5.25.2017

In a Culture of Systemic Bigotry Part 2: What now?

What do we do about it? How do we cope in this new culture where xenophobia and homophobia appear to have taken over the government? How do we combat the evils of hatred? How do we live out Paul’s words “there is no difference between Jew and Greek, slave and free person, male and female” when the president seeks to ban refuges, undermine our freedoms of speech and press, insults and/or threatens anyone who opposes him, mocks the disabled, and brags about committing sexual assault?

On his Ask Science Mike podcast, Mike McHargue has attempted to answer these questions. Women, African Americans, and members of the LGBT community turned to him for advice of how to handle friends, coworkers, and family members who voted for Trump. They wanted to know how to change opinions of those they love about feminism, gay-rights, education, climate change, and immigration. Many of these people feel as if they’ve been alienated and find themselves facing hatred and discrimination at work, around town, and (for some of them) at home.

As a straight, white, Christian male, I have asked myself some of their questions. Struggling to find my own answers, I have been fascinated by Mike’s reasoned approach and his appeals for kindness and understanding from both ends of the political spectrum. At a live event, one individual asked Mike about the passage in the Bible where Jesus instructs us to turn the other cheek. She wanted to know how we should do that in a culture of systemic racism, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination – especially on social media. Mike’s answer at once humbled and inspired me. He said,

“If the intent is abuse, if the intent is oppression, I’m a much bigger fan of the block button. I’m a much bigger fan of restraining orders. I just know for sure I’m not Jesus. Because I’m tired of seeing people’s cheeks get struck in the first place. I can’t, even to answer a question, create the emotional distance. How hard is to not hit someone with a baton at a traffic stop? How hard is it to no shoot unarmed men looking after mental health patients? How hard is it to respect a woman’s body autonomy? I saw someone make a hat that said, ‘Grab her by the brain.’ Why do you have to grab her in the first place? The only thing I got in me right now is Paul and some words of Jesus too. I’m more in the weep with those who weep phase. And mourn with those who mourn. Lately, sometimes I feel a lot more resonance with ‘I come not to bring peace but a sword. I’ve come to turn brother against brother.’ Because I can’t stomach more of this. I can’t.”

“I’m going to be an agent of love and peace. But my whole life I believed a lie. And that lie was anger has no place in love. I grew up in a culture that told me you cannot ever get angry, it’s a sin. That belief creates a beautiful nice society full of oppression, where if you stand up for your rights and you make a stink and you say, ‘goddammit, will you get your boot off my neck,’ you’re sinning because you’re making a fuss. But is it loving to call for order when people are dying? Is it loving to ask people to be civil when 20% of our country is afraid to walk down the street with a police officer? I turn my other cheek to reveal the brutality of the system. I can no longer idly stand by and watch a woman, or a gay man, or a black woman be assaulted by an individual or an individual who represents a system than I can stand by and watch the same happen to my own daughter. We have got to build a justice system where violence is held accountable and it must include violence perpetuated by a police officer. This must include sexual assault. It cannot be OK or normalized where locker room talk to invade another person’s body autonomy.”

“Now how do we live that out? I don’t know, I’m listening. If you had asked me that three years ago, I’d have given some speech about the brilliance of non-violent resistance and the way it revealed brutality. That sure is easy for me to say as a man who knows all I have to do to get through the security checkpoint is smile and politely nod. The illusion has been ripped from my eyes that anyone else feels the same.”

“By the way, the word on the other crosses next to Jesus translated bandit in the bible and we say he hung next to thieves. Some religious scholars believe that a much better and more accurate translation of that word would be zealot. Because the cross was only used for acts of treason against the state and the King of the Jews was hung next to zealots who wanted to see what? Jerusalem free from Roman occupation. Jesus represents a movement that stands in opposition to state violence perpetuated against marginalized people. We cannot ever say we are agents of the gospel if we’re going to spend our whole lives living as agents of Rome. We could talk about what the work is but we’ve waited too long to get started. If I have to renounce my Roman citizenship to get it done, so be it. Paul tried to have dual citizenship but was ultimately jailed and executed. The state does not like that kind of resistance. But I can no longer read the gospel and believe that my culture is a metaphor for Israel when it’s a metaphor for Rome.”

“I don’t know what to tell women and people of color other than I am with you until the end of my life. But I, as a Roman citizen, will turn the other cheek because I can.”

In a little more than 700 words, Mike explained it better than I ever could. I can’t expect my gay friends or my Latino and African American friends to turn the other cheek. I can’t expect my girlfriend or my children to turn the other cheek. But I can. The irony is that I don’t have to. I am not the target of the hatred and discrimination ingrained in our culture. If I can turn my cheek on their behalf, if I can turn my cheek to demonstrate the injustices of our society, then I will gladly sacrifice myself in their place. After all, that is what Jesus called the greatest love, that one lays down his life for his friends.

5.24.2017

In a Culture of Systemic Bigotry Part 1: What’s Wrong?

Since November, I’ve been feeling unsettled. Uncomfortable. Disgusted. I observed the surge of hate crimes, read news reports and personal statements from those targeted by Trump supporters. I realize why some people would vote for him. While I don’t agree with their opinions, I do understand their motivations. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, I feel helpless. Most of my despair is from seeing the actions of those who share my faith. It doesn’t bother me that Christians voted for him; what does disturb me is how many Christians gleefully supported and embraced Trump's hateful rhetoric. I am dumbfounded by how willingly they overlooked his moral failures.

