelt appeal for unity and peace — not a unity born out of naive hopefulness, but one born out of an unflappable belief that the seeds we plant today will someday bear fruit.

I spoke to the pastor after church as she briefly outlined her heart for racial reconciliation.

I could write the responses I will inevitably receive from what I’ve noted above — probably point by point.  There was a time in my life I would have responded in a similar fashion.  But please be clear.  This isn’t the result of liberal indoctrination or some devolution into moral relativism.   It was born out of a deep thirst for something deeper and more transformative — something that recognizes a personal gospel divorced from a social gospel — is little more than self-affirming delusion.  To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of every American church and there are people within evangelical circles that I have tremendous respect for and believe their hearts ache for many of the same reasons as mine.

But I must move on.

I will not stop questioning.

I will not stop wrestling.

I will not stop opposing the systems of power that further victimize the disenfranchised.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

What We Gained

“It’s gone.”

It was around 11:30 at night and I was on the phone with my wife Sarah who was in the hospital.  The day had started like any other, but I was now standing in what was once our living room, staring up at the night sky.

Just hours before that, we had prepared to make the drive to our local hospital — excited, because our first child was on his way.  As we left the house, we walked past the crib — ready for the pending arrival.  We looked around at the months of preparation, our faces beaming with expectant pride.

But now, through the darkness, I pointed a flashlight at the crib — filled with debris and rain soaked insulation.   The living room was unrecognizable; one wall of the house was leaning crookedly; the garage was gone.  Every step was precarious as I walked around, stepping over and through the memories of what had once been our home.

We had been in our hospital room for less than five minutes when informed there was a tornado warning and were moved to a safer area.   After our initial transition, we were moved again into a small supply room, cramped with other patients.   I still vividly remember a nurse kneeling on the floor, starting an IV for Sarah.  After the warning was lifted, we learned a tornado had touched down, but was unclear of where.

The following hours were spent trying to piece together random details — details from overheard phone calls — or snippets of conversations.  We learned it had hit near the car dealership across the street from our house — but a friend called and thought our house may still be standing.  We waited and hoped.  Sarah labored.

I went out around 11:00 that night to buy food and couldn’t withstand the temptation to drive as far down Highway 63 as possible.  The car dealership was in shambles — littered with broken glass and overturned cars.  I learned there had been a gas leak right after the tornado and there were emergency vehicles everywhere.  A police officer gave me permission to walk over to our house, and an employee of the power company loaned me a flashlight so I could navigate the blanket of darkness engulfing our yard across the street.

It’s been almost six years, but I still have difficulty processing what I saw, how it felt, and how devastating it was to call Sarah and tell her we no longer had a home.  I still get choked up talking about that night and the feeling days later when we drove by and encountered the pile of rubble the bulldozer left.  The following day was equally surreal when there was nothing left but an empty space — with scattered remnants of our material possessions defiantly reaching up through the dirt.

This isn’t a story however of what we lost, but of what we gained.  This isn’t a recounting of the coming months, filled with endless hours of tedious work, insurance forms, and taking our newborn son “home” to temporary housing in a local apartment complex.

This is a story about the power of community, and the endless ways people reached out and touched our lives with acts of love, support, and sacrifice.  This is the story of the friends who helped us that night and the large group from Sarah’s medical school that showed up the next day to help us dig through the devastation.  This is the story of endless, thoughtful acts — acts we’ll never forget:  the supportive hugs, the generous checks, the meals, the words of encouragement.

Most importantly, this is the story of a baby named Noah who was born two days later — and the ways these acts of selflessness still echo in his life.   When he was four, he picked cherry tomatoes from our garden and left them in our mailbox — in case the mailman didn’t have enough food at home.  When he goes to the doctor’s office, he frequently presents them a home made card with a couple of dollars of change taped inside — so they can buy themselves something special.   Just days ago, unprompted, he asked to give some of his birthday money to the “people in Nepal so they can have food and build new homes.”  It’s an amazing gift to watch the way that Noah lights up the world around him — yet we’re also aware it is a continued reflection of the loving community of friends and family who ushered in his arrival.

Six years ago, we learned what it felt like to be the dazed family being interviewed on the news, standing in front of what “once was”.  More importantly, we learned that home isn’t simply a physical structure — but can be the loving arms of a community that lock their arms together and encircle you with love and support.

We still nervously watch the weather a little closer during the spring months. Occasionally, I open a box or find a small piece of insulation from that night six years ago, and my palms get sweaty.  And no — we never, ever tell Noah his bedroom looks like a “tornado went through it.”
Tornado Blog Post

The Reinvention of White Privilege

Valid social theories and constructs often go through a period of rebranding and adjustment, coming out the other side misunderstood and used in a form antithetical to their original intent — or they become a punch line.  Attempts to deflect attention away from valid constructs are insidious and intentional.  As relevant as any example is white privilege — a concept that properly understood illuminates social realities — but when distorted, further entrenches discriminatory attitudes.  Those most uncomfortable with the implications have not only turned it into a sarcastic punch line — they use it as a cudgel to attack anyone illuminating a foundational aspect of American life.

