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A Glorious Love Letter

Whenever someone asks how long my wife Charlotte and I have been married, which happens a lot around our anniversary (June 16), I inevitably say something like “16 glorious years.” Truth be told, not all those years could be labeled “glorious.” Some were somewhat less than that.

This year, we complete year 17. When someone asks, and I provide my typical answer, at least that part “17 glorious years” will be accurate. But “glorious” … no. Now, I will say that the last ten or so have been getting closer. As God has peeled away selfishness and other crud that stood in the way of real intimacy, our marriage has become more and better than I could have ever imagined. The process has been hard, but so, so worth it.

Part of this ongoing growth of intimacy, of course, is how well we know each other. Sometimes, it’s quite annoying. I get tired of how right she is about how I can’t hold a conversation and drive at the same time. I wish she’d stop being right every once in a while. Truly though, how we know each other is an immense blessing. She knows when I’m not quite right. I know when she is, dare I say, a tinge irritable. And we know what each other needs when we’re in those spots.

I could provide many examples of how beautiful this marriage is and how intimately we know each other, but I’ll focus here on one… one that is directly related to Tomme Suab. Quite a few years ago, I was in love (I still am, really) with Over the Rhine’s Goodbye off the Roaring Lambs compilation album. If you would have asked me why, I couldn’t have told you. After all, as a child, I was taught “good music” was what was predictable and safe. Understanding the nature of music, or art overall, was never a high priority for me or for those around me.

Some time ago, Charlotte and I were discussing that particular song and she said, “I know why you like that song.” Now, this would also make sense, because Charlotte has an extensive musical background, formal education included. She mentioned something about a “step-wise” movement in the song and explained what that meant. Afterward, from time to time, she would help me understand why I was drawn to certain styles, artists, or songs.

Eventually, she made a pivotal statement which amounted to something like “you don’t listen to music the same way most people do.” She was telling me I wasn’t a casual music fan. That little statement was an epiphany for me. It started me on a journey in which I began to engage with local art and independent musicians, with her cheering me on. It led me down a path in which I became drawn to the fringe, the unpredictable, the non-mainstream. More to the point, it led me to the realization that music impacts me deeply, on an emotional level. It was the root of what has become this blog, these weekly playlists, my involvement with Blugold Radio (soon to be Verge 99.9), and even in other civic activities and efforts promoting the arts.

None of this would have ever happened had it not been for my bride. It is just one illustration of how, aside from my God, she’s the best part of me. She has my heart and to say I’m thankful for her would be a gross understatement.

I love you, Charlotte. May these songs, in some small way, remind you of that truth. 17 songs for 17 years. Like those 17 years, this playlist isn’t perfect (or glorious), but it’s pretty damned good.

 

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This Is (Really) America

My boy is currently having a playdate with his best buddy. The two boys are sprawled out on the floor, making up stories with Lego mini-figures. The cuteness is almost overwhelming. Just two friends having fun, whittling the afternoon way, with no care in the world. I am taken by their cuteness and their innocence. There’s something so entirely pure and beautiful about what’s happening on the floor in front of me.

As I watch the boys play, I have a clear line of sight to my son, who has been growing his hair out now for several months. He’s keeping it short around the sides and back, and then letting it grow up top. So much hair! It’s adorable, honestly, although it’s making this almost nine-year-old look a few years older than that. Not sure I like that…

His decision to grow his hair out was inspired by the blockbuster Marvel movie, Black Panther. He was, like me, enthralled by the antagonist of the story, Erik Killmonger. After watching Michael B. Jordan’s outstanding portrayal and witnessing how incredibly cut the guy is, I think Joshua and I both wish we looked like him. Joshua’s got a much better shot at making that happen. And, he began letting his hair grow out toward that exact end. He wanted braids or dreads that would look like those Killmonger sported in the movie.

Over these last few months, we’ve been getting his haircuts at a barbershop where they know how to cut African hair. I think there’s still a part of him that wants the Killmonger look, but I also think he’s been enjoying growing this huge mass of hair on top of his head, like a big, textured box-top. And, it’s adorable. So, now I have this super-cute third grader running around with the same kind of hairstyle I see on young men and teen boys who are also from African heritage. Amid growing up in mighty white Eau Claire, Wisconsin, I think it’s comforting for him to see older guys who look like him and also happen to have a similar hairstyle.

Just recently, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, when I saw another young man with Joshua’s do. It was a still picture of a young man named Anthony Wall being pinned to the outside window/wall of a Waffle House by a police officer. I saw the headline associated with the photo; something about an older brother who had taken his sister to the prom. To be honest, I skipped by it quickly.

Why? It’s simple. That young man looked like my Joshua. In that moment, I was seeing my boy being pinned against a wall and choked by a police officer. I looked away and quickly skipped by that image. I didn’t want to think about that. It wasn’t that long ago that young Jordan Edwards was shot dead in the back of a car by another police officer. His story broke my heart. I could see my son in Jordan’s innocent smile. And it hurt.

Even though I didn’t want to linger in those thoughts, especially envisioning my son in the place of that young man at the Waffle House, I saw that image again on my feed and this time I chose to engage. That’s probably because I remembered Jordan Edwards. And I remembered why I need to care about this. I remembered I was wired to care about this. I remembered that I would be disobeying my God if I ignored this.

This second image wasn’t a still, it was a video. I watched the police officer forcing Anthony up against that wall. The officer looked to be at least twice the size of the young man. I could not see Anthony resisting in any way. I see the officer violently pressing his forearm into Anthony’s chest and throat area. For no apparent reason, I see the office then lift the young man off the ground and slam him down on the pavement, followed by the officer leaning on him, holding him down, and maintaining his intimidation.