I couldn’t fully explain why I felt like this. Then, on a podcast, I heard Richard Rohr give perfect voice to the reason behind my emotional frustrations. He said,

“We’ve idealized a certain kind of middle class order as if it’s Christianity and we’ve always done that. We’ve taken normalcy or the dominant consciousness in any country and we’ve sorta baptized that. ‘Well, that’s what it means to be a Christian.’ It has very little patience with anybody that doesn’t fit in that model - which ends up being most of the world. That’s the irony. By far, most of the world. One of the wonderful things I see in millennials is they’re less and less patient with any religion that defines itself by exclusion. Afraid this is the great humiliation that we Christians have to suffer: that this is how most of the world sees us. Catholic or Protestant, evangelical, we’re a religion preoccupied not with inclusion. That’s all you see in Jesus. He’s always going outside of his own group. How do we miss what’s in plain sight? At this point, it’s culpable ignorance. Culpable. For people to say they love the bible, and they believe in the Gospels, and read the scriptures … how do people preach on this text and not see what is hidden in plain sight? That again, Jesus is praising the Samaritan, Syro-Phoenician woman, it’s always the outsider who is the hero of his stories. I shouldn’t even need to say that. It’s everywhere. You’re only able to see what you’re told to pay attention to and we weren’t told to pay attention. You do realize he said the only leper who came back and thanked him was a Samaritan. That’s to insult his Jewish compatriots. If the other nine were good Jews, they also got healed but they never had the decency to say thank you. It’s story after story. I think culture really teaches us more than religion and there’s an opening in culture right now – for all of its failings and all of its addictions and all of its blindness, there’s a dis ease with the tribalism that most of us were raised in.”


As an American raised in the Christian church, it’s often easy for me to forget about the diversity of the Christian faith. Sure, visits from over-seas missionaries occasionally remind us of how they minister to homeless kids in India, or impoverished villagers in the Nairobi suburbs, or the secretive churches under communistic rule in China, or bringing clean water and medical help to isolated regions of Latin America. But there is an arrogance within Americanized Christianity that wraps itself in patriotism and assumes a special privilege with God unique to our nation. We view these Christians in other countries as lesser people because we falsely believe God’s covenant is with the USA. Lucky us.

After generations of jingoism, increasingly isolationist attitudes, and the embrace of American exceptionalism, the American church is looking less and less like God’s people, and more like enemies of God. We have built an empire; becoming oppressors instead of the oppressed. To maintain our power and status, we bought into the us-versus-them mentality. Unfortunately, in the United States, the church is frequently a place of exclusion.

Rohr’s words have stuck with me. I’ve always had a heart for outsiders. For most of my life I’ve been one. The freaks and geeks are my people. They’re my tribe. Historically, Christians in America have had little patience for people like me and even less tolerance for friends of mine. When I open my Bible, over and over I see a God who loves weird people. I see a God who elevates the brokenhearted, the outcast, and the tragically flawed. I see a God who makes space for people that don’t fit in. Even Jesus’ twelve disciples where a bunch of misfits.

This is why I’m unsettled by Trump’s implausible rise to the presidency. Because the people who say they love the Bible’s instruction to be faithful to one wife have embraced a thrice married serial adulterer. The people who claim to love the Bible’s warnings against pride have celebrated Trump's brand of loudmouthed arrogance. The people who supposedly love the Bible’s command to be honest have made excuses for Trump’s blatant and constant lies, and his administration’s alternative facts. The people who should love the Bible’s call to care for the fatherless, the widow, and the immigrant no longer give a damn about foster kids, single moms, and refugees. The people who believe in the Bible’s promise to reward holiness have lauded godlessness in exchange for control.

If this is what the church in America is going to become, then I’m not OK. I want out. The church in the Bible honored women and eunuchs. The church in the Bible welcomed those abandoned by tradition. The church in the Bible was home to those who had nowhere else to go. They gave voice to the powerless. That is the kind of church I want to see revived again.

Give me a church that embraces the outsider even if that outsider is a Muslim. Give me a church that loves the outcast even if that outcast has gauged ears, purple hair, and skin covered in ink. Give me a church that provides hope for the hopeless, even if they are gay. Give me a church that relentlessly cares for those who feel like no one else is interested. Give me a church that celebrates diversity from small farming communities to urban centers, who sees beauty in all genders and nationalities, who sees joy in the least of these. Give me a church that will stand in the gap when our government seeks to divide us further.

5.20.2017

WE

At the end of my seventh-grade year, I took a cross country road trip with my grandparents. They had come out to visit my family in Marysville and attend my brother’s high school graduation. After Aaron’s big event, I climbed into the cab of Grandpa Casey’s old pickup and we began our journey east. Our destination: the Kansas City suburbs where I would stay with my cousins for a month.

Grandpa was a professional truck driver; in his career, he had traveled every mile of interstate in the continental US. After retiring, he avoided freeways. When he traveled for personal reasons, he stuck to state highways and back roads. Our drive to Missouri was post-retirement so it was a long trip of narrow roads, small towns, and empty spaces. Somewhere between Yakima and Walla Walla, I discovered that Grandpa did not have air-conditioning in his truck and I slowly realized that his definition of adventure was vastly different than mine.

Every stretch of road was a blur after the heat of Eastern Washington’s scablands. From Rocky Mountains, to Colorado plateaus, through the Midwest prairies and cornfields, it all blended into one seamless landscape of unmemorable blah. By the time we arrived in Weston, I felt as if I had arrived in the Emerald City after an overheated and torturous long stroll down the Yellow Brick Road.

We had one overnight stop between my home and my cousins. Grandma and Grandpa got a nondescript hotel room for the three of us in the middle of nowhere. The next morning, I learned a new fact about my grandparents. They were early risers, but I was already familiar with that aspect of their personalities. For as long as I can remember, their sunrise phone calls would wake up the Casey household every Saturday morning. There was another habit that was a part of my grandparent's marriage that I had never seen before. Every morning, after they awoke, they would kneel at the foot of their bed and recite the Lord’s Prayer.

That one morning in a podunk motel room, they invited me (insisted really) to join along. It is embarrassing to admit, but I mumbled my way through because I had yet to memorize that prayer. I could quote all the lyrics from REM’s Losing My Religion, but when it came to the most famous prayer in recorded history, I was lost after “Our Father, who art in heaven.”

