Sometimes you hit a wall

beach tideWhen the ocean is warm, I like to wade toward the waves from the shallow edge of the beach, my feet scratching a hold into the sandy bottom, feeling the water slide around my ankles, then shins, then knees. About the point when it gets really sensitive, I have to decide whether to keep walking toward London, or jump in headfirst and get soaked all at once.

If I dive in, I come up sputtering and shaking the water from my eyes. If I decide to keep walking, I lift my shoulders as if I can tiptoe past the sensitive and somehow get soaked without getting wet.

When I’ve reached water about waist depth, I can pause and enjoy, feeling the ebb and flow of the ocean, rolling to the beach to fill the little sand castle moats built by kids with red plastic shovels, and then drag them flat. When I turn to do a little body surfing, or at least to challenge the waves a little further out, I fight the water’s resistance, plodding resolutely forward where the surf breaks.

That is where the short walls of water curl up, spitting little white caps, and burst over me, whacking me backward and I have to retrace a couple steps just to get back to where I was.

In a windy spring season like this one, cycling sometimes feels like those days in the waves. Invisible walls of wind roll out from the horizon and buffet me. Side winds are most dangerous as they can make me wobble and lean the wrong direction at a most inopportune time.

Leaning over the handlebars, trying to carve a lane through the curtain of steady wind, a sudden burst hits me with every bit the force of a wave of water. It doesn’t knock me backward, but it feels like my wheels suddenly rolled into a vat of mush and I have to grind on the pedals to regain momentum.

Sometimes my daily news feed hits me like that.

Learning this week about the suicides of two young people who had survived the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in February 2018 hit me like that blast of wind. In the same day, I learned the father of a child who had been slaughtered at Newtown had taken his own life after six years of dealing with his awful pain. Combine that with news of a dear friend whose life is suddenly upside down and my typically stoic countenance flipped onto its back, as well.

How much can we feel? How wide an opening should we tear in our hearts to absorb the world’s pain, in the vain belief that by doing so, we can somehow soothe it?

Much, if not most, of the information that hurts, enrages, mystifies, baffles and saddens would have passed unknown to us a half generation ago. But now, we know. With how much of what we know, can we engage? I don’t have the capacity to empathize with all the sadness of which I’m aware.

Yet, I want to share the pain of those I love because sharing is a salve that hurries the healing of open wounds. I want my ears to absorb their sorrows and my shoulders to offer pillows of comfort.

But, a hurting world is too much. Its pain is a flood. If I allow each swell of sorrow to whack me like a wave of wind or water, I’ll never move forward.

Each of us has capacity to care. None of us can carry the burdens of the world. Nor should we feel we must.

Because social media and news outlets pour into our senses a steady stream of pain, theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, says too many pastors –those called to care –are “a quivering mass of availability.”

What to do? I’ll not cloak myself in a curtain of despair because I know that God loves His creation – so much so that He took on the form of man to help us understand the depth of that love.

Rather than be paralyzed by any tide of tears, I will try to let myself be moved only by those things about which I can do something.

And then, I will do something.

 

 

 

 

This IS America

If you like to play on the lake you probably keep your gear in a water tight container in case it falls into the drink. We like to protect our stuff.

In the dinosaur days of photography, I developed my own film in a dark room constructed to be light tight. We like to protect our images.

After more than six decades lived absorbing, assimilating, criticizing and ultimately acquiescing to the culture in which I swim, I’ve accumulated plenty of stuff and developed an image of America that is culture tight. We like to protect our own bubble.

Last night my gear fell into the water, my pictures were ruined and my cultural bubble burst and splattered all over me.

By accident of birth I’ve lived in the American experiment all my life. I am happy to live in this country, rather than in many others. If it’s a privilege, I freely admit I did nothing to earn it.

Raised in the north, I’ve lived my adult life in the south and have always felt like the irritating grain of sand in the oyster that eventually suffocates in the secretions emitted to coat the irritation. I’m still not southern and few would call me a pearl.

Regional, cultural differences blossom in this country, but that’s part of what makes it beautiful. It’s what gets us in the car to see things unfamiliar. We can eat ethnic food anywhere, drive through coal country, cattle country, mining country, prairies, mountains or deserts and say, “This is America.”

We can see the world’s largest twine ball, or Mount Rushmore, or Hoover Dam, or China Town or the Bronx and say, “This is America.”