It made me sick. What the hell was going on there? There are those who will say we don’t have all the context. Honestly, I don’t know what happened before this moment. Don’t care, actually. From the video, there is no apparent reason why the officer had to be so violent, why he was choking Wall, why he slammed him to the ground like he did.

As I write these words now, I can feel my blood beginning to simmer. I’m angry. I’m angry at the injustice and excuse-making. And, I’m sad for Anthony Wall and his sister. I’m sad for every young black man who is perceived as a threat for no legitimate reason. I’m sad for my son, who will no doubt be seen as such a threat before too long by some backward-thinking person. Who knows? Maybe he’ll fall asleep in the commons area of his college dorm. Maybe he’ll walk onto a country club golf course (of which he’s actually a member). Maybe he’ll be in his backyard doing nothing. Maybe he’ll just want to have a waffle.

To all my white, right-leaning friends who want to find a way to defend this officer, or the golf course employee, or the police who shot Stephon Clark 22 times while he wielded his deadly cellphone, I don’t want to hear it. Especially to my Christian friends who are more concerned about what Anthony Wall may have done to “deserve” the treatment he received from that officer, keep it to yourself. I can see nothing of Jesus in such thinking. So, don’t bring that here, please. It’s time for us to see things for what they are, and not just through the lenses of our personal experience in our little safe, white, Christian bubbles.

A few months ago, I had coffee with a good friend who shared with me a quote he’d come upon previously. I don’t remember the exact verbiage, but it amounted to something like this: “The artists are now our prophets.” Okay, so I will never say that Justin Vernon or Bono carry the same weight as Jeremiah or Isaiah. But, I think there’s truth there.

One great example of this artistic prophecy is the recently released video from Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover). The video was released on May 8th, but I’ll admit that it took me a couple of days before I wanted to watch it, mostly because I knew it would make me uncomfortable. You know, that discomfort I really need to feel. I eventually decided to engage, and I was changed.

I am still processing the meaning of the song and the imagery in the video. However, I feel like I can already say that it is one of the most important pieces of art I’ve ever seen or heard. The song is called This Is America and it is a poignant commentary on many societal issues, such as racism and gun violence. I will likely write more about this masterpiece later, but there’s one central theme I see in there that pertains to what’s happening to these black men and boys and my (our) response to these injustices: it is very easy to just keep living life while others around us are going through hell. The video is below (warning: it is pretty graphic).

Notice what happens throughout the video, not just what’s happening right in front of the camera, but what’s happening in the background as well. A man is executed. One of the four horsemen rides in the background. Riots break out. Someone gets thrown off a balcony. A choir is massacred. And what’s happening throughout all of this? Glover and those with him dance. They have moments of clarity about what’s happening around them, some of which they cause, but they are easily distracted back into the dance.

The lyrics, at one point, speaks of “shaking the frame.” The imagery there is of the frame of reality being shaken so we are distracted from what’s really going on. We hear of students being slaughtered at a school in Florida and we are forget a day later. We see images of a young man being powerslammed to the sidewalk and we turn away, not letting ourselves be affected. We read about a young white man sending bombs to the homes of people of color in Texas and we don’t bat an eye. We hear about another young white man bringing a rifle into a different Waffle House for the express purpose of killing black people, and we just go about our day-to-day as if this is normal.

It is not normal, friends. It is not okay. We need to stop victimizing white perpetrators. We need to stop justifying police brutality. We need to stop grasping at straws to understand how Stephon Clark, Anthony Wall, Jordan Edwards, Philando Castile, or Trayvon Martin somehow deserved what they got. We need to look at the pictures of those who have been killed or traumatized because of their pigmentation. We need to get real honest with ourselves. I need to get real honest with myself.

White friends, please hear me, we gotta stop acting like there is no race issue in America. We gotta stop pretending that all men are actually considered “equal” in our society. We gotta stop avoiding the voices and stories of black communities. By acting, pretending, and avoiding, we are saying one of two things. We are either calling them liars, or we are telling them they don’t matter as much as we do. Those are the only two options, friends.

Whether or not we want to own it or believe it, the stories of Clark, Martin, Wall, Edwards, Castile, and so many more are real. This is America, friends. And until we stand up, own that truth, and start having meaningful conversations about how to facilitate healing, freedom, and justice in our land, we are simply allowing more black people to be oppressed, slaughtered, and/or traumatized. This is America.

I cannot turn my head. I cannot ignore. I cannot pretend. I cannot, because that would not resonate with the life God has built me to live. A Christian ignoring these injustices is not aligned with the Jesus who came to set captives free, raise the dead, and preach good news to the poor. So, engaging in this is obedience for me, and I would argue, for anyone in America who professes to follow Jesus.

But, personally, I go right back to the boy playing with Legos on my office floor. He has already faced racism from other kids. And as he gets older, he will face more. I don’t want him to be the next Anthony Wall, Stephon Clark, or Jordan Edwards. So, I will fight. And, I ask you to do the same.

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Don’t Can’t Won’t

You don’t know me.

You just don’t.

You think you do.

You’re wrong.

 

You have me figured out.

You’re sure about your theories.

You think you know me.

You don’t.

 

It would be shocking if you did.

It might take you aback.

It may spark questions.

It would. It might. It may.

 

If you were open…

If you could see outside your bubble…

If you would take that risk…

If… but you’re not, you can’t, you won’t.