Never before had I felt like such a bad Christian. My dad was a pastor for the first few years of my life. I had grown up in the church. We were the kind of family that attended worship services three times a week, only skipping for the grimmest illness. How had I managed to survive 13 years of life without fully learning the Lord’s Prayer?

Twenty-five years later, rest assured I now have those bible verses memorized. Although maybe not word for word. When I say it now, it’s more of an amalgamation of the King James and New International versions, seasoned with phrasings from The Message and children’s story books. When I quote scripture, it’s usually from the NIV – Nic’s Interpreted Version. Yet, to be honest, I still didn’t completely commit this passage to memory until I was in my early twenties and taking a class studying Koine Greek and biblical translation. Even then, it wasn’t a matter of rote memorization for some good Christian merit badge. It was part of a quest to understand scripture the way the original authors intended.

I’m still in that pursuit, learning more and more the older I get. Even as I approach mid-life, there are still discoveries inside the text, plainly obvious yet unnoticed until now. Or, at least, unnoticed by me. I’m sure my ideas are unoriginal in the full history of Christian academia, but these are still explosive revelations in my own personal studies. My most recent ah-ha moment was within the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Actually, within the first word of the prayer: Our.

So many times, when we pray, we start with “Dear God, it’s me,” followed by some Ben Stiller awkwardness like saying grace in Meet the Parents, throwing in some song lyrics because we don’t know what to say, then we make it more complicated than it needs to be. Perhaps Jesus knew we would resort to fumbling prose if left to our own devices and that’s why he taught his disciples how to pray. Not necessarily as a command “It must be said just like this, without deviation,” but more of a blueprint to guide what we construct. The Lord’s Prayer is a skeleton, bare bones to which we give flesh when we talk with God.

In the New Testament Greek, the prayer begins with two words, Πάτερ (or Pater, meaning Father) and ἡμῶν (or hēmōn, meaning ours or of us). Translating into modern English, we say “Our Father,” which gives us a good understanding of how Jesus wanted us to see God. It isn’t just “Father of mine.” That doesn’t work unless you’re Art Alexakis. It is “Father of US.” The word ἡμῶν is a possessive and plural pronoun. When Jesus delivered his instruction on prayer, he wanted us to know we are not alone. We are not spoiled little brats refusing to share. My God is more than just my God, He is yours too. And theirs. And ours.

We see this pronoun used repeatedly throughout the prayer. Give US OUR bread. Forgive OUR debts. As WE forgive. Lead US. Deliver US. We are in this together. By teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus was also encouraging them to embrace each other. It is as if Jesus was telling them “To follow me is a joint venture. You’re better together.” When I read the Lord’s Prayer now, I am reminded that my faith is not a hero’s journey; it is a communal experience. No more am I thinking about what happens when I pray, but instead what happens when WE pray.

5.17.2017

Knowing

Knowledge is infinite. The more I learn, the more I find is yet to be learned. I know what I know but I don't know what I don't know. I will never know everything, but I know a lot. As I reflect on my birthday, here are a few of those things I do know.


I know there is value in sarcasm because it is when most people are truly being honest. This is why Malcolm Gladwell said, "Comedians have become our truth-tellers."

I know there is a link between suffering and creativity, but that doesn't mean an artist must suffer to create their art. I know that an abstract painting or the perfect song can mend a broken heart.

I know the two most healing words in the English language are “Me too.”

I know the word necessary is unnecessarily difficult to spell.

I know anything is possible with quantum mechanics. And because of quantum mechanics, I also know that everything I know could be wrong.

I know everyone has biases and there is no such thing as an unbiased news source. Therefore, a biased news story is not the same thing as a fake news story. Possessing bias does not make someone a liar, it makes them human.

I know people are far more shallow, insecure, and self-centered than any of us would care to admit. All of us are selfish and struggle with our self-image, so let's just admit it.

I know there is a healthy balance between optimism and pessimism, between introversion and extroversion, between megalomania and self-deprecation, between the silly and the serious. I'm trying to find that balance.

I know white privilege is real and I am a benefactor. I also know what it is like to struggle. Therefore, I am willing to sacrifice my privilege to speak on behalf of those who don't have privilege and give them hope to see an end to their struggle.

I know that rainy days make me happy, sunny days give me hope, thunderstorms make me feel alive, and foggy mornings remind me of home. Yet there is nothing more calming than waking up to find the world has been covered in a fresh blanket of snow.

I know I’m Team Cap in the comic books but Team Iron Man in the movies. And I know that not everyone will agree with me.

I know I am far nerdier than the typical North Idaho male. My natural habitat is inside a library or movie theater, yet I feel most at peace while hiking a trail through the woods.

I know being nerdy is fashionable these days. And I know that geeks and nerds were bullied when I was a kid. I was a geek when I was growing up. I also got beat up a lot. Times change. At least I can say I was a nerd before being a nerd was cool. I know that last statement might be the most hipster thing I’ve ever said. I also liked dad-jokes before they were popular.

I know I am not mechanically inclined and I would be helpless without how-to videos on YouTube.

I know I am both a skeptic and a believer. I doubt and question everything. I know I have an analytical personality; I crave evidence and data. I have difficulty coping when I do not understand all of the details. There is no logical reason I should believe in God, yet I do. I know my faith is different than the God of Sunday School bible stories, sanitized for elementary-aged audiences and romanticized for American tastes, but I still believe.

I know there are two types of family: the kind you’re born into and the kind you chose. I love both my biological family and the friends who have become a second family. I would not be where I am today without either of them.

I know I am short and the shape I'm in is round. I can't do anything about the former but I am working to fix the latter.

I know caffeine is a drug; I'm addicted to Mt Dew and white chocolate crème de menthe breves. I know this contributes to my round shape.

I know I am a night owl by nature and an early riser by nurture. I know I have learned to cope with minimal sleep.

I know that I will be still be tired enough to go back to sleep after drinking coffee at 6am. But if I drink coffee at 6pm, I’ll be up all night.