The following myths have arisen during the reframing of white privilege:

The myth that privilege means privileged.  A recurrent mechanism for disregarding white privilege is to provide an example of a white person who grew up destitute.  They weren’t “privileged”, thus white privilege is a myth.  Social mobility consists of a myriad of forces: gender, economic status, race, and other variables that impact social opportunity.  Depending on the society, different variables can play a larger part in what forces are most relevant.   The claim isn’t that being white in a culture dictated by white ideals and influence is a free ticket to the top.  What is being cited are the distinct, unearned advantages of being white in American culture, as there are numerous impediments we never have to confront or even consider.

The myth that white privilege is a mechanism to elicit guilt.  This myth is insidious because it allows a wholesale rejection based on little more than “How dare they make me feel guilty for something I was born into.”  Understanding our social environment doesn’t demand guilt — but it does demand removing the scales from our eyes and  willingness to consider the multiple forces that make up our social fabric.  The only justifiable guilt is that which follows a period of willful blindness — or an intentional disregard for the way oppression reverberates through history and impacts our current culture.

The Oprah/Obama myth.  (If they became successful, it’s evidence white privilege is a myth.)  A society cannot be measured by whether a few make it in spite of oppression.  It may indicate progress — but progress TOWARD equality should not be confused with arrival AT equality.  This particular myth is especially damaging because “in spite of” becomes redefined as “because of” — and society is praised for its structural flaws.

The myth that white privilege is a mechanism to ignore personal responsibility.  Individual choices take place in a specific context and it is this environment that’s the focus of white privilege.  The allegation that focusing on environmental factors is a mechanism to avoid responsibility is a seductive one.  Who can deny the value of good personal choices?  While personal responsibility is part of the equation, it should never be used used as a bullhorn to distract from structural inequality.

If criticizing a minority group under the cover of personal choice demanded currency — currency earned through authentic attempts to understand the historical and legal forces that impact present culture:  most voices would be silenced.

The meritocracy myth.  If there is an idea close to being canonized as American gospel — it’s the one that success is directly proportional to effort and talent.  Those are important variables — but they are not the only ones.  This myth is deeply ingrained because rejecting it means losing our identities — or understanding our success was purchased, in part, beyond the confines of our effort.  Nothing chips at ego like the recognition others may have outworked us, yet are being constrained and further victimized by our self-serving cultural narratives.

Imagine ten runners at a starting line and two are burdened with thirty pound weights.  If one of those two occasionally wins a race, is it proof the race was fair? Of course not, but it’s the precise narrative hoisted on us by loud, shrill voices selling rhetorical shadows.

If they chose more lightweight socks, maybe the wealth gap wouldn’t be so pronounced.
Perhaps if they didn’t choose such heavy shirts, the prison population wouldn’t be disproportionately non-white.
If they pulled harder when tying their shoelaces, their neighborhoods wouldn’t be as affected by poverty.

We strain.  We grasp. Desperate to deflect the focus  — casually ignoring the thirty pound weights forged in the fires of legally sanctioned discrimination and cultural attitudes.

We must have a smoother running style.  How else can you explain our frequent victories?
We must have worked harder in training; they did seem more winded then us at the finish line.

Privilege is undeniably easy to ignore.  It’s invisible and the ones that benefit are least inclined to acknowledge its existence.   Instead we protect our identities or seek out minority voices that offer cover for our willful blindness.   While we have no responsibility to feel guilt, we do have a responsibility to seek awareness and offer our voice — understanding that our willful silence is the adhesive that keeps the weights attached.

The Honesty Movement

We need an honesty movement, a campaign to resurrect truth — truth gasping its last, faltering breaths.  By truth, I don’t mean the typical connotations of honesty in spoken word and am not alluding to the lack of it in political discourse.  What I am appealing to is the dishonesty we live — the dishonesty we proclaim when we don’t follow our own path, instead treading the one designed by social pressure or unwillingness to live boldly.

We live in an era of meticulously crafted identities that are presented on social media, of carefully chosen self portraits with the perfect filters applied — a face shown to obscure lives often riddled with uncertainty and fear.  We crave authenticity in others yet live inauthentic lives — lives scripted by social expectations.  This fearful dance is exhausting, an endless loop of deferment to the oppressive burden of other’s opinions.  They dance to the music we’ve fearfully selected while we sway to their timid symphony.

It’s the most deafening silence, the silence of a life unlived.  We poetically declare the value of freedom , yet our lives are often in chains — the links forged out of fear, indecision, and need for acceptance.  Our families are affected by our dishonest silence, our friendships weakened — the world untouched by our potential.

We have one life to live and love freely.  We have one life to unapologetically declare our truth to the world, to allow our radiant, glimmering light to expose the dark corners and empower others to do the same.  It IS terrifying, the thought of shaking off the shackles of protective identity — but it may be the most liberating thing we ever do.   There is an undeniable comfort in blending in, of holding tightly to the status quo — of pretending.  But the life we’ve been given demands more.  It demands our discomfort, it demands our unwavering voice; it demands our unflinching vision, unmoved by the seductive whisper of indifference.