 

 

ELH

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Every Son Is My Son

My head was pounding this afternoon. Learning a new work process can have that effect sometimes. So, I stepped away for a few minutes, put on my headphones, and took a walk around the block. I was listening to a TS10 from a few weeks ago, one that carried a mood of numbness, or maybe even despair. As I turned the corner, listening to these somber sounds, I was struck with a bit or irony.

My head was pounding, but it wasn’t due only to learning this new skill at work. No, my mind was troubled by something far more painful. This morning, I read about the senseless and shameful murder of a 15-year-old boy named Jordan Edwards. A black boy… just like my black boy. Shot by a police officer as the boy sat in the back seat of a car. Shot in the head with a rifle. A smart, athletic, sweet kid… snuffed out like a candle. No reason. No rationale.

My head was pounding… as I thought of the irony of me walking around the block with my hoodie and headphones on. Wondering… if my skin was black, would I be deemed suspicious by my white neighbors, by the police? Thinking about Trayvon Martin wearing his hoodie when he was targeted, armed with a bag of Skittles. And then thinking about the fact that I am (white) privileged enough to not have to worry about that.

My head was pounding as I thought about young Jordan’s family… when I thought about his grieving parents. Their beautiful and brilliant child was destroyed. I considered Nicholas Wolterstorff’s sorrowful Lament for a Son, in which the author lays his heart bare as he grieves the loss of his own son. I thought about my own precious Joshua. That he is not only precious, but he is also black. I thought about the fact that it could have been Joshua Hudgins named in that article instead of Jordan Edwards.

My heart was then pounding.

I am angry. I am grieved. If this was just some isolated event, it would still be sad, but maybe it wouldn’t have ravaged my soul this way. But it’s not an isolated incident. The list of such tragic, horrific stories seems to never end. Parents needlessly grieved. Children needlessly slaughtered. But it’s not just about racially-charged murder. Just this last weekend, a dear friend’s son was subjected to an ignorant, racist slur: “Run back to your slave master.” When my Joshua was three years old, a kid at the playground told him that he doesn’t like “brown people.” Racism is everywhere. It is pervasive.

I can’t say for certain that Jordan Edwards’ murder was racially motivated. But seeing this event in the context of the racism I constantly see around me and the long, never ending list of unarmed, unthreatening black people who have been shot by police over the years, it’s hard to imagine race didn’t have something to do with this.

I want to offer solutions right now. I want to offer hope. But, I feel devoid of solutions and low on hope. I have plenty of sorrow and a fair amount of rage. But more than anything, I am determined to grieve with Jordan’s family and friends. And, I am determined to fight. I will pray like I have never prayed. I will confront the dark heart of racism when I see its ugly head surface. And I will ask God to show me what remnants of racism still live in my fickle heart.

And now my heart is pounding again, because I know there will be another Jordan Edwards, innocently snuffed out like a candle. I pray my son is not the next son to be slaughtered. #everysonismyson

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Death Gives Way to Life… WORTHY IS THE LAMB

Yep, he was dead. Gone. No heartbeat. No air pumping through his lungs. He was cold and lifeless as he lay there in that tomb. But, what seemed impossible was actually inevitable. He did not stay dead.

Why? Because death could not keep it’s icy grip on him. Death’s bony hand waved the white flag in surrender to the Author of Life. Jesus defeated the grave. And his victory over death paved the way for those of us who trust him to share in that victory.

It’s time to celebrate, my friends! Jesus has risen and he is Lord!

The songs below celebrate the life that could not be held down. I invite you to worship the Lamb with me. WORTHY IS THE LAMB!

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2016 Tomme Suab Song of the Year: Bon Iver’s #29 Strafford Apts

I love this song. I hate this song. Let me tell you why. When I listen to this song, I hear this gentle, heart-on-the-sleeve tone throughout. That combined with Bon Iver’s talent and artistry would be the initial draw for me. There is a tender heart at the core of #29 Strafford Apts.

But then there are the technological, intentional blemishes that run throughout the entirety of Bon Iver’s 22, A Million record, and they are prevalent in this one. When I was first becoming acquainted with #29 Strafford Apts, that additional layer was not welcome as far as I was concerned. I wanted that tender heart to reign supreme. Not only did the techno-glitchiness interrupt that vibe, it totally “corrupted” the climactic third chorus in the song. Dammit. What was Justin Vernon thinking?

I cannot be sure what Mr. Vernon was trying to do, but my suspicion is that he did with this song exactly what he intended to do, and that was to disrupt the portrayal of that tenderness on purpose. At first, I was not very happy about that. And, I think maybe that was the point. As I’ve listened and contemplated further, there was another related dynamic I found provocative.

 

The techno-muffling during that third chorus sounds very reminiscent of when a tape got warped back in the day. Those of us who used to listen to cassettes on a regular basis know what I’m talking about and are well-acquainted with that malady. You’re listening to your favorite Thompson Twins song and then all of the sudden the voices are muffled and music is warped. Then it everything returns to normal. I’m quite sure this was the dynamic Vernon was going for.

However, when I heard my muffled version of Hold Me Now (look it up, kids), I knew if I heard it on the radio or someone else’s tape, I would hear the regular, pristine recording. That’s not the case with #29 Strafford Apts. I may NEVER hear the pristine, pure version of that chorus. And, that makes me mad. Furthermore, it convinces me further of Vernon’s genius. And when I consider that, it makes me smile.

So, yeah, I love this song and I hate this song. Which is why it is the 2016 Tomme Suab Song of the Year.