I know my favorite word in the German language is schadenfreude. I know schadenfreude in action brings me more joy than it should. I also laugh at inappropriate jokes far more than what is socially acceptable.

I know live music almost always sounds better than studio recordings. I know there are exceptions.

I know hip-hop makes more sense to me now as a grown adult than it ever did in my youth. Yet, my heart will always belong to my 90's grunge and Seattle suburb roots.

I know that I am a single dad in the upper half of my 30s. This is not always an easy or comfortable place to be.

I know that my three kids are some of the most awesome humans on this planet. One of my favorite activities is trying to convince people to see my kids’ awesomeness.

I know this list could continue ad absurdum and if you’re still reading you deserve a medal. Or a gold star. However, the most important thing I know is that I am not done learning. There is still too much that I don’t know.

5.13.2017

Loving Their Mom

When I was a kid, my dad's office was a magical universe. He was a collector of antique books and the shelves of his library were stuffed with old and rare texts. The desk in his den was usually the best place to find pens or pencils, and he also possessed an old-school gumball machine that I liked to raid when friends came to visit. Disclosure: I liked to raid the gumball machine when I was home alone too.

There was another decorative fixture in Dad's office, a handcrafted sign. Every time we moved, this piece of wood followed. Regardless of which room housed Dad's old desk and books, there was a burl from a maple tree that followed. It had been sanded and polished and mounted on a flat stand to hold it upright. A photo of a little child handing a flower to an adult was glued to the front beside an engraving that read "The best gift I can give to my children is my love for their mother."


This sweet display followed us from the little rambler around the corner from Jennings Park, where we resided in my earliest recollections, to the apartment across the street from Silver Lake, our last residence before I moved out and turned my folks into empty nesters. My dad still has it; the picture is peeling away but the carving remains. He did his best to live up to this motivational message. He adored my mom. My brother and I were raised knowing that Dad was hopelessly in love with Mom. Even today, any time she travels out of town, my dad is restless and unsure what to do with himself in the absence of his bride.

Naturally, that message followed me on an intellectual level as I transitioned from a teenager living with his parents to an independent young adult, and from a young bachelor to a twenty-some-odd year old new husband. When our firstborn came into our life, I had those words from my dad's office echoing in my head. I was standing in a land of giants with enormous shoes to fill and I tried to live up to this phrase that had guided my father through his marriage.

If I'm honest, I had no idea what I was doing. I did my best to love my son's mom, but I wasn't really skilled at it. I never figured out how to love in that self-sacrificial "love your wives just as Christ loved the church" kind of way. I tried, but sometimes life doesn't reward you with points for effort.

Fast forward another decade. A couple more kids were added to the family but I was no longer a married man. As the stress of divorce and restarting life as a single dad changed all the rules on me, the constant decoration from my dad's office was forgotten. I was facing a new normal and focused on being the best father that I could possibly be.

My energy was spent juggling work schedules with custody agreements. I strove to make the best of the days I had with my kids because I knew I would no longer be able to tuck them into bed every evening. Suddenly, the best gift I had to give my kids was my time. Help with homework. Heart to heart talks about school bullies. Family board games and movie nights. Bonding over Nintendo and X-Box. Playing at the park. Saturday adventures out hiking or relaxing at the beach. We found our own routine and paved a way through previously undeveloped territory.

I'm still their dad, a job title that will never change. However, I can't escape another obvious reality: my ex-wife is still my kids' mother. I have always been aware that my kids have a good mom and she will always be a constant factor in their lives. But I tried to think that we existed in different worlds, like alternate dimensions. I treated her like she was Las Vegas: what happens at mom's house stays at mom's house.

Recently, something changed, a revelation that I should have recognized a long time ago. As long as she is a part of my kids' lives, she will be a part of my life. Despite the divorce, part of our wedding vows remains true: "for as long as we both shall live."

On a late and insomnia filled night, memories of my youth began to stir. I had finished my school work, turned on some music, opened a book, and debated whether or not I wanted to drink a Mike's Hard Black Cherry Lemonade. Somewhere after grabbing a beverage from the fridge and returning to my desk, the phrase seeped into my consciousness like a ghost phasing through the walls. The best gift my dad gave me was his love for my mom. The best gift I can give my kids is to love their mom.

But their mom and I are no longer married. My love for her left the building a long time ago. Isn't that what fuels most divorces? A couple drifts apart and they fall out of love?

The more I thought about it, the more that statement from my childhood rang true. If I am to believe that my kids deserve the best, I need to learn to love their mom all over again. I became increasingly assured that THAT was the best gift I could ever give them.


Then the questions came flooding in. How? How do I love someone who left me? How do I love the person who chose to end our marriage? How do I love the individual who wounded me (emotionally speaking) more than any other human on this planet? How do I love someone I don't always like? How do I love a woman who has already fallen in love with another man? If I wasn't adept at loving her when we were married, how am I supposed to do it now that we're not?

I don't have many good answers. In fact, I'm not sure if I have any answers. But I do know it will take more grace than I can demonstrate on my own. I can guarantee I won't always get it right. Even if the effort is never rewarded, I am convinced my kids deserve a dad who loves their mom.

5.09.2017

The Vanity Dilemma

Vanity plates can be a fun method of self expression. It is the vehicle's owner's way of introducing themselves to the world. You want to know who I am? Read my license plate. But there is a dilemma with using plates (and to some extent, bumper stickers) to describe yourself to the other drivers on the road. The implication is that you must live up to the message you deliver.

Sometimes these messages are contradictory, as if the car's owner has two distinct personalities that can't agree on anything. A test study in cognitive dissonance. I found one of these individuals in the run up to last November's election while following a beat up 80's era sedan. On one one side of their trunk was a coexist sticker - the type spelled with religious symbols like the Islamic crescent for the C, the Jewish star of David for the X, and the Christian cross for the T. The other side of the trunk had a sticker with Trump's Make America Great Again slogan.