We can rejoice in our differences, our diversity, in our inclusiveness, in our historic open arms, in our different houses of worship, accents, or food choices and say, “This is America.”

But now, after every horrific massacre, school shooting, hate crime, mass murder of gays and Jews, and shootings of unarmed black men, some microphone jockey will urge us to stay calm and not despair because “this isn’t America.”

How many times can you say “this isn’t cancer” before you admit that seeping, bleeding scab on your forehead really is cancer and its ugly and you need to do something about it?

I’ve come to the horrible realization that this IS America.

What was a silent, deadly undertow of distrust, prejudice, economic superiority, income polarization, selfish nationalistic identity and hate of “other” has become the tsunami that is washing our nation into the sea.

I’ve felt it for some time, but I was forced to admit it Monday night (Oct. 29) when I sat among many hundreds of Winston-Salem citizens gathered in vigil at Temple Emanuel in mutual support of our Jewish neighbors following another massacre by a middle aged white man. This one over hatred of Jews.

It’s always hatred of something “other” isn’t it, someone who is not like me, someone who threatens to come and get something I think is rightfully mine, and only mine.

The synagogue last night was filled with “other.” Other faiths, colors, genders, styles, languages. It’s a beautiful thing to participate in an atmosphere like that, bound tangentially to each other by common concern.

Thoughtful, sincere speakers who did not look like me opened my eyes to the level of discrimination prevalent in this country. I thought Jews were being hyper-sensitive to feel anti-Semitism everywhere; that we’d made big progress in black-white relations; that LGBTQ persons were finding it easier to live who they are.

Not.

This was not a political rally but neither speakers nor participants tried to gloss over their conviction that the tiny hand pulling back the curtain on America’s pervasive prejudice belongs to the president. Any reference to his divisive rhetoric that waves the permission stick over our innate hates and prejudices drew loud applause.

We were not alone. Per PRRI’s 2018 American Values Survey, 54 percent of Americans believe the president’s decisions and behavior encourage white supremacist groups.

Although those in the room were nearly universal in their perception, we still wonder, of course, “What can we do?” Resoundingly, we were encouraged to vote!

And be kind. Be wise. Don’t let those win who incite fear to keep us apart, to keep us leery of “the other.”

And don’t despair or this brief era actually will become the new definition of America.

God forbid.

 

 

Pressler-Patterson linked again as storm approaches

I don’t know if Paige Patterson is a fan of poet Dylan Thomas. But he seems to be taking to heart Thomas’ admonition not to “go gentle into that good night.”

Patterson, the “theo” half of the theo-political takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s, has been fired from the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, at one time the world’s largest preacher prep academy –now shrunken to one-third of its student full time equivalent of 1979, the year the Pressler-Patterson combine achieved its goal to elect a fundamentalist SBC president.

Pressler was the “political” half of the theo-political maneuvering. A Texas judge whose membership was nominally at Second Baptist Church of Houston for purposes of identity with the SBC, Pressler teamed with Patterson in symbiosis until their names were seldom spoken in isolation one from the other. Any reference to the leaders of the internecine war they incited was always “Pressler-Patterson” or “Patterson-Pressler,” as if one was the given name and the second was the family name.

And now their names are linked again in ignominy, to which the victims of their outrageous acts can only shake their heads. Victims’ intense emotions already are burned out, leaving the ash of acknowledgement that others finally see what they’ve seen for decades.

For most of those they despoiled by casting aspersions – killing careers, plummeting godly servants into poverty, denying them their calling because they refused to use certain words to describe the Bible or because they were denominational employees and therefore suspect or because their genitalia was innie instead of outie – I suspect the rage, anger, revenge, frustration, fear and disgust that once might have roiled their guts have simply, and thankfully, dissipated over time.

And now Pressler is fighting charges in court about his long rumored and finally charged predilection for the company of young men. And Patterson has been cut loose from the seminary position he coveted even while leading a different seminary. His cronies orchestrated the departure of a fine man at Southwestern just to make a place for him. Ironically, that ousted president, Ken Hemphill, is one of two candidates being considered as the next SBC president.

Although both men are so ego centric it’s unlikely they’ll ever make this connection, dozens, if not hundreds, of people around the globe in the past few days have nodded, with maybe a hint of justifiable satisfaction, and thought, “Now they know how it feels.”

Patterson feels like he’s been done wrong, and his lawyer has issued statements that indicate Patterson is not going to go quietly into the good night of his good riddance. And he is still scheduled to bring the annual sermon at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at 9:55 a.m. June 13.