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2016 Tomme Suab Album of the Year: Bon Iver’s 22, A Million

If you happened to see who was named the 2016 Tomme Suab Artist of the Year, then you may see a theme emerging with the Album of the Year. Yep, it’s Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. It just is. It’s been a long time since an album captured my heart like this one. Without going into great detail (I already did that in my post, Caught in Bon Iver’s Web… 22, A Million), this album is still in regular rotation in my personal playlist and it ain’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s beautiful, deep, provocative, and terribly creative. Congrats to Bon Iver for not only creating the 2016 TS Album of the Year, but also for making what could be one of my favorite records, period.

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General Thoughts, Uncategorized

Do Black Lives Actually Matter? A Personal Question

I was born among racists. Perhaps, in the 1970s, that was the status quo for a boy growing up in the heart of the Confederacy, the great Commonwealth of Virginia. I had friends and family members who called black people “niggers” on a regular basis. I had family members who overtly expressed their desire for a re-segregation between blacks and whites. Racist, hateful jokes and comments were a regular part of my childhood experience.

Apparently, I was influenced by those racist sentiments as a young child. I still recall watching a boxing match with my father when I was ten years old or so. It was a white man fighting a black man and I told my dad I was rooting for the white guy because he was white. He reprimanded me for that, which was honestly a little ironic. Around that same time in my life, I made up a song called “Tyrone and Ramona” to the tune of Jack and Diane by John Cougar. It was filled with racial stereotypes and ugliness. My parents still celebrate how funny that song was. It breaks my heart that I ever came up with it in the first place.

Racism would not gain a permanent grip on me, at least not in the ways it did for so many others around me. I attended Indian River Junior High in the mid-80s and went to school every day with blacks, Asians, and whites. Some of my best friends were black. I started being influenced by hip hop culture, especially by Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, and Whodini. Eventually, I began writing my own raps and performing them. These relationships with black kids and interaction with elements of their culture impacted me deeply. As I grew into my later teens, I began confronting racism when it surfaced around me, which was often.

When I was about 19 years old, I was actually the victim of a race-based attack. Some friends and I (all white kids) were leaving our city’s annual celebration, the Chesapeake Jubilee. A group of black teens walked up to us and started interacting with us. It felt awkward, but I chose to believe the best and just keep chatting. One of my friends was not able to play it so cool. He was obviously nervous. One of the guys saw my friend’s tension and preyed upon it. He brushed up against him, saying “We found the hard one.” He and my friend began pushing each other. The rest of us intervened and broke it up. As soon as things settled, my friends and I walked away and headed toward our car. However, those boys weren’t through with us yet. They ran after us and started throwing punches. I got sucker-punched in the jaw and hit the ground. None of us were injured. But, my heart was broken. In the days after that event, I got anxious around groups of young black men. But, in time, that anxiety subsided and I was back to normal… confronting racism and desiring unity.

As you can see, racial tensions and relations between blacks and whites have been a part of my experience since childhood. But, somewhere in the mix, a deeply-seated apathy began to emerge in my psyche and my sensitivity toward racism and inequality waned. In my late 30s, a personal event took place that changed not only my feelings about race, but my entire life: my wife Charlotte and I adopted our baby boy from Ethiopia. We immediately became, quite literally, an African-American family.

Having a black son has reinvigorated my sensitivities around race issues, as have our various brushes with racism since bringing him home. There was the way people would look judgingly at my wife and son when just the two of them were out together. There was the boy at Carson Park who told my 4 year old Joshua he wouldn’t play with him because he’s brown. There are the multiple times my boy has told me someone doesn’t like him because of his skin. So, racism is not just something to which I am opposed; it has become intensely personal for my family and me.

This is why my heart is broken in light of recent events. When Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, I grieved. But when I saw the video of his 15 year old son breaking down uncontrollably at a news conference the following day, I broke with him. That boy’s daddy is gone forever. His life has been altered forever. Alton Sterling’s son put a face to this tragedy, a real, human, brokenhearted face.

The video of Philando Castile’s girlfriend trying to talk to the police with Castile slumped over and bleeding out beside her in the car, and a four-year old child witnessing it all from the backseat… this tragedy had faces as well. That woman and her young child are forever scarred by what happened right before their eyes. I will not forget their pain. It has marked me.

But, my goal here is not to create some kind of emotional plea. No, there’s been plenty of that, and it hasn’t always been helpful. The events of the past few days, the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers, have left many of us angry, grieved, and/or bewildered. It is understandable there would be emotional responses to these events. It is only right. After all, anger is an appropriate response to injustice.

However, emotional responses alone will not generate any meaningful change. I certainly want to keep in the forefront of our minds the real human beings involved in these unjust tragedies. However, my desire is not to focus on what some may see as “isolated incidents,” sensationalized by the “liberal media”. No, my heart is to try, as best as I can, to show the broader context of these events.

Before I go any further, I need to get something out of the way. I stand with those who have declared you can be both pro-black and pro-police. I hate that anyone would feel like they have to choose a side. That dichotomy is false. I am passionately for equal rights, equal pay, equal treatment, and seeing black folks (and every other kind of folks) live out their God-given potentials. At the same time, I am deeply appreciative of the public servants who do their best, with integrity, to uphold the law on a daily basis, risking their own well-being to do so. So, let’s not think lazily about these issues. We don’t have to choose between black people and the police. In fact, such a choice is contrived and ultimately illogical.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s move on. In light of the killings of Sterling and Castile, I want to start with a look at police shootings resulting in deaths. In April 2015, the Washington Times published an article about this subject, specifically about the racial statistics around police killings. The title was misleading: “Police kill more whites than blacks, but minority deaths generate more outrage.” I’ve heard that idea from more than one source in the recent past, and it is a statement in desperate need of some context.