Then there are cars whose decorations fit the stereotypes. Like the guy that always wears black; has a beard, long hair, and multiple piercings; and drives a car with plates that read "MTL-HED." In my apartment's parking lot, I often see a dented black sports coupe with the phrase "Send nudes" in white stenciled letters across his back window. Yes, I assumed "his" because I don't know a woman alive who would do that to her car. This coupe was around for months before I ever saw the driver, and when I finally watched him climb out of the driver's seat for the first time, I couldn't help but notice how he looked just as I imagined.

Finally, you have those drivers who portray personalities contrary to the themes promoted in their license plates or bumper stickers. How many times have you been flipped off by a driver who has a Jesus fish on their back bumper? Or observed aggressive driving from someone whose vehicle is adorned with stickers promoting peace and love? These are the persons who face the vanity dilemma. They elected to advertise an unsustainable cheeriness then fail to live up to their own self-imposed definition.

I encountered one of these motorists this morning. She merged into the lane behind me and she was clearly displeased with my adherence to the speed limit. When I looked in the rear view mirror, I observed angry eyebrows, lips twisted by a scowl, and a face quickly turning a darker shade of red. When she finally had the opportunity to pass me, she punched the gas and flew by me at a rate fast enough to earn a speeding ticket had their been a police officer present. As she sped by, her face was the textbook image of rage. After she passed, I read her vanity plate. It said "HAPPY3X."


My reaction was laughter. What else could I do? Here was a lady who wants you to know one thing about her. She's happy. Happy happy happy. Feeling snappy. Life is rosy, comfy cozy. Everything is sunshine and rainbows. She claimed to be jubilant, but clearly she was the opposite. Not singularly happy, let alone three times the joyous emotion.

Now, I'll give her some grace. Everyone is allowed to have a bad day, even the most cheerful among us. It's understandable to be grumpy at 7am. And I don't know the circumstances of her morning. She could have been late for work and I was an obstacle delaying her arrival. She could be a habitual lead-foot and I was nothing more than a pest cramping her style. Maybe she was driving her husband's vehicle and he is the perennially happy half of their relationship.

Yet she is a cautionary tale. When you slap a bumper sticker onto your tailgate or walk into the DVM to order a vanity plate, give it some careful consideration before you advertise yourself to the world. As soon as your message of choice is affixed to the back of your car, you face a dilemma. You must live up to the words you selected. Because people like me will laugh at you when you don't.

5.03.2017

The Left and Leaving

Over the last week, I've listened to Counting Crows more than is probably healthy, and definitely more than anyone has done since 1999. Once in a while, I experience a pervasive mood which can only be sated by Adam Duritz's rambling vocals, his band's jangly folk rock, and nostalgia of a better era of pop music.

In the summer of 1998, Counting Crows released a double live album called Across a Wire. The first set was recorded during their Storytellers performance for VH1. It was mostly stripped down acoustic versions of songs from their first two records, a few with alternate lyrics only recorded at that show. I bought Across a Wire when it first came out; the following winter, I listened to the Storytellers half more than any other album. There was a morose quality to it that seemed to match the way I felt during that season of my life.

This week, I returned to the songs from the Storytellers show. Call it musical therapy. Not only Across a Wire, I've been playing other tracks from Counting Crows career. Other than podcasts, I haven't listened to much else.

As I’ve listened, I have discovered a theme I had not noticed before. Many of Counting Crows’ songs speak from the perspective of someone who has been left or is leaving. Thematically, that would explain why I was drawn to Across a Wire in the winter of 98/99. We had moved from Marysville to Everett. I had changed jobs from a record store to a manufacturing company. I was between girlfriends. It was the last winter that I would spend in the Seattle area before moving to Boise.

Thanks to that winter, I now have a sentimental attachment to the album that demands occasional replay. Especially when I've been left. Or am leaving one thing for another. Counting Crows is the soundtrack for the abandoned or the abandoning. The proof is in their lyrics.


For those who have been left.

From Round Here:
"Round here, she's slipping through my hands"
"She looks up at the building and says she's thinking of jumping, she says she's tired of life, she must be tired of something" (the Storytellers version says "Well, everybody is tired of something")

From Anna Begins:
"It's chasing me away, she disappears, and oh, Lord, I'm not ready for this sort of thing"

From Ghost Train:
"She buys a ticket 'cause it's cold were she comes from, she climbs aboard because she's scared of getting older in the snow"

From Catapult:
"All of a sudden she disappears, just yesterday she was here"
"Someone should be with me here 'cause I don't want to be alone"

From Angels of the Silences:
"Well I guess you left me with some feathers in my hand, did it make it any easier to leave me where I stand"
"Why'd you leave me 'til I'm only good for waiting for you"

From Good Night, Elisabeth:
"I woke up in pieces and Elisabeth had disappeared again"

From Mercury:
"She is a victim of her own responses, shackled to a heart that wants to settle and then runs away"
"She is leaving on a walkaway, she is leaving me in disarray, in the absence of a place to be she stands there looking back at me, hesitates, and then turns away"

From Long December:
"I can't remember the last thing that you said as you were leaving"

From All My Friends:
"All my friends and lovers will leave me behind"


For those who are leaving.

From Round Here:
"Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog where no one notices the contrast of white on white"
(Storytellers version) "Would you catch me if I was falling? Would you kiss me if I was leaving? Would you hold me 'cause I'm lonely without you?"

From Rain King:
"I've been here before and I deserve a little more"

From Raining in Baltimore:
"There's things I remember and things I forget, I miss you, I guess I should, three thousand five hundred miles away."

From Catapult:
"I wanna be scattered from here in this catapult"

From Angels of the Silences:
"I'm gone, I'm gone, I'll leave today I'm gone."

From Daylight Fading:
"It's getting cold in California, I guess I'll be leaving soon"
"When we see the early signs of daylight fading we leave just before it's gone"
"I want to say goodbye to you, goodbye to all my friends, goodbye to everyone I know"

From I'm Not Sleeping:
"I've got news for everyone 'cause I'm going out that door"

From Have You Seen Me Lately:
"Get away from me, this isn't gonna be easy, but I don't need you"
"I don't need anyone and these days I feel like I'm fading away"
"I thought that someone would notice, I thought somebody would say something if I was missing"

From Walkaways:
Just the same old walkaways, someday I'm going to stay but not today"

From Hanginaround:
"You know I gotta get out but I'm stuck so tight, weighed by the chains that keep me hanging around"
"I've been bumming around this old town for way too long"

From Speedway:
"Thinking about taking some time, thinking about leaving soon"
"I'm thinking about leaving tomorrow, I'm thinking about being on my own"


There's the theme. Leaving and being left. Perhaps that's why Counting Crows resonates with me. A divorcee and single dad with a melancholy disposition about to leave one ministry for another. Things change. Seasons come and go. When it happens, it's nice to have some music to remind you you're not alone.

4.29.2017

How do you say sorry?

A friend is mourning the loss of a loved one. We say we're sorry. Your absent minded offspring misplaced their homework. We say we're sorry. A neighbor banged their shin on a park bench. We say we're sorry. A colleague's kid just lost the little league championship game. We say we're sorry. Someone is offended by something we said. We say we're sorry. We bump into a stranger at the grocery store. We say we're sorry. We are an apologetic society. We will even say we're sorry for saying sorry too much. But what does it mean? How many times have you said you were sorry and someone replied that it was unnecessary to apologize because you didn't do anything wrong?

Let's be clear, despite the vast number of synonyms in the English language - a multitude of different words with similar definitions, our American vocabulary is often woefully lacking. Scholars at Oxford maintain a linguistic database of every English word used in books, magazines, and other publications. Their database is estimated to contain over two million unique words. We possess such a prodigious lexicon, yet we so often struggle to communicate our basic desires and emotions. We speak from the diversity of a language that is frequently inadequate.

There is an abundance of fun foreign words with no direct English translation. For example, the Czech word "vybafnout" describes the act of younger siblings annoying an older brother - not an older sister, this term is specific to older brothers. Or the Swedish word "lagom," which literally means moderate, but the Swedes use it to describe a perfect quantity that isn't too much or too little. In Japan, there is a word 恋の予感 (pronounced koi-no-yokan) which describes a feeling more intense than infatuation, an inescapable sense that you are going to fall in love with a person you just met. In Spanish, pena ajena is what you would feel if you are embarrassed on behalf of someone else.

Then there is one of my favorite pastimes: shadenfreude. It is a German word that has no English translation but is a sensation we have all felt. Schadenfreude is the enjoyment you receive from observing the misfortune of others, especially when their folly is self-inflicted.

English also fails because we have a habit of overusing words to the point where they lose their meaning. Literally. Huge. Nice. Passion. Hater. OK. Hustle. There are other words with so many different meanings, making it difficult to convey your intent. Love for example. I love my kids, I love encouraging my friends, I love foggy mornings, I love scary movies, and I love pizza. One word, multiple meanings, easily confused without context.

Sorry is another word without a precise definition. It has multiple meanings and suffers from frequent usage. We say sorry like a reflex, latent instincts driving our need for acceptance. You're late. "Sorry." My dog is sick. "Sorry." I didn't get much sleep last night. "Sorry." You were speeding, following too closely, ran a stop sign, almost hit a Chevy, sped some more, failed to yield at a crosswalk, changed lanes without signalling while running a red light and speeding. "Sorry."

What does it mean to be sorry? Is it too late now to say sorry? How do you legitimately mean what you say? How do you apologize without being vague?


Let's return to the German language. The Germans have two methods of apologizing. "Es tut mir Leid," or "Entschuldigen bitte."

Es tut mir Leid is literally translated to mean "It does me suffering," or "It pains me so." If you look up "Es tut mir Leid" on Google Translate, it will give you "I'm sorry" as the English equivalent.

Entschuldigen is the verb to apologize. Bitte means please. Combine the two words and Google Translate returns "Please excuse me" as the result. Yet, entschuldigen is as much an apology as es tut mir Leid.

So what is the difference? One is an apology of empathy, the other is an apology of error. One says I'm sorry because I am grieved, the other says I'm sorry because I did something wrong. One says I feel your pain, the other says I caused your pain.

Perhaps, we could all benefit from learning a foreign language. With the benefit of the lexicon of other cultures, we could better express ourselves when our native tongue falls short.

4.27.2017

Following Zu

A week ago, we celebrated your tenth birthday. You picked out a cake mix and we spent the afternoon baking it. There were presents. We watched a movie. I enjoyed celebrating the decade I have spent with you in my life.

You're a year older, chronologically speaking, but not much has changed. You are still the same bold and sweet young woman you were a few weeks ago. You are still as boisterous and compassionate as you were a year ago. You're a few inches taller but you are still you.

Of all the days between your ninth birthday and your tenth, there is one moment that stands out more than others.

Last summer, you and I had an afternoon to ourselves. Your brothers were occupied and we had a few hours before we needed to pick them up. I gave you the choice of how to spend our time and you asked to go to the beach. We didn't have any towels and you weren't wearing a swim suit, but you didn't care. All that mattered was how much you crave sunshine and water; both were available.

We were listening to The Beatles as we drove. I used to sing 'Hey Jude' to you as a lullaby when you were a baby and I always look for opportunities to keep you familiar with their music. We pulled up to the parking lot with the windows down and the song 'Got to Get You Into My Life' playing.

I exited the car and opened your door. As you stepped out, you looked up at me with those deep sparking chocolate colored eyes and asked "Daddy, did I tell you I need you every single day of my life?" Quoting the words of the song we just heard.

"No," I smiled and knelt down to your level. "But you did now."

