Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Language and Privilege

I'm sure this happens more than I realize (I'm a well-educated, American, straight, white male after all), but two instances of racially charged language have cropped up in recent months that's gotten me thinking about how privilege applies to language.

The first was the leaked quote from Houston Texans owner, Bob McNair, during the NFL protest conversations. McNair said he didn't want "the inmates running the prison." Now, he says he was referring to the NFL office employees dictating policy and procedure to the owners - and, in light of all the detailed reporting by ESPN and others on those meetings, this was a huge bone of contention for the owners and I rightly believe him - however, in a room full of concerned black men, specifically protesting unfair treatment of the black community by police, the phrase itself carried incredible consequence.

The reality of the situation is that African-Americans, and black males in particular, are more likely to get arrested and convicted for actions than white people who do the same things. The sentences are longer and they're less likely to get parole. Skewed numbers exist for interactions with police as well. We've seen scientific proof that there's a cultural and societal bias against dark skin - even by those with dark skin. It's a race problem, but it's beyond even the differences between different groups of people. It's an all of us issue (and one that I've written about here as best I can).

For today, though, the point is that words matter. I can understand what McNair is trying to communicate. I've used that phrase a time or two as a synonym for getting the cart before the horse - to indicate that motivation and control are coming from the wrong places. I tend to say inmates running the asylum, but, honestly, that's just as insensitive. The reason, though, why I or Bob McNair or any other privileged white guy can see that phrase as innocuous is because it's not real for us. I know very few people who've been to prison and the possibility that I, myself, might end up on the wrong side of the law is just so incredibly improbable that it doesn't feel real.

That's just not true, for even the most well-bahved, law abiding man of color in the US. The numbers vary from 1 in 3 to 1 in 5, for the most part, but the odds of a black man in the US spending time in jail is astronomically high - and the stories of unfair or incorrect imprisonment are too common to be taken lightly.

My privilege allows me to use words as analogy that have real meaning to others who don't enjoy my privilege.

I was hoping McNair would use his incident to make a similar statement. Privilege is one of the most difficult concepts to talk about for those of us who have it. It's the most difficult thing to get across to people; it's at the root of the argument around the notion of "all lives matter." Honestly, the conversation around privilege is probably the one our nation needs before we can ever get to a place where real discussion of race can happen.

It bleeds over into the words we use. For people at the top of the social heap, words are just words. They have meaning, but usually just in a representative way. I can say inmates and prison without ever really putting a face, experience, or reality to those ideas. That's just not true for everyone and we've got an obligation to be aware and sensitive to those realities.

Bob McNair probably got a little bit too raked over the coals in learning this lesson, but I do hope he's genuinely learned one and understands his players better than he did before.

The other incident, though, is one that didn't get the same kind of press. A few weeks ago, the University of Tennessee was looking to hire a football coach - Greg Schiano was floated as a possibility (in fact, basically as the choice) - he ended up not getting the job because a lot of alums and fans protested his involvement with Penn State and the terrible child abuse and inaction (if not coverup) that happened there over a period of years.

We can argue about Schiano's real involvement in the process, but it came up in a deposition that a coach had heard from another coach that Schiano had reported child rape during his tenure on the football coaching staff at Penn State and did nothing when nothing was done. He's denied those allegations and there's an argument to be made about the real power a person in his position would've had to change anything - and also an argument to be made about whether that should matter in an instance where a child was being abused.

That's a conversation for another day. My concern was the repeated use of a phrase, "lynch mob," to describe the Tennessee fans who most vociferously opposed Schiano's hire. There were some words of caution, but largely those words went unnoticed.

I get it, from one perspective, if the testimony is true, the guy did barely anything when he knew a child was being harmed, but there's a long way from third-hand allegations to proof or even criminal action. People have the right to make whatever judgments they want, but this one was quick and without a lot of support. That's where the lynch mob analogy makes historical sense - lynch mobs killed black people, without trial, often for very petty reasons or none at all.

Again, though, only white people can use a phrase like that without context. Privilege allows us to say criticism of Schiano looks like the lawless murder of black men. Of course it's not meant literally, but aren't the differences between the two enough to avoid that phrase? For most of my life, I probably would've said (as many have), "Get over it, you're being too sensitive." It's a position privilege allows us to take.

When language is disconnected from our real experience, we fail to recognize it's power. It's not just a racial thing - how often does the word "rape" get used to describe destruction? We might save the word "holocaust" for something truly awful, but is it really as awful, appropriately awful for what we're describing?