He’s not clueless. He knows that when he steps up behind the pulpit in the grand convention hall, messengers (delegates) will shift and squirm uncomfortably in their seats as they consider whether to applaud his audacity, or whether to walk out. (Update: Citing requests from SBC president Steve Gaines and other SBC leaders, Patterson has decided not to preach the convention sermon.)

The residue of the Pressler-Patterson “battle for the Bible” continues to coat the SBC like acid rain. As predicted by those outside the shrinking circle drawn by the Pressler-Patterson coalition, all the measureable indicators of denominational health are down since their ilk waved the Bible aloft and declared that anyone who didn’t use their terms to describe it were anathema.

When questioned about that irony, current leaderships’ response is, “But think how bad it would have been if we hadn’t done it.”

How bad, indeed, as even their primary flag waver, Al Mohler, president of the oldest SBC seminary, has declared: “Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

There is no satisfaction here. Full disclosure, I am one of those whose motives and faith and certainly “loyalty” was questioned, who was eased out from a job and calling which I did well and for which God prepared me my entire career. In fact, I was told by a state convention administrator in the midst of my wondering why I received no cooperation from his office, “You were set up to fail.”

Instead, what remains for me is a feeling similar to that which gurgles through my veins when I drive down County B in Wisconsin past the old farm where I grew up. When I lived there, we kept the buildings painted, the grass mowed and edged, the driveway graded. The current owners do none of that and to see the pending collapse in that disrepair leaves my heart sore.

Atop the barn was a cupola with a weather vane, that swung with the wind and told us from which way a storm was approaching.

Now even that is gone.

 

 

 

 

Written with Indelible Ink

I ruined my favorite shirt by failing to secure the cap on a pen I stuck in the pocket, and the ink stain was indelible. It wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t soap it, bleach it, scrub it, cut it or cover it.

Memories are like that. And the funny thing is, often it’s not the significant, dramatic, big events that wedge their way into the dendrites and axon terminals of your neurons, but little things that might have come and gone without comment or impact at the time.

My friend Tim Fields talks about that in his memoir “Indelible Ink: Adventures of a Baby Boomer.” You would like it. If you’re a baby boomer, you’ll like it a lot. He shares 16 events written in indelible ink in his memory, each of which shaped his life.

What makes a memory stick?

“Sometimes a simple comment from a parent to a child or from a teacher to a pupil can have a profound effect on someone’s life,” he writes in the foreword. “Even a smile, a frown, a wink or a raised eyebrow can dispense indelible ink. A congratulatory pat on the back or a punitive slap on the cheek can remain in a person’s psyche for life.”

I want to reemphasize the power of the right word. Little comments, angry words, insults, incautious words spoken at the wrong moment or secrets spilled worm into our memories in ways and with permanence we cannot explain or anticipate. Heartfelt, sincere positive words can just as actively attach themselves to our memories and have a much more beneficial effect.

I can point to a dozen memories, good and bad, that stick in my psyche half a century after they occurred, which at the moment seemed of no consequence. Some were throwaway comments by adults, directed toward me, or toward another adult that I overheard.

As a high school basketball player, I wasn’t tall, but I was slow. Because I could shoot the ball, I was on the starting five as a senior, but sixth man Sid was making a strong play for my spot. In the era before a shot clock, our strategy for the upcoming game against the league’s top team was to slow it down, just keep dribbling and passing out front, trying to keep the score close so a break at the end might fall in our favor.

Coach told me Sid was going to start in my place for that game because we needed his ball handling. That’s all he said. My interpretation of what he said was, “Norman, you’re a lousy ball handler.”

Consequently, when I did play in the game I was terrified of getting the ball and played poorly. Until then, as the team’s best shooter, I was all about having it in my hands.

I remember hearing my dad brag about my hard work when I split all the firewood piled in the backyard that would heat our house that winter. And my mom telling a friend that she didn’t really expect me to stick with the dreadful job of cleaning out cow stalls in the heat of summer after they had been unused and neglected for years. But I did.

I also remember Dad admonishing me for not wiping down the shower door in our one bathroom after he’d asked me to do it. When I told him I HAD done it, he pointed out a wet streak. I pointed out the rest of the shower, all dry, and said, “I wiped it down. I just missed a spot.”