Your question was a reflection of who you really are. You are the most observant girl I've ever met. You pay attention to everything even when it appears like you are focused on something else. Anyone who asks "How could she possibly know?" doesn't understand you. Your personality was full on display as a lover of music and as a daughter who adores her dad. You demonstrated that tightrope you walk balancing between bravery and vulnerability.

Then we walked, crossed the street, and followed the road to the beach. Your excitement carried you with a quickness uniquely reserved for youth. Nothing was going to stand in between you and the lake. Yet along the way, you still looked back to make sure I was there. I was and seeing me gave you the confidence to speed up your pace a little faster.


I was right there behind you. And I always have been. When you swing on the monkey bars or when you fall and scrape your knee. When you walk to class on your first day or school or get frightened by thunder on a stormy night. I'm right there behind you. Over the next few years, you will be facing a lot of new and potentially scary moments. For all those firsts, I hope to remain right there behind you.

When you attend your first day of middle school, go out on your first date, are crushed by your first broken heart, get your driver's license, and do all of those things kids do in their second decade of life, this moment on the way to the beach is the one I will always remember. You told me you needed me, then looked back to make sure I was still there.

I was. And I still am.

4.20.2017

Conversations with the kids

Every day, after I pick the kids up from school, JJ asks the same question: "Are we going anywhere before we go home." Today, my answer was yes. I explained we needed to go to the grocery store to get more grapes and strawberries because within the last 24 hours, Zu ate all of the grapes and strawberries I had in stock.

As we turned left to go to Winco instead of right toward the apartment, Christian got confused and asked "Why aren't we going home?" This is a common occurrence. He doesn't pay attention to the conversation so he asks questions that have already been answered. To encourage him to engage more, I have stopped answering these redundant questions. Either he can keep up or he can be clueless. His choice.

Christian had another inquiry as we parked the car. It was also one that had been answered in the earlier conversation. "What are we getting?"

So I answered, "Iocane powder."
"Huh?"
"Iocane powder."
"What's that for?"
"Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!"
"Ohhhh," Christian finally caught on. "It's a geeky reference."

We walked in silence a few steps. But then Christian revealed that he didn't quite get it.

"Is that a Doctor Who quote?" he asked.
Clearly I have failed as a parent. "Inconceivable." I said.
"Is that from Doctor Who?"
"Inconceivable."

He and I did this a few more times. Each time, I kept using that word at greater volume. And yes, it does mean what I think it means.


Finally, Zu interrupted, "No, Christian, it's not from Doctor Who. It's from The Princess Bride."

I gave her a high five. She deserved it.
"Thank you, my daughter, at least one of my kids knew of which I spoke."
"Duh, it's only my favorite movie ever."

4.16.2017

If I ruled the Schools

The schools I attended growing up were not bad schools, but they were far from perfect. The schools my kids attend now are good, but are also in need of improvement. Nationwide, not all kids are as lucky. America’s education system is broken. How do we fix it? I don’t think anyone has the correct answer, but in an ideal world, here’s what I would do.

1. Make early education opportunities available to everyone and increase the accessibility for programs like Head Start in low income neighborhoods. Research nearly unanimously agree that investing heavily in the early years of education is a public benefit, even if those rewards are not seen for twenty years after the service is provided.
2. Instead of focusing on what traditionalists call the three R’s (“readin’ ritin’ & rithmetic”) emphasize what I call the three A’s: arts, athletics, and academics. For youngest groups, each of these areas should be given equal time in the daily curriculum. As kids age, more time should be allocated for academic study, yet some form of artistic and physical education should remain a part of every student’s daily routine. Incorporating music, theater, and art in classrooms help children with critical thinking and creative problem solving skills, increase student’s ability to participate in self-directed learning, and improves attendance. Physical education encourages kids to live healthier lifestyles and would fight our nation’s obesity epidemic; PE also increases a pupil’s learning capacity, attention span, and ability to concentrate. Participation in arts and athletics positively impacts traditional academic courses.
3. We cannot legislate parental participation but we should encourage and reward it. Students excel when their parents are actively involved. However, the government cannot (and should not) control how or what parents teach in their home, so schools must be prepared to fill the gap and support kids that are not getting parental support at home.
4. Encourage teachers and reward them if they can successfully incorporate hands on experience or technology into their lessons. Schools would save a lot of money on textbooks if text books can be digitally presented or other alternatives can be used.
5. Set national standards and minimum competencies but give states and individual school districts the autonomy of how to maintain those standards. What works in rural communities will not work in urban neighborhoods and each school should be free to do what works best for their students.
6. Students should be scored in both growth and proficiency. Students should not be able to move up a grade or continue to the next level until they meet the required competency. However, teachers should not be penalized for students who fail to meet the minimum competency if they can demonstrate student growth. The goal should be to help the student improve, not to help the student pass a test.
7. All schools, whether private or public, should adhere to Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 to qualify for any government funding.
8. Enhance funding for rural schools and schools in depressed urban communities. Provide better incentives for teachers to work in these schools. We need to recognize kids in these locations deserve equal access to kids in wealthier neighborhoods.
9. Success for all schools would be measured from multiple sources to compensate from the shortcomings of using standardized test scores alone. Teachers and classes should be rated by students like the K1 assessment in the Kirkpatrick Model. Standardized tests or other standard grading should be used to measure both student proficiency and growth. Teachers should be reviewed by both their peers and administration so teachers can share best practices and leadership can hold educators accountable for meeting individual goals and district standards.

Would schools under my command be perfect? Probably not. But I hope it would be better than what we have now.

4.13.2017

Maybe Both

Passion Week’s scriptures begin and end with a crowd. The first was the crowd laying palm branches on the streets of Jerusalem, the last gathered to watch an execution. The mood of the crowds shifted from celebratory at the beginning of the week to an angry mob a few days later. The first crowd gathered to honor Jesus and the next one gathered to condemn him.