On the surface, that headline is true. It is a fact that police kill more whites than blacks, but that’s not the whole story. Within that article, the author, Valerie Richardson, offers some much needed clarification. Quoting Peter Moskos of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, she writes, “The odds that a black man will be shot and killed by a police officer is about 1 in 60,000. For a white man those odds are 1 in 200,000.” Why is that the case? Because the raw totals of people killed by police does not take into consideration the racial make-up of our country.

In 2015, whites made up about 62% of our population, whereas blacks comprised about 13%, according to the US Census Bureau. In the same year, according to The Guardian (as cited by The Society Pages), the police killed 578 whites and 301 blacks. Proportionally speaking, the data shows that black people are about two and a half times as likely to be killed by police officers as white people. According to the Washington Post, “Although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police (in 2015). In the majority of cases in which police shot and killed a person who had attacked someone with a weapon or brandished a gun, the person who was shot was white. But a hugely disproportionate number — 3 in 5 — of those killed after exhibiting less threatening behavior were black or Hispanic.” We cannot ignore the clear message this data is painting. If you are black in America, you are over twice as likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than are you white fellow Americans.

You are also significantly more likely to be imprisoned. In March 2016, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, about 60% of the prison population was white. About 38% were black. Once again, when the population breakdown is taken into consideration, blacks are three times as likely to go to prison as whites. The data seems to clearly show that blacks are incarcerated at a significantly higher rate than whites.

While it seems clear that blacks are much more likely to be killed by police or sent to prison, these are not the only signs of racial inequality. The U.S. Census reports that white peoples’ (not including Hispanics) median income for 2014 was $60,256, while blacks’ median income was $35,396. In other words, whites, on average, earned 60% more than blacks. That is a significant difference. Some of this, presumably, is due to blacks not being afforded the opportunities whites have for higher end jobs. However, even when black and whites have the same jobs, there is still inequality. In October 2014, USA Today reported, “In the same high-skilled positions such as computer programmers and software developers… blacks (earn) $3,656 less than whites…” That same article also discusses the regularity with which minorities in high tech jobs are passed over for promotions more often than whites.

When I consider these three inequality dynamics, my heart sinks. First of all, I find myself needing to repent for my own apathy in these matters. I have willingly worn my racist blinders for too long, and have been okay as my black brothers and sisters have suffered. That’s not okay. Lord, forgive me…

My natural inclination when thinking about problems or challenges is to ask “Why?” Why does something need to be done? Why are we facing this problem? To a great extent, the “why” doesn’t even matter. The simple, painful truth seems to be evident: in America, black lives do not matter as much as white lives. Certainly, we can discuss the history of blacks in America. I could talk about the enslavement and subjugation of Africans in American slavery. I could mention Jim Crow, the KKK, and the “40 acres and a mule” lie. For many of us, that would be rehashing what we already know. No, I won’t spend an abundance of time discussing history.

I’d rather talk about the more central “why”:  the heart issue. One of the great lessons I’ve learned personally over the last couple of years is how intense pressure can reveal one’s true colors. We are a lot like fruit. When a piece of fruit gets squeezed, juice comes out. The taste of that juice shows the quality of the fruit. We Americans are being squeezed in the vice of obvious racial problems and inequities. What kind of juice is coming out of us right now. Is it the sweet juice of peacemaking, justice, and reconciliation? Or, is it the rancid ooze of deeply-seated racism and/or willful apathy?

The continued oppression of black people in American certainly doesn’t look the same as it did in 1950 or 1850. But it is oppression nonetheless. It is injustice. We must respond. But, acts of violence and vengeance are not the best course of action. The fruit they bear is of the rancid variety mentioned above. No, the best initial response is for each of us to look deep inside ourselves to see what is living in us.

Honestly, I have heard, from a variety of people, the same ugly racism that justified slavery for hundreds of years here. We’re simply more polite about it now. Let’s be real about these things. And let’s repent. For me, my only hope is to invite God to come in and show me where my racist tendencies are and repent when I see them. I am doing that.

And then we need to get together. We must find ways to connect across racial lines and learn how to love each other. We’re not all the same, and we shouldn’t act like we are. I love the contrast of my son’s beautiful mocha skin on my fair white skin when he puts his hand on my arm. The differences are a gift, but we will never experience that gift fully unless we choose to do life together. Fear and racism get diffused when confronted by real relationship.

The truth is this: blacks lives matter. It is equally true that all lives matter. However, as I have read from other folks of late, until black lives actually matter, it is disingenuous for us to say “all lives matter.” Because black lives do, in fact, matter and in light of the terrible inequalities which still persist in America between black and white, action is required. And I propose a two step strategy: let’s be real about what lives in each of us and let’s have real relationship and dialogue, especially between black and white. I suggest this is the most logical path to racial reconciliation, equality, and justice.

 

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Music and Healing, Poignant Songs, Uncategorized

Walking the Post-Evangelical Path with Andrew Howie

Andrew Howie (from his Facebook page)

Andrew Howie (from his Facebook page)

Apparently, asking questions was not okay. That’s what was confirmed for me recently in an online conversation with some of my Christian brothers and sisters as we discussed some weighty doctrinal/theological issues. In one of my posts, I began asking questions about the nature of the Bible. These were questions, mind you, not statements. They focused on the limitations and brokenness central to being a human and how this affects our ability to comprehend and/or apply what we read as well as how it may have affected those who helped shape the biblical canon. I asked how we can be certain that our English translations of ancient writings rendered in old languages for which we have no original manuscripts are accurate representations of God’s Word. Such questions struck a nerve.