The reality is there’s an honesty movement already underway, obscured by the tireless onslaught of bright lights and materialistic ideals.  To this movement, I add my inexact words — and commitment to peel back my protective layers, to forge a path, and to stumble forward.   Our steps may be unsure and faltering, but together we can commit to authentic lives — lives that resist the appeal of apathetic compliance and comfortable disengagement.

Old Blue

The once bright blue mattress is in the waning years of life, far removed from his factory birth and proud display in a furniture showroom.  A couple arthritic springs are beginning to groan, while the adhesive brand label — mostly missing, the letters smudged and illegible — rests just above his sagging midsection.

The mattress was given to us by a family member for Noah’s first bed, like an aging race horse being given one last reprieve on a family farm — one last season of life before venturing into the Great Beyond.

Old Blue has proudly watched Noah grow, embracing his sleep and the dreams that danced through his resting head — dragons and knights and fantastical adventures.  He’s supported me and Sarah as we told Noah bedtime stories, stories exposing my laughable inability to create believable villain names:  Vigoramell, Gigantora, Skullbonehead.  It hasn’t always been carefree; there have been the unfortunate nights where a younger Noah dreamed of a waterfall and the sheets weren’t sufficiently water proof. Then there was the Night of Endless Sickness just this past week.

With our upcoming move out west, Old Blue will be unceremoniously tossed away on community dumpster day, joining other aging relics from our neighbors — relics imbued with fading memories.  The creaking rocking chair that someone’s recently deceased grandma owned — a chair she was herself rocked in as a baby.  A broken doll house that was a child’s respite from the shouting and discord — a safe haven where dreams of stability were acted out.

After the move, Noah will likely get a mattress featuring a steel coil support system or a Smart Bed featuring temperature controls and touch screens. (Or was that the one on my wish list?)  This mattress will undoubtedly witness his rush toward youth and embrace the shifting dreams of a boy whose eyes are opening to the world.  She may overhear my faltering attempts to tell a cryptic story about how Mrs. Bird and Mr. Bee loved each other very much — then my nervous interjection that Mom will be home soon and can finish the story.   She will likely feel the tears of his first breakup.

For now though Old Blue lies there, covered in a Superman blanket, unaware of his impending demise.  He’ll undoubtedly be wrestled off the box springs a couple more times as Noah builds a fort — perhaps seeking shelter from my tired stories about Xanadorthu and Pelgwandor and Lightningbone.  He’ll hear us read the last several chapters of the Chronicles of Narnia series while an entranced Noah excitedly fidgets on the bed — occasionally interrupting with a question.  A few more good night hugs and kisses. A few more good night prayers. Then the Great Beyond.

A Tribute

There is a group whose influence reverberates just outside the bounds of societal awareness.  They may be doctors or janitors — physicists or high school dropouts. They are often the driving force of social progress, a group we are indebted to — yet we’re often unaware of their efforts — overlooked when using social metrics of success and failure.

I’m speaking of those who see the world, not as it is, but as it could be — and this vision, though as buffeted by disappointment and heartbreak as anyone’s, provides something equally compelling.  It provides belief in the potential of those lives that intersect with theirs.  This vision isn’t starry eyed delusion, but the capacity to look through hopeful eyes — then the willingness to patiently wait and trust and offer a sense of unflappable certainty that we’ll see it too.  Then act.

For much of my life, I was unaware of them, ignorant of their impetus while attached to sterile definitions of optimism and pessimism — success and failure.

Then I met my wife, Sarah.  For almost eleven years of marriage I’ve felt the empowering embrace of a visionary — of someone who loved me through complacency — whose ability to see beyond my framework of self-doubt altered my life in innumerable ways.  While we all have a responsibility to act on our potential, it can be invaluable when someone sees through our protective walls and is a patient, supportive ally — and when necessary, provides a loving nudge.

I now understand the difference between optimism as a temporal emotion and optimism as an unbending belief.

Perhaps this isn’t what is typically written for a Valentine’s tribute.  It’s short on flowers. And hearts.  And red lettered calligraphy.  My heart rate still accelerates when Sarah walks into the room.  I envision romantic, moonlit nights in London and hiking with her through the Scottish highlands — those times are in front of us.  Maybe it’s watching my children grow so quickly or my own rapid march toward forty, but I’ve been contemplating what love in action looks like — and the way Sarah’s life will echo through the generations that follow.

When Sarah’s biography is written, it will undoubtedly detail the ways her ineffable spirit touched the world but it will likely miss something profound — the way her tireless focus on serving the invisible and neglected was intertwined with the infectious confidence that helped others see their arc of possibility.  We’ve become a nation marked by complacent acceptance — and a feeble discomfort with the status quo that can be mollified with The Next Big Thing.  It desperately needs people to draw a line in the sand and vocalize their unwillingness to accept lukewarm mediocrity.  On this Valentine’s Day, I celebrate one of those voices.

The world needs bank tellers and neurosurgeons and poets and dreamers — but it also craves those that can envision what could be. And what will be.