At the time, Jerusalem was filled with people. Jewish people from all across Judea gathered in the city to celebrate Passover. As Jews, Jesus and his disciples also entered to observe the holiday. According to scripture, Jesus rode into town on a young donkey and the crowd covered the road ahead of him with their clothes and palm branches. They heralded his entry with a Psalm: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” They shouted a Hebrew term, Hosanna, which is a word meaning save, help, or rescue. It’s as if they are calling out to Jesus, save us.

A few days later, Jesus was arrested and put on trial. He was brought before the prefect, Governor Pontius Pilate. Pilate could not find any reason for guilt. His wife urged him to have nothing to do with the man. He even argued on behalf of the prisoner, urging for his release and how Jesus did not deserve death. But another crowd testified in opposition. They called for blood with more shouts: “crucify Him!” Pilate could not reason with the crowd. He washed his hands clean and caved to their demands.

As we look internally during the Easter season, we have to ask ourselves which crowd we would have joined. Had I lived in ancient Judea, would have been one of the citizens praising and blessing Jesus? Or would I have been a rioter throwing around false accusations and insisting upon his crucifixion?

If I’m honest?

Maybe both.

Because there are mornings I wake up and thank God for the breath that fills my lungs. And sometimes I’m on the side of the street in the middle of the night, yelling at God, like Bruce Almighty, “Smite me O Smiter.” With the same lips I sing praises and mutter curses. I am quick to say both “glory” and “dammit.” I credit God for the good things in my life and blame God for the trials. So which statement would I shout? “Hosanna” or “Kill him?” Would I join the party crowd or the protesting mob? Maybe both.


Scripturally, many of the people that gathered on what we now call Palm Sunday were likely a part of the crowd that gathered to observe Jesus’ trial. One day, they sang “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Then a few days later they chanted “Crucify him.” When Jesus came to Jerusalem, everyone was there for Passover. The holiday is an eight day celebration, so by the time Jesus faced Pilate, no one had gone home yet. They were still in town for the same holiday. This is one of the biggest parties in Jewish tradition. It is only reasonable to assume many people witnessed both the triumphal entry and the sentence that condemned Jesus.

They were the same people. The same crowd. They both loved and hated Jesus. They asked for his help and demanded his death. They, like me, didn’t choose one or the other; they were caught up in the moment. When asked, what shall it be: a savior or a scapegoat? This crowd chose both.

4.10.2017

About that snow

My daughter and I had very different reactions to the snow this morning.


4.09.2017

The School Experience

My experiences in primary and secondary education were not the most enjoyable. Nor would I describe them as productive. It wasn’t completely bad, but all that was good is dwarfed by the negative aspects my time in American public schools.

My ability to learn (or at least learn effectively) was hindered by two forces. The first was the nature of how schools were structured. When I was younger, no one knew what to do with kids like me. I had that weird combination of a learning disability and above average intelligence. The extent of my capabilities was never expressed through grades or daily homework assignments. Curriculum was not formatted in a way that catered to my learning style. Teachers and administrators expected me to conform to meet their needs, rather than becoming creative to meet my needs.

The second force that made my education less than stellar was beyond the control of the schools. I had the intellectual capabilities to do what needed to be done. Yet socially, culturally, and economically speaking, I was disadvantaged – especially when compared to other students in my district. That left me with fewer opportunities due to financial restrictions or social ineptitude. It is hard to focus on the role of a learner when you’re constantly bullied or do not have the funds to attend extracurricular functions with the rest of you class.

After high school, and throughout my adult life, I have had to pursue my own learning to make up for what I missed through formal education. Even in college classes, I have thrived most in environments that were the least structured.

A lot has changed in the last twenty to thirty years. If educators knew then what we know now, I think my experiences could have been more successful and rewarding. Unfortunately, I look at the schools my kids attend now and not much has changed. The ridged application of lecture and homework is still designed to teach to the test. Budgets continue to shrink. And schools progressively see reduced value in arts and athletics.

Even with my disappointments, I see hope. Schools have better supports to help disadvantaged kids and students with disabilities. Classrooms are beginning to incorporate technology in daily lessons. And there are a variety of options from magnet schools to online education to meet a wider variety of student needs and interests. The more schools begin to shift their priorities to be student-centric and less focused on standardized test results, the better our schools will be suited to meet the needs of all students.

4.02.2017

The Good Teachers

We all remember the horrible teachers. The ones who made us dread attending classes or soured our tastes for entire subjects. These figures remain in our memories for all the wrong reasons. But what about the good teachers? Or the great ones? Don’t we all have a few teachers we want to memorialize like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society?

When I look back at my formative years, there are a handful of teachers I consider good, perhaps even great. When I close my eyes and remember those educators who made me want to learn, these are the people I see.

Mrs. Funston: first grade teacher
Mrs. Wilson: Enhanced Learning teacher
Don: Sunday school teacher, wilderness guide, mentor, and hiking companion
Mr. Vandiver: junior high PE teacher and wrestling coach
Mr. Taylor: art teacher
K: high school US history teacher and theater director
Herr Hansen: high school German teacher

From the youngest of my elementary days, to my senior year of high school. These teachers taught a wide range of topics and possessed vastly different personalities. Yet there are a few traits all seven of them had in common.

1. They believed in me. More than just me, they believed in all their students. They pushed us to achieve greatness because they believed we were capable of greatness. Because they saw the best in us, we wanted to be better.

2. They knew more than what they were teaching. They also knew how and why. When they presented a lesson, they included a motivation and a reason why we needed to know what they were teaching. They taught in ways that were engaging, entertaining, memorable, and relevant.

3. They taught more than school lessons, they also taught life lessons. When they were teaching, their goal was to do more than help us pass a test or get good grades. They were teaching us to live beyond the classroom.

4. They stepped away from the front of the classroom and got down to our level. They interacted with us. They sat in desks next to us. They gave us the idea that we could do what they do.

I would hope my peers see these teachers with the same reverence. When I was a student in their classes, previous students would often return to visit and thank them. When I got older, I was one of those returning students. And twenty years later, in one of my alumni groups, I still see praise of a couple of these teachers. These were the good ones.