I was substitute teaching in an 8th grade class the other day. In an overheard conversation where one African-American kid was talking to the student sitting next to him. He said, "Sometimes, when I get angry, I feel it deep down, like I'm all white inside." Maybe I'm giving him too much credit, but if it bothers you that white is associated with hatred or darkness, perhaps ask yourself why you're only thinking about it now.

(The answer is privilege.)

Words matter - and some words matter more to some people. It might not seem fair, but it's real. It's the price of privilege and it's not much of a price to pay.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Lover or Maniac

Here's a story for you:

A woman meets a man (think your typical RomCom meet cute) - he loves her from the first moment. Nothing obsessive, just perfect - the way anyone would want to be loved (again, think RomCom). He cares for her needs and puts her above himself and works hard to make sure she's fulfilled in every possible way. He loves her so much the story becomes literally unbelievable, because the guy just seems too perfect.

Eventually, she wakes up one morning in a state of dread and knows precisely what to do. After dinner that evening, she breaks up with him. "It's not you, it's me," she says, "I literally can't wrap my head around why you love me. I'm just not capable of believing I deserve it. I need time to work on myself and reach a point when I feel worthy of this love."

He responds in the best possible way - not pushy or getting upset, but understanding - he says he'll move away and not contact her, but always be waiting for whenever she's ready. "That's not good enough," she says, "I couldn't live with myself if I knew you were not living your life. Please, move on; find someone new."

For fifty years they don't see or hear from each other. Neither one ever finds anyone else, but she's so fulfilled with the healthy life she builds, she never thinks of him again. He doesn't intend to wait for her - he tries to pursue his life and has other relationships - but he never stops loving her.

One day, decades later, both are going into the same cafe in Budapest. He holds the door for her and their eyes meet. They instantly remember each other and sit down together to catch up. He doesn't tell her all the time he spent loving her from afar, knowing it will only make things difficult. He does suggest they continue to see each other and make the most of their remaining years. She declines again - their life would undoubtedly be great together, but she's had such a wonderful life without his love and she doesn't want to change.

As they get up to leave, he leads her to a back door, with a staircase, where he's prepared a torture chamber for just this moment. Using the best advancements in medical science, he keeps her alive for years and years, indefinitely, really, and all the while he tortures her - painful, brutal torture as repayment for rejecting his love. She pleads for him to stop, agreeing to spend eternity with him if he will, but it's too late - and the torture continues to this day and probably will go on forever.

I know it takes a bit of a gruesome turn there at the end, but it's supposed to catch you off guard. I thought about writing the whole thing up like a movie script, but I think there's enough here to get the idea. I came up with story while I was pondering heaven and hell. This feels like the traditional evangelical conception of God - at least in the way it was colloquially communicated to me growing up.

I know that the woman in the story is perhaps a little to good to be true. There's no way she could really have a happy life without God and all that, but she's not really the point. In fact, she's not the point at all. I'm more concerned with how we talk about God. Is God really someone who would bend over backward for a period of time to express selfless, perfect love only to entirely change personalities at an arbitrary hinge point? It just doesn't make sense - on any number of levels.

It's a bit sacrilegious (in some directly literally sense, in that it's only really offensive to a particular kind of religion) to ask questions about judgement, eternity, and the end of the world as we know it. At the same time, those questions have always been asked and debated, if also suppressed. Things are just not ever as neat and tidy as we'd like them to be.

One thing I don't think, though, is that God would change who God is simply because some new era has begun. I know dispensationalism is pretty popular (even if people don't know they've embraced it), but I don't think it holds mustard scripturally or logically. I hope this story illustrates that in some way. Perhaps it makes more sense (and a better Lifetime movie*) if it ends this way.

As they get up to leave, the man vows to himself to change the very fabric of time, to seek out ways to both keep his beloved alive, well, and healthy, but also to stay out of her life, as she requested. He succeeds in his endeavors, spending his life, and eternity thereafter, simply keeping her happy and alive from afar, all the while hoping one day she'll come around.

*Let's be honest, Lifetime would make it with either ending - or maybe with both. They're pretty shameless.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Mercy Never Sleeps by Jamie Blaine

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I picked up this book to read because I like Blaine's first book so much. I don't like Mercy Never Sleeps any less, but it does feel very much the same. Blaine is a textbook misfit - an oddball kid who turned into an oddball adult -
he's worked as a DJ, both for events and on the radio, came from a less than ideal childhood situation, and currently (at least as far as the book is concerned) works as the overnight crisis hotline guy in his small southern hometown.