This was especially the case with one participant. His response was, I’m sure in his opinion, “loving.” He was concerned about the condition of my soul. He was worried my salvation was at risk. To him, even asking these questions represented a crisis of faith. But I didn’t see it that way. In fact, I felt (and feel) secure in my relationship with God and in my posture as a follower of Jesus. I was just asking questions… logical, important questions. But such questions, for this gentleman (and others), meant I may not be matching up with evangelical orthodoxy.

Last week’s TS10 playlist is likely one of my favorites thus far. Can’t explain it… but it touches me deeply. And one of the songs that particularly impacts me is Andrew Howie‘s Post. According to Howie’s site, the song’s title was inspired by the title of Dave Tomlinson’s book The Post Evangelical. Post  is an autobiographical manifesto of Howie’s divorce from evangelicalism. Every time I listen to it, my heart is broken anew… for several reasons.

The very first line of the song is telling. And it resonates with me deeply in light of the question-asking situation mentioned above.

Goodbye evangelical certainty…

I’ve gone through most of my life highly regarding “certainty.” Much of that certainty revolved around statements like “the Bible clearly teaches that…” While I believe there is much in the Bible that’s as clear as a window, I also have come to see how I have been “certain” about other issues and “teachings” in the Bible that aren’t so clear. And I’ve found the only way I can maintain my certainty about the “clarity” of those muddier concepts is by ensuring I am surrounded by people who agree with that certainty. As I continue to follow Jesus, I am finding the weakness of such “safety in numbers.”

I’ve had more than my share of this safety in numbers

And strong certainties

I choose to live in a dangerous world

Where I know I am free

“I choose to live in a dangerous world…” Yes. Yes, please. For me, and my guess is for others as well, certainty brings a sense of safety and security. Certainty can be insulation from the dangerous and the unknown. But what if God, in his infinite wisdom, does not value certainty in the human experience as much as my evangelical family and I do? What if such certainty actually draws us away from mystery and from a need to pursue him, letting him be our safety and security amid uncertainty, danger, and the unknown? I am becoming more and more convinced a life following Jesus is a life lived on the “slippery slope.” It is a life of questions, risk, challenge, and “out on a limb.” It is a life in which certainties are few.

Even as I write these words, I can feel the inward tension of feeling the eyes of my evangelical brothers and sisters watching me, categorizing me, judging me. Asking questions and living in uncertainty are taboo for us evangelicals. They make us look, dare I say it, “liberal.”

So don’t tell me your stories

And don’t sing me your songs

And don’t presume that you know me

And that it’s me who’s in the wrong

And why would questioning things be problematic? Why would choosing to live with a measure of uncertainty rankle some of my church-going friends? I will not pretend to know what goes on in someone else’s heart and mind. But, based on what I have observed and experienced personally, I can take an educated stab at why these things are deemed dangerous or unsavory: fear. We are afraid that maybe we don’t have everything figured out just right. We are afraid to be wrong. Sometimes, I think, we are afraid to think. But even these statements reveal only symptoms and not a root cause. What is the root cause of such fear? Let me suggest this… the illusion of certainty and the aversion to critical thinking and questioning may be rooted in a lack of actual faith. What if God is not big enough to handle our questions? What if our intellectual meanderings reveal there is an element of our belief that is false or questionable? Again this is all rooted in fear.

Fear may well be the beginnings of wisdom and love

But I don’t want to be afraid anymore

The fear that leads to wisdom is not the same as the fear I’m talking about. Healthy fear involves a reverence for God, an acknowledgement of how awesome and great he is. Regardless, Howie’s expression of being done with fear resonates deeply with me. Like him, I don’t want to be afraid anymore. The kind of fear I’m talking about only leads to an illusory sense of safety.

And it leads to the creation of unnecessary rules and structures. Jesus consistently confronted the religious leaders for their habit of loading extra burdens on the backs of people who are seeking God. Unfortunately, I’ve seen time and again how, instead of following Jesus, us evangelicals have followed the ways of his religious opponents. Don’t dance. Don’t listen to rock music. Don’t wear jeans to church. Don’t play cards. Don’t drink alcohol. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. I’ve been hollered at for violating any number of rules, both explicit and implicit, that have nothing to do with what God wants and everything to do with bolstering an unauthentic security.

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Goodbye cookie-cutters and Sunday schools

How can I be part of this game if I don’t play by your rules

As I consider these words, my heart hurts. Cookie-cutter methodology, in terms of how to “do church” or what it means for an individual to follow Jesus, has nothing to do with authentic Christian spirituality. There’s nothing wrong with Sunday school, but like Howie, I know that Sunday school has been the arena for fear-reinforcing dynamics. And the question, “How can I be part of this game if I don’t play by your rules?” Wow… that question has swirled through my mind and heart in various forms since I was a kid.

Can’t you see that the gossip, the grudges, the violence

Have taken their toll

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Gossip. Grudges. Violence. Three dynamics which should be foreign to Jesus’ church… Three behaviors that are in fact diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus. And yet, they live in the church. Sometimes, they thrive more than faith, hope, and/or love. They are the fruit of fear.

I gossip because I want to feel better about myself and the choices I’ve made. I want to feel better about myself because I am afraid… afraid that I’m not good enough, that I won’t measure up, that I won’t be loved. I hold grudges for much the same reason. Grudges give me a sense of control, which once again makes me feel better and elevates me over the other person. Violence is about me forcing my will on the victim. Again, this makes me feel bigger and better. Gossip, grudges, and violence are the fruit of fear and they are destructive. Unfortunately, it feels as though these dynamics are the rule for many of us evangelicals rather than the exception.

 I choose to escape from the clutches of your good intentions

And save my own soul

And this is where  my heart breaks the most. As I listen to Post, I find myself time and again walking the same path Andrew Howie describes so vividly and poignantly. I hate the fear. I hate the cookie cutters… the rules… the gossip… the grudges… the violence. It would seem a common response to want to walk away from these destructive dynamics. I certainly do, no matter how they may be rooted in someone’s “good intentions.” But where my path diverges from Howie’s is in that second line.

Simply put, I cannot save my own soul. I need Jesus. Yes, he is my crutch (as many critics of Christianity have suggested). I am not ashamed of that reality, because Jesus is actually more than that. He is my life. He is the breath in my lungs and the beat of my heart. Without him, I can do nothing, let alone save my own soul.

Does walking away from the “clutches of (the evangelical church’s) good intentions” mean walking away from Jesus? I don’t think so. And I think that’s a worthy discussion point. Even though, quite literally, my greatest pain has come from within the “walls” of the church, that pain has not alienated me from Jesus. In fact, what I’m finding is it only compels me to connect with him more deeply. That pain reveals how deeply I need him.

Church wounds cut deeply because in the context of a church community we would (and should) expect to experience the love and grace of God. The community of people which make up “church” are to be an expression of these things here and now. We are to be God’s representatives to each other. So, when in our frailties and fear, someone within the church hurts me, it can feel as though God himself is wounding me.

But Jesus is greater than the church. And he is bigger than my wounds. He stands above my fear and grasps for control. In fact, I am naive enough to believe his love is so transformative  that all of these ugly church dynamics can be addressed. The church can be transformed. I believe there is hope for the church (even us evangelicals).

Who is that walking towards me as I

Leave these sinking ships

Beckoning me ever forward

With a whisper on her lips

There is more than this

As I listened to these words the first few times, I wasn’t sure what Howie was describing here. And while I still cannot state for certain that I “get it,” I can say the “her” mentioned feels a lot like the “sister wisdom” of the Proverbs.  If that’s the identity of this mysterious woman, then I find myself, once again, on the path with Howie. I cannot turn off my brain (or my heart) when it comes to the ills within American evangelicalism. I cannot ignore how easily we set aside the call to love because of our insecurities and need to be right. And these things lead me to that slippery slope I mentioned above. The only way I can stand with any sense of sure-footing in that place is if God grants me wisdom. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that wisdom is calling out to us and whispering in our ears, “There’s more than this.” And as Howie and I (and others) branch out from the seemingly but illusory “safe and secure,” we need the companionship of Lady Wisdom.

So, as I take my own post-evangelical journey, I ask God humbly to provide that companion. I, like Howie, am ready to stand on the slippery slope of “I don’t know.” I am ready to admit my limitations as a human being and confess the mystery of God is greater than my little brain can handle. I am thankful that Jesus not only provides security while standing in uncertainty, but that he is beckoning me to follow him as he guides me on this path.

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Dismantle the Oligarchy: Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President

I have never been very involved in politics. When I was an idealistic kid with a few liberal tendencies, my parents told me I would grow out of that idealism (and eventually agree with their conservative convictions). As a grew a little older and I began to take on a more conservative viewpoint in some ways, my in-laws told me I would, again, grow out of those conservative ideals. What I’m trying to say is that my political and social ideas were poo-poo’d from both the left and the right, literally and virtually. These events coupled with the incredible problems I’ve observed with our political processes… cronyism, flip-flopping, wasteful spending, and unnecessary military conflicts, led me into a deep, jaded apathy in which I had no interest whatsoever in being involved in politics, especially when it comes to presidential elections.

Over the last few elections, I’ve wanted to get involved, but the options always seemed uninspiring. There is the constant parade of rich, white career politicians. There are the masters of politico-speak who say much and do little. There is the rancor between two groups who say they love our country but whose ability to actually love is in question (in my opinion). There is constant fear-mongering from one side and consistent blind, and unfounded “hope” on the other side (as opposed to the real hope found in Jesus). All of these dynamics simply led me to shaking my head and avoiding the debates and the ballots.

And there’s one significant issue I cannot shake. It’s something I’ve thought about superficially from time to time, but because of the stuff mentioned above, I dismissed it. After all, what can be done about it anyway? This issue of which I am referring is the oligarchial rule into which our government has regressed. If you’re not familiar with that term, here is how Dictionary.com defines it: “a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.” Certainly, from a superficial viewpoint, this is not the form of government we employ here i the States, right? In reality, it certainly feels as though this where we are heading if we are not already there. Let me explain…

Joseph Keppler’s “Bosses of the Senate” (1889)

When I say we have devolved into an oligarchy, I am not referring to the elected officials in Washington as the ruling class. No, I am referring to the groups who deeply influence, if not effectively control, them. I am referring to lobby groups and business interests. I am referring to Super PACs and the like. I am referring to the negative dynamics of cronyism and “tit for tat” government. I’m speaking of billionaires spending millions, if not billions, to ensure their own futures and securities. I am talking about the wealthiest of the wealthy not being taxed appropriately and housing their fortunes in the Cayman Islands where they cannot be taxed. All of these ugly dynamics are being facilitated by politicians who will cut corners and allow themselves to be influenced in order to gain office or reelection.