When peach fuzz appeared on my cheeks, I used dad’s razor to scrape it off. After several months, he asked me if I was using his razor, because he’d noticed it not staying sharp as long. When I said, “Yes,” he asked, “Why? You don’t need to shave.”

“How would you know?” I asked him in one of the very few times I ever talked back to Dad. “I broke my glasses and held them together with white medical tape and it was two weeks before you noticed they were broken.” I saw hurt flit across his face.

I shot at some birds sitting on a telephone wire, not understanding the possible consequences of buckshot meeting wire. My grandpa Julius worked for the telephone company and it fell to him to come fix the line because the phones up and down the road weren’t working.

When he finished hours later, he came up to me and said it looked like someone shooting at birds had hit the wire. He paused, my heart hit my boots. Then he half-smiled, nodded, and went into the house to get a drink.

Of course, zillions of memories lurk in the crevices and canyons of my mind. Some can be called up instantly, others require the sharp impact like a boot to the brain when my ears snare some comment zipping randomly through time.

Whether we recall them clearly or not, the cumulative impact of comments positive and negative has a great deal of significance in shaping who we are. Remember that the next time your first reaction to a child’s silliness or clumsiness is to yell or say something hurtful.

It’s just words, but like an arrow they pierce. And like feathers from a busted pillow, you can never call them back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anger, bad conduct mimic permission giver

stick

Our president waved the permission stick over his crowds, freeing them to replicate his insults.

In the wake of angry, racist boils bursting on the face of our public persona, those charged with keeping social order urge restraint in response.

“This is not America,” they say, implying that if we will just calm down and come to our senses, we can again paint a veneer of societal peace over our burbling disruptions and return to our true national sensitive nature.

It’s hard for me to admit the ugly truth, but this IS America. We are a nation in which racial, ethnic and class tensions have bubbled beneath the surface of our society for generations – maybe since our first days when dreamers who couldn’t afford the price of passage traded several years of their lives as indentured servants in exchange for a lottery ticket on a ship to the New World.

But our diverse human hive found ways to co-exist by mutually agreeing to a set of unwritten standards of conduct. Among the many learned behaviors that govern our daily lives, we agreed that racial identity should neither hinder nor promote opportunity; that personal space should not be infringed without permission; that insults do not promote peaceful co-existence; that those who enforce the law are not above the law; that private conduct between consenting adults be kept private; that you don’t stiff the waiter.

Within these basic, mutual agreements we generally live day to day in harmony. Outbreaks against these societal mores make news precisely because they grate against the norm. Highlighting them says, in effect, “this is NOT acceptable conduct and our fragile social construct will break down if it continues.” Perpetrators of the most egregious insults are judged verboten and spend time isolated from the rest of us behind steel bars.

This “acceptable conduct” is ingrained in us through the sometimes exasperating efforts of instructive parents, teachers, bosses, friends, colleagues and strangers and instills in us subconsciously the behaviors that keep our society humming with minimal disruption.

Although basketball pro Charles Barkley declared he “is not a role model,” the conduct of high profile public figures often affirms or dissolves commitment to these behaviors.

My wife is still mad at Bill Clinton for interjecting “oral sex” into the common vernacular of our kids. On the other hand, “born again Christian” didn’t become a commonly understood term until Jimmy Carter spoke it in an interview and people scrambled to figure out what he meant.

Now the fabric seems torn. The fragile cloth of our peace frays like the edges of a flag flapping for too many miles on a car antenna.

Agitated people who for years have tamped down their personal rage in reluctant agreement to abide by social expectations suddenly feel free to vent, scream and insult and claim privilege earned by their race, age, education, position or size of their truck.

What sharp knife sliced the fabric? Apparently those who have felt left behind, even abandoned, in a world of shrinking opportunity needed only a permission giver to release their frustrations, someone to say it’s OK to act out in public the rage and prejudices they’ve kept bottled. It seems that our permission giver walked into the national consciousness with a grandiose ride down an escalator to announce his candidacy for the presidency of the United States.

As a candidate Donald Trump employed crass language to invoke brazen images of the “little guy” prevailing, riding their airboats through “the swamp” in Washington DC, shooting alligators from the gun whale. He applauded harsh treatment of protestors, mimicked disability, bragged about his peccadilloes, scape goated immigrants, denigrated leaders of the international order and encouraged caustic behavior.

He waved the permission stick over his rallies and gave the crowds freedom to act out their rage. Of course, everyone is personally responsible for his or her own conduct. But in a society where rage, fear and prejudice have been building pressure like air in a balloon, a single prick in the surface brings an explosive result.