The book is a bit rambly, but in a good way - switching back and forth between trauma hotline stories and childhood memories, with a bit of existential self-reflection mixed in. Blaine is honest and real in ways you rarely see in Christian publishing. He's enamored with the miraculous, but very much steeped in realism, walking the tightrope between faith and reason profoundly and with authenticity. He's not an intellectual, but he's also not blind to complexity.

The stories are great and the writing style makes them more mysterious. You continually wonder if he's going to get life right or fall off the cliff so many of his clients seem poised atop. There's no resolution. That's the takeaway from Mercy Never Sleeps - some people may find peace,
stability, and purpose through Christianity, but perhaps its ok if the rest of us just make it through another day intact. There's a sense in which Blaine captures the context of the gospel in ways that most of us never consider. Jesus was hope for the hopeless, not a get your life together plan.

At the same time, with a second edition of the same kind of material, there's more pause to ask what the point of it all is. According to the bio, Blaine lives in Nashville now, presumably to write for a living. I imagine he'd be a great speak for any number of events. The acknowledgments mention a wife, who's supportive so long as she doesn't appear in the writing. That's both refreshing, but also puzzling.

It leads one to wonder how truly confessional Blaine's stories are and to what level they're crafted to make a point. I'm not sure either reality is wrong or bad, but it's tough to reconcile apparent authenticity with an author who's not as open as he appears. Perhaps this just adds to the takeaway for Mercy Never Sleeps, that we don't get life wrapped up in a nice little package, we just get life, with questions and reflections and lenses that keep us from seeing clearly.

Mercy Never Sleeps feels true, even if it doesn't depict events in a purely historical fashion. It's a modern gospel in the purest sense of the word: one man's reflections on how his life intersected with Jesus. It might not be all we want it to be, but it's a compassionate, genuine,
and sincere portrayal of what it means to face the world unselfconsciously and with open arms.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Are We Just Actions?

I did a bit of driving this week. One of the conversations that stuck out to me was people starting to analyze this spate of harassment news that's come out, especially surrounding entertainment. People were asking how to respond to Kevin Spacey's work now that he's been exposed as the nasty, brutish dude he's always been rumored to be. You can sort of excuse things as "genius at work," until it proves to be at least borderline criminal. This is the same conversation people have been having for several years about watching The Cosby Show.

Time and again people brought up Alfred Hitchcock - a guy who abused many of the actors (and especially actresses) who worked for him, perhaps partly to evoke a specific performance, but also, likely, because he enjoyed the benefits that come with power and privilege.

I want to posit an idea. I'm not sure it entirely holds up, but it seems to be true from a certain vantage point. That idea is simply that when people are with us, they are more than just the sum of their actions. People are relational; they're good and bad and something more, something intangibly human that makes judgement calls difficult. When they're gone, all we have are our memories, our interactions with them - essentially, we have just the things they've done.

One of the things I repeatedly explain to my daughter - something she probably does not understand at her age and level of development - is that there are no bad people (there's no good people, either, but she rarely ever uses that kind of language), just bad actions. People are people;
they are beloved because they exist, but they do not exist as good or bad, just as people, human.

Our society doesn't like that. I wonder if it's because we're collectively (if not individually) stuck in an earlier stage of development. I've been substitute teaching a lot this year, usually in 7th and 8th grade. I've had a lot of conversations about big issues and current events -
which is cool, because 7th and 8th grade are the years when human beings begin to experiment with the notion that not everything is black and white, true and false. I'm not sure we collectively understand how to express that.

We can say Ty Cobb was a racist jerk and also one of the best human baseball players of all time, precisely because he died in 1961. He is literally just words on a page (and a great Tommy Lee Jones movie sadly almost no one saw). We can say "racist bad; baseball good," and not lose too much sleep.

Harvey Weinstein isn't tough for us because he's only famous for being an ass. The guy browbeat people into giving his movies Oscars, so it's not hard to imagine him being a perverted, bully jerk. It's not as easy when Kevin Spacey is smiling back at us from Baby Driver on demand or we think about Dr. Cliff Huxtable waltzing off the set in his snazzy sweaters only to celebrate by raping a drugged starlet.

I think, in the end, we're all going to make up our own minds. And just because there aren't bad people doesn't mean our views of people are entirely shaped by their actions. I'm not trying to defend anyone or anything, just simply pointing out that nothing makes a person entirely worthless. I think we know that deep down, because we're all a little self-conscious about our own flaws, but we also want to be outraged at things which rightfully provoke outrage.