The pragmatist might say this is simply the way of the world and we must adapt. The follower of Jesus in me says it may be the way of the world, but I don’t have to be okay with it, especially as the disparity of wealth between the ruling class and the rest of us continues to quickly grow. I don’t have to accept that government “of the people, by the people, for the people” (in Abraham Lincoln’s words) is dead (or on life support). I shouldn’t adapt to our developing oligarchy’s rule. I can resist. I can fight. In fact, I feel it is obedience to my Lord to do so. But, who will stand with me? Certainly, among recent candidates for President (and governor, representative, senator, etc…), I’m not sure any of those folks have the moral aptitude and spinal stiffness to do it. And then along comes Bernie Sanders…

Before I go on any further about Senator Sanders, let me say this: he and I disagree about a great number of things. We could not be much more opposed in regard to some specific social issues. I am not nearly as pro-union as he is. We see things differently when it comes to Planned Parenthood. I don’t agree with his take on the $15 minimum wage. So, why would I even consider supporting Bernie Sanders, you ask? Even if you didn’t, I’m going to tell you.

While Sanders and I differ about these important issues, there is still that darned oligarchy issue and there is no single issue as important as this one, in my opinion. And that’s where Sanders and I come together. He is literally the only candidate for President (or any other federal office, honestly) I have ever heard/seen who actually seems to see this for what it is and is willing to stand against it. He is not afraid of the billionaire bullies. He will fight for the poor (which is not an original Sanders idea, by the way… the Bible has a few things to say about this) by confronting this institutional inequity. I believe that. And it’s saying something for me to state that I actually believe what a politician is saying. Sanders seems to stick by his principles. I feel like I can know what I’m going to get from him. Again, that’s saying a lot these days.

Recently, I was involved in a social media discussion about Sanders’ idealism and confronting the oligarchy. One of my friends posted something about how the system is just broken (i.e. there is no easy fix). I completely agree. And yet I know the only way anything changes in the case of institutional injustice is to start chipping away at the power structures in place, confronting the powers that be, and having the courage to stand up to the bullies (i.e. Donald Trump, the Koch brothers, certain union entities, etc.). I believe Sanders has the backbone and will to do just these things.

But isn’t he a socialist, you might ask? Yep. Does that scare me? Not really, and the reason is because, now stay with me here, the United States is already socialistic. GASP! It’s true, though. Functionally speaking, all socialism means is the government intervenes in private entities. Every time the government gives a big company a tax break, that’s socialism. Every welfare check and food stamp represents socialism. The American brand of socialism goes all the way back to the first governmental provision for the poor and disadvantaged. It dates back to the first time government passed pro-business laws.

No, we are not Norway, and we are certainly not Nazi Germany, but we are still socialistic. So, friends, socialism is nothing to be afraid of, especially “democratic socialism” which is greatly distinctive from the “national socialism” Hitler led Germany into in the early 20th century. National socialism is xenophobic, usually racist, and destructive, elevating the state and/or an ethnicity above all others. Democratic socialism still supports and advances government by the people (not just the elite few) and for the people. That’s the brand of socialism Sanders endorses. Socialism and democracy are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they work together pretty well in various countries in western and northern Europe and they can come together in great synergy here in the States.

In the past, I have had some conservative leanings when it comes to economics. As in, “Government, get your hands off of businesses (and my money).” I was a subtle, subconscious subscriber to the “trickle down” idea that the growth of businesses will end up empowering working people. But, with the development of this oligarchy and the growing economic gap in the U.S., it has become apparent to me that such philosophies don’t work. Why? I think it comes down to one word: sin. The apostle Paul wrote these wise words 2000 years ago: “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.” That’s just the truth. And that “all” includes business owners and lobby leaders, as well as you and me. The sinful inclination that lives in all of us calls us to invest ourselves in ourselves only. It beckons us toward selfishness, which stands in direct opposition to love. It leads our governmental leaders and the oligarchy that influences them to do things from improper/self-serving motives. Therefore, “trickle down” economics doesn’t work. It doesn’t empower workers. It doesn’t elevate the working poor. This selfishness creates a dam and a reservoir, so that the stuff that was supposed to trickle down only stockpiles in the oligarchy’s back accounts. Recently, Bernie Sanders quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” I would modify this statement: “This country has empowering socialism for the rich and “barely surviving” socialism for the poor.” This is a problem that must be confronted.

But if the oligarchy are infested with sin and selfishness and can’t be trusted, how can we trust elected officials to do any better? After all, oligarchy has emerged because of the same sin and selfishness in politicians. This is an important point. However, one of the benefits we have on a federal governmentt level is the system of checks and balances instituted by our founding fathers. This system can (and should) lend at least some security to ensure limits to the reign of sin and selfishness in our politicians. Private businesses and lobbyists don’t necessary have the same limitations.

When it comes to Sanders, I just happen to believe he’s not in this for his own gain. He’s got his own sin just like everyone else. But I think he actually wants to serve the country as President… like actually serve rather than be served. That again, is a pretty big thing for me to say in light of my former jadedness.

I believe Bernie Sanders represents the best chance we have in this current election cycle to bring light to these deep-seated problems and begin to address them. This is why I endorse Senator Sanders for President (not that my or Tomme Suab’s endorsement means anything…). I believe his candor and commitment to doing what he sees is right will eat away at the foundations of this oligarchy. Am I concerned about the areas in which I disagree with him? Of course.

But here’s the thing… right now, my voice doesn’t really mean much in light of the dominance of the oligarchy. Our government is now “by the oligarchy and for the oligarchy.” For my voice (and yours) to be heard, for the wishes and needs of most people, not just the elite in our society, to be addressed, we must dismantle the power of the oligarchy. Once we’ve made headway on that, then we can have more meaningful dialogue about other issues. Until then, in my opinion, we the voters need to rally behind leaders who will challenge the oligarchy. Hence, my support for Senator Sanders.

Government by the people and for the people. We can get there again, but it will take courage, resolve, and leaders who will demonstrate those same characteristics.

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