My friend Jim was a high school principal and school superintendent for many years. He told me he would not hire our current president for any position in any school he supervised – from teacher to janitor – because most of the problems he dealt with among students and their parents had to do with breaks in the common social contract that Mr. Trump so easily disregards.

In the course of a single day a friend of mine had a friend called a “faggot,” another’s son was told to go back to “where he came from” and another friend was called a “nigger” by someone hollering out the window as he drove past his house.

Did that kind of thing happen before? Yes, but not with the freedom and frequency it’s happened since our president has cast “the other” as the source of our nation’s ills. The incidents of hate crimes, hazings, defacements and ostracizing are rampant since people feel they’ve been given permission to talk and act this way – since the president has drawn moral equivalence between Nazis and those who oppose them.

We each are responsible for our own behavior. But when someone in authority – whether a parent, teacher, school crossing guard or president – says by word and deed that it’s OK to treat “the other” with disrespect, our social fabric will quickly unravel.

 

 

 

Yes, the train stops there

Early in my journalism career I spent two weeks in New York City, first at a conference, then working with Religion News Service as free help while staff there oriented me to religion news writing beyond my Baptist perspective.

After the first week, I thought, “This is great. I love New York. It’s never dark, never quiet and never stops.” By the end of the second week, I was silently screaming, “Get me out of here. It’s never dark, never quiet and never stops!”

But it was a broadening experience for a small town guy in his mid-twenties, trying to navigate concrete canyons instead of cornfields. During the first week my group attended a live performance of Shakespeare in the Park. A sudden rainstorm cut the performance short, so during the second week, when I was on my own, I went back to Central Park to pick up the play to the end.

My biggest fear as a New York novice was getting onto the wrong train and ending up in a part of the city where I didn’t belong and not knowing how to get back to where I did belong. I studied the train schedule as best I could understand it and knew that the play would end just about the time the train I needed would be leaving the nearest station.

So while the final curtain was still fluttering down, I left my seat and raced through the park, to the train station. Much to my palpable relief, the train was there, idling at the station with the doors open, and the engineer sitting by an open window, his arm resting on the sill.

To be certain I wouldn’t jump onto the train to nowhere, I ran up to him and asked, “Does this train stop on 68th Street?”

He said, “Yes it does.”

Then he shut the doors, and drove off, leaving me on the platform, instantly affirming every bad thing I’d heard about New Yorkers.

Do you think he somehow didn’t know the intent of my question? Do you think he didn’t know that I did, in fact, want to go to 68th Street and wasn’t just inquiring about the train’s route?

I still can’t comprehend the engineer’s actions, but they gave me a great story to share that night when the slow movers from Central Park congregated on the platform, waiting for the next train.

There was no reason for me to get incensed. I was simply dumbfounded. I couldn’t chase the train and clamber onto the back car. I couldn’t shout or curse or wave my arms in anger and effect any change. I’d simply wait for the next train.

I’m continually amazed at the level of anger in everyday life in our society. The smallest things set someone off and lead to fisticuffs or worse – a simple urge to merge into traffic by an accomplished high school girl prompts the man in the truck next to her to shoot her dead.

Road rage? Give the car some space people. What does it cost you? Relax.

Cycling with my group two years ago we met a woman on a horse. She was riding in the ditch to our left, coming toward us. When we met her, the horse reared up. I admired her control of the animal.

Twenty minutes later a car roared up behind us. The driver pulled sharply in front of our group and slammed onto the brakes. Two riders hit the car, then the pavement. I was in front, but avoided it.

The driver was the woman who had been on the horse and she leaped out of the car, practically foaming at the mouth with anger. She said we had intentionally spooked her horse, and then rode on, not stopping to help.

Somehow she had gotten the horse back to the barn, gotten into her car and tracked us down through several turns, while managing to maintain her white hot anger that prompted her to break the law and endanger herself, eight cyclists and whoever might have approached us on the road.

I don’t understand that level of anger. I basically don’t understand anger at all. I can be disappointed, frustrated and wish things were different. But anger is a foreign emotion.

Unresolved anger leads to ill health and to dramatic actions with horrible consequences.

Take a breath. Realize that next year at this time it won’t matter…probably in the next hour it won’t matter. Smile. Give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intentions.

Just don’t get on a train in New York City if you don’t know where it’s going.