In the end, we are more than the sum of our parts. However, once we're gone, there are nothing left but parts. Those realities should provide some balance for us as we think about our own worth and try to determine how to judge and characterize others. What we do matters, but it's just not everything, as much as we'd like it to be that way.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Real Life and Real Life

So, last week was a crazy busy one. Not only that, but the business required a level of creativity that's difficult to sustain. I feel pretty taxed. So, because I missed last Thursday's post and I've got no time or energy to write one for today, you get my sermon from Sunday.

It was partially inspired by chapter eight of Empathy for the Devil by JR Forasteros, which came out last week (and which I reviewed in my last post). I struggled mightily with how to make sense of the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, but the idea of psyche and zoe that he elucidated so well in the book framed what I was trying to say quite nicely.

Anyway, here's my take on Matthew 25:1-13:

There was a guy, we’ll call him Fred – an ambitious young man with lots of potential. He joined the military out of high school and stayed in long enough to pay for college and an MBA. He got the education he wanted, but when he hit the work force, he was already years behind his peers. So he worked extra hard, burning the candle at both ends – and within five years he was the youngest executive in the history of his company. A great success story.

He got there the right way, too. People genuinely liked him. He was tough, but fair. Fred was everybody’s image of a go-getter. Along the way he’d even managed to marry a wonderful woman, and after five years, they were starting a family – with his new position, they thought it best for her to take time from work and stay at home with the kids.

So Fred just kept going. He continued to work harder than everyone else and now he coached his daughter’s soccer team and made it home for family dinner at least once a week. They took the right vacations to the right places and his wife never felt like an outsider when she got away with her friends. They had anything and everything they wanted.

Fred and his family went to church, too – religiously, even – spent every Thanksgiving at the soup kitchen, serving turkey and eating with folks who just weren’t as fortunate. Will was one of the other volunteers – he and Fred knew each other from church and their families ended up sitting together one Thanksgiving. Will invited Fred to his pick-up basketball game.

“Oh man, I haven’t really played basketball since high school,” said Fred, “It was absolutely my favorite thing in the world; I’d love to come. You said 5:30 on Thursdays? I’ll be there.”

So Fred got up a little earlier, sent his secretary an email that he’d be in late and entered the middle school gym. The guys were going back and forth, maybe a dozen – running up and down the court in a way that was simply nostalgic. The smells, the echoes, the squeaks on the floor.

Fred jumped into the next game and started running. Most of it came back – his shot was a little off, but he hit one or two and no one was really young enough to play defense anyway. By the end, though, his lungs were burning and the lack of sleep couldn’t just be covered up.

As Fred heaved on the sidelines, Will came over. “We won, Fred, we have to play again.” Fred responded, “Sure thing, can I buy some of your stamina.” Will began laughing and started to play along, but then he saw something in Fred’s eyes, “You’re not serious, are you.” “Of course, I’m serious,” says Fred, “I need more stamina to play. I’ve got the money. What does it cost?”

Will’s a little taken aback, “Fred, you have to know it doesn’t work that way, right? We’ll just get somebody else.” He called to another waiting player and they started a new game. Fred was left, breathing heavy, voice sounding desperate, “C’mon guys, let me play. I just need a little energy, a little more oil for the fire. I’ll pay whatever it costs. Please, I need to play.”

I grew up going to church. I heard the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids any number of times. They’re all waiting for the groom. It’s getting late. Some run out of oil and ask those with oil to borrow some. I always wondered why they couldn’t just share the oil? If the groom is coming, that means they’re not going to need much more – surely there’s enough to give the foolish ones a little bit to tide them over, right?

The best answer I can come up with is that it’s a parable, an analogy for life and in real life, it doesn’t work that way. Like Fred, we discover there are some things we need we just can’t buy.
I can give you the best running shoes in the world, give you all the water and nutrition and maps you need – professional level marathon support – but if you didn’t train you won’t be able to run the race – it’s as simple as that. Some things in life require preparation.

You might say, like Fred in the story, I’m working so hard, doing all the right things, just trying to find happiness or fulfillment, or to appease my guilty conscience, and it just doesn’t seem like enough. We’ve all been there: desperate for just a little more oil. One more hour, one more dollar, one more prayer, one more date – just one more and I’ll have what I need to be happy.

Satisfaction is always just over the next horizon – and that’s what makes heaven such a hopeful proposition. We slog through life the best we can, then finally, someday, we have what we need.

If you come to adult studies you’ve heard this a whole bunch, but we get heaven wrong. The Kingdom of God is not about the fulfillment of all your desires; it’s about being content without them. The Kingdom of God is not some far off future event, it came with Jesus and while it’s not fully realized yet, we can begin to live into the Kingdom of God right now.

In the parable, the foolish bridesmaids didn’t have what they needed to enjoy the party, because they were waiting for the party, rather than preparing for it. They were looking for some far off heaven, rather than seeing the Kingdom of God all around them already.

It’s a confusing parable for us, because in our world things are reversed. The people we call prepared are the ones doing everything. Like Fred, they’re working hard, taking care of their families, and checking all the boxes of success. Jesus is saying, though, that these are the fools, the people who think they can work their way into the Kingdom by doing everything right.

In the end, though, they just end up desperately looking for more oil, because they never arrive. They never find what they’re looking for, just more pressure to do even more.

That sneaks into the Church as well. Too often we’ve made Christianity about checking off our own list of requirements. As much as we say we can’t earn our salvation, that’s what it sure looks like we’re trying to do. Church becomes a scary, unwelcome place precisely because we greet desperate, overworked, unhappy people at the door and hand them an additional list of things they need to do. Our solution to the problem is to do more of the same.

So it ends up that Christians look no different than the rest of the world. We might have a different checklist, but we’re still running ourselves ragged trying to get it done and desperate for just a little more oil to see us through the day. That’s not really a life any of us wants to live.

The good news of the gospel, however, is that the Kingdom of God is not some far off heaven. It’s not something we have to wait for or work for or discover the secret to get in. Jesus invites all people, the lost and the least along with the best and most prepared. He invites the wise and the foolish alike to enjoy the eternal benefits of true life in Christ. He even says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

However – and this is the hard part for us – the invitation is not for a destination. The Kingdom of God is not about arriving some place, or achieving some goal. The Kingdom of God is a journey. It’s a path we have to walk. You can join anywhere and at any time – and it doesn’t matter if some people are farther along than others; we’re all in. You can be prepared or you can be totally winging it, but you have to understand it’s not about where we’re going, it’s about how we get there.
You ever wonder about the Sermon of the Mount? We read those chapters from the beginning of Matthew where Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, to give to anyone who asks without expecting anything in return, to not worry about what we’ll eat or wear – we read those chapters and our first response is “wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world like that?” We think, “maybe someday our world can be like that,” and then we go right back to doing things the same way.

These “judgment” parables always scare people, as if Jesus were saying, “Do this, or else,” but really Jesus is saying, “Life is short, here’s how to live it well.”

The wise bridesmaids are the ones who do life differently. They’re the ones who live not for the destination, but the journey. They’re prepared for life if the goal we so desperately seek never comes to fruition. They’re happy in all circumstances and always ready to respond with love and grace. They look like Jesus and there’s no reason we can’t look like them.

Yes, the Kingdom of God requires us to give up our goals, to let go of this desire to feel safe or happy or secure. I think we know, in our heads, those pursuits won’t really bring us what we want, but our hearts still believe they will. Guess what? Jesus is in the business of changing hearts.

Living into the Kingdom of God does cost us something, because we won’t look like everyone around us. We won’t be seeking after the same things. There is tremendous peer pressure in our society to live by a certain set of ideals and values all of which are designed to bring fulfillment and yet never will. People who step out of that life or approach things differently get labeled – and those labels are never good. Why? Because we all want the same things, but most of us are too scared to try a different way.

Some of you here are old enough to remember the Apollo space missions. NASA made those first astronauts huge celebrities. Neil Armstrong and John Glenn and all the rest were all over TV, with their crew cuts and their perfect American families. They didn’t look like hulking superheroes; they looked like regular guys.

It’s easy for us to watch videos of them floating around in space and think, “that looks like fun; I’d love to do that,” and forget the years and years of intense training that went into those space visits and the real, constant, inherent danger involved in every one.

What’s more, we see space as this exotic, attractive destination, where people like us can have the time of their lives. But I’ll tell you what, those Apollo astronauts did not see space as a destination; for them it was just something they had to do in order to get back home.

There’s a blessing I love, although I’m rarely brave enough to say it people: “May all your dreams come true tomorrow, so you can discover they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and you can get on living.”

We’re constantly in search of more oil to keep the lamps burning, because we desperately want to find peace, solace, comfort, greatness. The message of the gospel, though, is that you’re already home – the Kingdom of heaven is here! The key is to learn to live in the moment, to love the people around you, to give up the search for something great – and surprisingly, unbelievably, impossibly, you find what you’re looking for in the most unexpected of places.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen!