8.14.2016

Privilege, LUCK, Effort, and the Lingering Question of Success Part 2


When it comes to the question of success, those who have achieved it are viewed as a strange species by those who have not yet become successful. We have been told over and over that we can do it if we just work hard enough. We think we are doing our best so we wonder what the difference is between their hard work and our hard work. If we are both giving all of the effort possible, why do they see a reward but we do not?

Is it luck?

Ask that question to one of those self-appointed experts and you’ll see their head spin like the girl Regan in The Exorcist. It’s as if the mere suggestion of luck is a personal insult. “No. I work too hard to have my special talent and considerable effort to be cheapened by an insinuation of silly superstition. I did this on my own. I am a product of hard work and sacrifice. Luck has nothing to do with it.”

If it’s not luck, then what is it? What makes you so special? It can’t be hard work and sacrifice alone. Because there are nations in Africa filled with women who work harder in a day than you ever will in your lifetime but they will never know wealth. Because there are physically and emotionally broken soldiers returning from war who have sacrificed more than you can imagine and for many of them the ability to get out of bed in the morning is how they define success.

Would it really be a bad thing to admit you’re lucky? If you still can’t bring yourself to admit you live a charmed existence, then there can only be one thing holding you back.

Pride.

Which, once again, reminds me of that Steve Taylor song ‘What is the Measure of Your Success?’ At the end of the song, Taylor writes from the perspective of a dying man regretting a lifetime of pride and greed. “I am an old man and the word came. But you can't buy time with a good name. Now when the heirs come around like buzzards on a kill, I see my reflection in their envious eyes. I'd watch it all burn to buy another sunrise.”

Is that your future? Watching your offspring bicker over your fortunes? Wishing to trade everything in exchange for another day of life?

Your ego is so big you can’t even see the ground upon which you walk. You don’t recognize how you benefited from a set of circumstances that allowed your choices to pay off. You may have forgotten about the opportunities provided to you – through education or mentors or supportive parents. Perhaps you haven’t been plagued by debilitating injury or disease. Maybe you were never sidelined by a catastrophic failure of your only means of transportation. You ignore how your personality contributes to your successes and that’s something you were born with – that’s God given and not anything you earned on your own. And maybe, just maybe, chances were in your favor because of the color of your skin or your gender or your religion or your family name or the schools you attended.

I will not dispute hard work is needed to achieve success. But effort will always be elevated by circumstances and events and opportunities out of your control. Diligent effort can also be negated by different sets of circumstances, events, and opportunities. It won’t kill you to admit you’re lucky.

The silly part about this? I don’t even believe in luck. I believe in providence. I believe in hard work and planning. Yet I have no shame in giving credit to a luck I don’t believe exists.

On the surface, one could say I live a blessed life. My kids are delightful. My parents are as supportive as possible considering they live 900 miles away. I have an encouraging circle of friends that are like family. I have a great job and I am good at it. My colleagues respect me, my boss trusts me, and my clients frequently praise me. I have my own private office. My professional schedule is flexible within reason and allows me freedom to take care of my family and hustle on my writing when I am off the clock. I live in a scenic resort town where here is no shortage of things to do and my apartment is within walking distance of my employer, two beautiful parks, the grocery store, and my favorite pizza joint. My bills are paid, my kids are healthy, and I am happy.

Am I successful? Based on the paragraph above, I would have to say yes. I am successful. But that is just the surface. Underneath, I am a single parent to three kids. While I make more money than others in this area, the size of my household places my salary under the federal poverty level. Normal goods, necessities, and housing are more expensive than in neighboring communities because we live in a tourist destination. 90% of my kids’ wardrobes came from thrift shops. I cook at home as much as I possible so that I don’t have to spend money at restaurants. I would love to go out to the movies more and see more concerts but it’s just not in the budget.

Am I lucky? Consider the following. I work in an industry where the average tenure is less than a year and I have stayed for twelve years. I never finished college but got promoted into a position that required a degree. Most of the people that do the same job I do at different companies have degrees in IT. While I may not be educated, I am intelligent which helps in an environment driven by data. Even with my relatively low wages I am still able to feed and clothe my kids and keep them entertained.

Realistically, it isn’t luck. It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. It is a result of God’s good grace. I can look at what lead me to where I am and see the results of my labor but I also see where friends, families, and acquaintances have helped where I was unable to do it alone.

I may not believe in luck, but if you tell me I’m lucky I will agree with you. I am lucky. So damn lucky.

8.13.2016

Privilege, Luck, EFFORT, and the Lingering Question of Success Part 1


Success is a strange concept. What does it look like? How do you measure it? How do you know when you get there? Why is it so hard for some people but seems easy for others? If it is different for everybody, how can it possibly be defined?

Often, when talking about success, you are apt to hear motivational phrases like "You can do anything as long as you set your mind to it," or "If you dream it, you can achieve it," or "If you work hard enough you will succeed." While the intent is noble, the implications are discouraging. Anything? Dream? Enough?

What are the limits to anything? Is there a dream that is too big? And how much is enough? If my dream is to do the moonwalk on the moon, there might be some challenges. We haven't sent a person to the moon since 1972. NASA isn't sending anyone to the moon. The Roscosmos aren't sending anyone to the moon. Even Elon Musk with his seemingly endless wealth hasn't planned to send his SpaceX program to the moon - he is aiming for Mars. Dream all I want, set my mind to it as much as possible, work as hard as I possibly can, moonwalking on the moon is probably not something that I would ever be able to do. While plausible, success is certainly unlikely. For some dreams, effort and wishful thinking are not enough.

What about realistic dreams? If I’m not able to reach my goals, does that automatically mean I’m not working hard enough? How hard does someone have to work before they can earn it? Is the required indescribable?

So the question lingers. What is success? How can it be achieved?

A quick browse through Amazon shows this is a question that many have attempted to answer. Searching Amazon Books for the word "success" returns over 265 thousand results. Authors like Jack Canfield, Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Covey, and John Maxwell have built careers teaching their roadmap to success. While you might find similarities between the approaches these writers have taken in their lives, one thing is apparent: there are at least 265 thousand different ways to be successful. One could even argue there are seven billion different ways to be successful. If every person residing on earth is unique, wouldn't logic argue that the way we measure our success is just as peculiar as each individual?

Many who have achieved such successes, be it financial freedom, physical fitness, or professional acumen find themselves trying to pass on the lessons they’ve learned. But rather than helping others out of the goodness of their hearts, they seek to monetize their effort. They write self-help books, become life coaches, promote themselves as exercise gurus, peddling their own version of a get-rich-quick scheme. They are self-appointed experts in search of an audience. The lure is nearly irresistible: ‘If I can do it, so can anyone else – but only if they do it just like I did it.’ They insist their path is the only route to success and condemn anyone who contradicts them. It is the classic case of the self-attribution fallacy: the argument that your success is solely due to a unique set of skills and talents and the illusion of hard work. Self-attribution ignores factors and circumstances out of your control that played a contributing role in your success.

But hey – you’re the one that worked really hard, you must know what you’re doing. Right?

Granted, I know not all who specialize in self-improvement are scam artists. There are many who have made their fortunes by actually helping people. Dave Ramsey has built an empire because he knows what he’s talking about and has provided sound advice to thousands. In my book collection, you will find titles from authors that have turned their own successes into motivational material for readers like me. But for every genuine expert there are a hundred more trying to capitalize on their newfound proficiency. These are the people who set the standard to which they believe we should all aspire.

In America, those metrics to evaluate success tend to follow a common theme: wealth, possessions, status, job title, influence, power. It reminds me of a Steve Taylor song, 'What Is the Measure of Your Success?' His lyrics make a blunt confession ("I am driven to possess") and follows it up with an inquiry ("Are you someone I impress?") in a sharp critique of greed and materialism.

Such pursuit is immoral, yet we chase those things. We somehow define wealth as an income twice as large as our own. We think those who have big houses, boats, RVs, and fancy cars are the archetype of happiness but forget about the mortgages, leases, and maintenance costs to maintain such an image. We marvel at the designer suites and limitless cash flow of high level business executives while completely unaware they haven't spoken to their kids in weeks.

We all measure success a little differently. One man's come up is another's abject failure. As Jesus once said, "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?"

Before I get carried away, I do not wish to disparage anyone who has - by their own measure found success. Such accomplishments are a rarity in our world. But I often wonder if the cost was worth it. Observing recent interactions between those who describe themselves as hard-working self-made successes and those who are struggling to do more than simply exist, it almost seems like the price of accomplishment is too high, as there are those who have gleefully lost their soul to revel in the world they found.

If you describe yourself as a successful person, I commend you. I know it wasn’t easy to get to where you are. Please allow me to urge you to consider a few thoughts.

1. Don’t ever forget how incredibly privileged you are. Success is an elusive creature for many. What you have is a gift and should be treated like it could be gone tomorrow.
2. It could be gone tomorrow. Nothing in this world lasts forever. Even if you have adequately planned for and budgeted savings in case of emergency, don’t ever forget your stuff is terrestrial in nature and you cannot take it with you when your time here ends.
3. Do not ever look down on those who are struggling to make ends meet. It is easy to pick apart someone else’s life and tell them what they’re doing wrong. Unless they asked for your input, it is condescending. It is easy to criticize someone for binge watching Netflix when it doesn’t line up with your work ethic, but you don’t know anything about their lives.
4. Sometimes, telling someone they just need to work harder is an insult. I work hard but I know people who work harder than I do and they are facing worse circumstances than I have ever endured. If effort and ingenuity were guaranteed paths to wealth and success, the bulk of this planet’s wealth would be shifted from Wall Street to the African continent.

8.01.2016

A Real American Jedi

"Your shirt confuses me," he said.


"What do you mean?" I asked
"It has a Star Wars icon, and ... "

I expected him to say a patriotic theme but I was wrong.

"And it has G.I. Joe colors."
I nodded. "Right."
"What is it trying to say?"

I explained how I got nerdy attire in red white and blue for myself and the kids to wear on the fourth of July. The Millennium Falcon with American contrails was perfect for me.

But what if it was both? What if it celebrated dual fandoms of Star Wars and G.I. Joe? Would that be a bad thing? Because I may or may not have been the kid that took my action figures and made Cobra Commander race Chewbacca on a pair of speeder bikes.

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

7.26.2016

Guilty Pleasures

When it comes to art, it seems like everyone has a guilty pleasure: a movie or song they love but would be sheepish to admit it in polite company. Those created works that you know your friends would relentlessly mock if they knew you enjoyed it when no one was looking. Therefore, you keep the thing that makes you happy a secret.

Personally, I hate the idea of a guilty pleasure song or movie or book or video game or Broadway production. If you like something then like it. And if that thing is a bit silly, then let your geek flag fly. If you are ashamed to like something, then maybe you shouldn't like that thing.

Trust me. I am a man who will shamelessly listen have Peter Cetera and Al Green playing in my office at work. I am a man who will occasionally watch romantic comedies despite not having a spouse or girlfriend to force me to do so. I am a man who has songs from Rent, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Music Man, Into the Woods, and West Side Story in various iTunes playlists. I am a man who will sit and play My Little Pony with my daughter. I don't embarrass easily.

Sure I live by such guidelines. But are there not exceptions to rules? I mean, I have my limits.

A while back, I woke up with a song stuck in my head. I was humming it while in the shower and while I got dressed for work. I sung it to myself in the car during the five minute drive to my office. While I completed my morning reports, the song was still playing on my internal jukebox. I could not shake it. So I pulled it up on my iPod and pushed play. But then I immediately paused it. I couldn't just let the song play out loud. I dug out my headphones, plugged them in, and pushed play a second time. Then I smiled. I could listen in peace and any coworker walking by would be oblivious to the tune satisfying my eardrums. Besides, no one needed to hear THAT song blasting over the cubicle wall. What would they think of me?

The song? Just an old country ditty from Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: Fishin' in the Dark. Don't remember Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? These guys?


So everything I just said about how you should embrace the things you like and if you're embarrassed about it, maybe you shouldn't like it? Ignore me. I clearly have no credibility to make such statements.

7.19.2016

Serial Complainers

Serial complainers prior to July 6th, 2016:
"Kids these days. All they do is sit inside and play their video games and binge watch Netflix. When I was their age, I didn't have any of those fancy phones or iPads. We played outside until it was dark. We got dirty and no one cared. We know how to talk to other kids. Today, young people don't have a sense of community. They probably don't even know how to get to the grocery store unless their parents drive them. You know what they need? They need to get out more. Interact with their peers. Go to the library. Visit a park. Take a hike. No more of this watching TV all night mumbo jumbo."


Serial complainers since July 6th, 2016:
"Kids these days. They're every where. Like big masses of dimwitted cattle roaming the streets. Every park, every sidewalk, every coffee shop, every church. There is no escaping them. Hordes of youth taking crazy mumbo jumbo about Squirtles and Pidgeys, and Snorlaxes. Why do they have to invade the park and the library and the grocery store. I just wish they would stay home. They are even out after dark. Doesn't anyone care?"




***Full disclosure: I have not downloaded Pokémon Go onto my phone and don't intend to do so anytime soon. But many of my friends play and I am enjoying the pictures and stories and memes everyone is posting. Despite what the curmudgeons are saying, I believe this game is doing a great amount of good in our world.***

7.15.2016

It's Friday, I'm confused

We were driving home when the song 'Friday, I'm In Love' started playing. The kids all adore this song and often sing along. It might be the only song by The Cure that they know. Well, they might be familiar with 'Close to Me’ and 'Why Can't I Be You?' but 'Friday, I'm In Love' is the one they can all recognize from the opening guitar notes and they can quote the lyrics from start to finish. Hearing their voices superimposed over Robert Smith's is one of those things that warms my heart.

This occasion was different than the dozens of other times we've listened to this song while driving around. Christian had some questions.

"Dad," he said, "I'm confused. In this song, every day of the week is kind of cruddy except for Friday. Why is Friday the I'm-in-love day?"
"Well, Friday just happens to be the day he's in love." I answered, thinking that would explain everything. I was wrong.


"Only Fridays?” Christian continued. “You would think the other days get better after that. It would be really horrible if you were only in love on Fridays."
"That's not quite what he's saying. It's more like every other day has sucked but today is Friday and today doesn't suck. So it doesn't matter what happened on every other day of the week because he's in love today."
"But it's only one day. What if today was blue or gray or black?"
“Because today isn’t blue or gray or black.”
“Huh?” He still didn’t understand.
"He isn't writing from the perspective that today is some other day of the week. He is writing this song on a Friday and singing it on a Friday. He doesn't care if every other day sucked because those days aren't today. Today doesn't suck because he's in love."
"But Tuesday and Wednesday broke his heart."
"It's not Tuesday or Wednesday."
Christian shook his head, "Why would he write about those days?"
This conversation was going in circles but I felt it was my parental duty to help him understand. "He isn't singing this song on Monday or Thursday or Saturday. He's singing it today. Because he is in love today. And today is ... "

You could see his facial expressions change as he contemplated the meaning of what I said. Finally, his eyes widened and he smiled. "Today is Friday!"

And in case the song isn’t stuck in your head yet, please enjoy the following.

7.14.2016

About Empathy

Story time.

After a robbery at a Metropolis museum, thieves fled to Fawcett City - home of Captain Marvel. Superman arrived and the two collaborated and defeated the bad guys. Superman and Captain Marvel found a mutual respect for each other and flew to Mount Everest where they talked about their powers and had a Step Brothers moment.

image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

However, Superman refused to talk about his civilian life. He considered his alter-ego to be separate from hero duties.

Alter-egos can be a tricky thing. Superman put on horn-rimmed glasses and became Clark Kent. Captain Marvel's alter-ego was easier to disguise. When in costume, he was an eleven-year-old boy named Billy Batson; a homeless orphan living in the subway, granted the power to defend himself by an old wizard named Shazam. All Billy had to do was speak the wizard's name to be transformed from a preteen into a full grown adult with super strength, speed, and the ability to fly. Uttering the word "shazam" again reverted him back into a child.

Captain Marvel's arch-nemesis, Dr. Sivana, hired a meta-human tracker who discovered Billy's secret. Hit-men were sent to kill the kid, but Billy shouted "shazam" before he could be harmed. Captain Marvel won the fight but his alter-ego's best friend was caught in the crossfire, gravely wounded. Captain Marvel took the injured child to the ER but the doctors failed to revive the boy.

Tormented by grief and guilt, Captain Marvel went on a rampage with the strength of Superman and emotional maturity of an eleven-year-old. He attacked the police station where a suspect was being questioned, fought against officers trying to stop him, and assaulted the hit-man inside the interrogation room. The killer revealed the name of the person who hired him and Captain Marvel left to seek revenge. He destroyed the top floor of Sivana's office building and choked Sivana; he wants justice but couldn’t bring himself to kill the man. Still troubled by the loss of his best friend and the damages he caused, Captain Marvel fled.

Meanwhile, Clark Kent wrote a news story about the successful team up of Superman and Captain Marvel. The article was published just as Clark learned of Captain Marvel's violent quest for vengeance. Clark shed his glasses and changed into his Superman costume. He believed that the rampage through Fawcett City was wrong and wanted to bring his friend to justice. He found a distressed Captain Marvel back on Mount Everest. There, Superman demanded an explanation.

This story played out in Superman/Shazam: First Thunder - one of my favorite titles from DC Comics. What started as a typical action filled comic book about superpowers and crime fighting quickly turned into a morality tale about the emotional toll and personal responsibility of being a hero.

The second scene on Everest is one of the saddest I have ever read in comics. Captain Marvel provided his reasons: assassins were sent to kill him, but they killed his best friend instead. In response to Superman's anger, Captain Marvel revealed his secret identity, "shazam" returned to his normal eleven-year-old self. Filled with grief, Billy remarked how it might be too dangerous to be himself. In light of Billy's revelation, Superman's questioning changed from "What did you do" to "Who did this to you." He began to see Billy as the victim instead of the perpetrator.

Superman left Everest to confront the wizard, Shazam, who he now blamed for Captain Marvel's actions. Billy returned to Fawcett City and moved residence from the subway to an abandoned apartment building. While Billy sat in loneliness, Superman discovered more about Billy through his conversation with Shazam. Superman's argument was that the role of a superhero is one that should only be chosen by an adult - it shouldn't be thrust upon children.

image courtesy of DC Comics

Shazam agreed; Billy was just a kid, one who needed guidance.

Sure, the powers that Shazam gave to the young Billy were more than a kid could handle. It might be unfair to force such responsibility on a boy not yet old enough to make that choice for himself. Yet, at the same time, Shazam's gift was an act of compassion. He saw a lost child who needed help, needed power so that he could survive the harsh realities facing homeless youth. Shazam gave what he could but recognized the boy still needed something that the wizard could not provide: guidance. A role model. A mentor.

Superman covered his costume and found Billy's new home in the abandoned apartment. Instead of approaching the child as a hero, he entered as a normal man. Now wearing glasses and a nice suit, Billy did not recognize his friend; he thought this strange man was a social worker coming to get him into foster care. Clark Kent and Billy chatted briefly, then Clark loosened his tie and unbuttoned his shirt to reveal his secret: the big red S on his chest.

image courtesy of DC Comics

Superman sat down next to the boy and said "My real name is Clark." After the grief, the emotional turmoil, and all of the trouble, Clark finally saw the boy inside Captain Marvel and realized that he could give Billy the guidance that Shazam could never offer.

Superman's first instinct was to pursue justice - something that is righteous and noble. Yet in the process, he learned that justice isn't always served through harsh rule of law. He went looking for a super-powered man who clashed against police and destroyed an office building, instead he found a child who was scared and alone.

Sometimes, a little empathy and vulnerability heals more wounds than punishment.

The empathy that Clark Kent demonstrated in the final pages of Superman/Shazam: First Thunder is powerful. Unfortunately, that kind of power is lacking in our society. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we made more effort to see people for who they really are beyond biases and first impressions.

If we could see African American citizens as a group of people who matter just like the rest of us.
If we could see the beauty of the LGBT community as they were created in the image of God just like the rest of us.
If we could see behind the badge of police officers that they are human and make mistakes just like the rest of us.
If we could stop being scared of anyone we think is different: Mexican immigrants, or Syrian refugees, or gay people, or cops, or gun owners, or feminists, or teens roaming around town while playing Pokémon Go.

I would be willing to bet, if we are vulnerable enough to bare our secrets and we compassionately see the humanity in those around us, we could begin to tear down the walls that divide us. We could see each other as equals. We could fix the tensions in our cities. We could learn what it means to actually love our neighbors.

7.11.2016

Hello to those we lost

One of the projects happening at Gizmo CDA is Gizmo2Xtremes. They are building a robot to send 100,000 feet into the atmosphere attached to a weather balloon. From there, they will be guiding the robot back down with controlled flight to Lake Pend Oreille where it will dive 1000 feet below the surface. It is a fantastic way to get kids excited about STEM education.


Along with the robot and the weather balloon, Gizmo CDA is also sending messages on little scraps of paper that will scatter once the balloon pops – a stratospheric message in a bottle. At Kinetic Fest, they were selling tickets for people to write whatever message they desired to send up with the robot and balloon. I spent a couple hours in the Gizmo2Xtremes booth, talking to people about the project, collecting the money, and giving them paper for the messages. What most people wrote is a complete mystery to me. But there is one older gentleman that stood out.

Late in the afternoon, he walked up. If I were to guess his age, he’s probably a decade older than my dad; old enough to have grandkids that are grown with kids of their own. When I asked him if he wanted to send a message into space, he smiled big and said, “Absolutely.”

He handed me a dollar and I gave him the paper and pen. With no one else around, I watched his hand as he composed his message. The first four words he wrote simultaneously broke my heart and renewed my faith in humanity.

“Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad.”

He continued to say “Hi” to another ten names. Considering his age, I knew he wasn’t greeting anyone one still living. His saying “Hi” was his way of letting go.

I wanted to walk around the table and give the man a big hug. But I didn’t want to make it awkward so I just stood there on my side of the table which was probably just as awkward.

Grief is hard. We are not really taught the right way to mourn death and great losses in our lives. It is such an individual process that even if someone were to tell us what worked for them, there is zero guarantee that it will work for us. But this old man had it figured out. If anyone knows how to say goodbye to lost loved ones, it is him. Because there is something I noticed as he composed his message to space.

As he wrote, there was not a trace of sadness in his expression. It was something else completely.

Peace.

He had come to terms knowing he would never see his parents, friends, and family on this side of existence, whatever sorrow he had previously felt was replaced with a calm that defied explanation. He was filled with peace. Sure, he might have been saying goodbye, but he did so in the best way he knew how.

He said “Hi.”

7.08.2016

Can we grieve?

It started less than a month ago with a terrorist attack – an event that was simultaneously a hate crime and the worst mass shooting in modern American history. After which, we were granted a reprieve just like any other tragedy, even as they become more frequent.

Then this week happened.

One horrific shooting, broadcast so that the world could watch. What we saw was not justice. Twenty-four hours later, we watched another unnecessary loss of life, live on facebook the aftermath of another officer involved shooting. Then on the third night, another act of terror as a sniper (or snipers) fired into a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing five police officers and wounding more.

Ever feel like you can’t catch a breath?

My old high school wrestling coach put us through something he lovingly called hell practices – run until you puke, pushups until you collapse, crunches until you can’t breathe, and then repeat. Never a chance to stop and rest – done with one thing and on to the next. Suck it up and keep moving.

That is what this last week feels like to me. Hell. But this wasn’t practice. This is reality. Senseless acts of violence, one after another. I want a moment to breathe but then it happens again. I find myself crying out “God just make it stop.”

Can we take some time to breathe and reflect upon all we have lost in the past few days? Or are going to suck it up and move on to the next tragedy?

My favorite book in the Bible is Lamentations. It seems to fit my melancholy disposition. A few short chapters of vivid poetry filled with bitter complaints and yet brimming with hope. More than anything else, this biblical entry taught me that it is OK to be sad, to be hurt, to be emotionally wounded. Lamentations teaches us it is OK to grieve and mourn – that there is a time to lament. It showed me how an expression of sorrow could be the deepest act of worship imaginable.

Within its verses, the author penned these words: “Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.”

And later: “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.”

Is this how we feel right now as American people?

The lament does not end there. The writer continues to mourn the loss of his country and the destruction of his city. Half way through the book, he shakes it off and shifts into a divergent tone and direction. These verses have long been etched into my mind. Words which I have memorized and frequently recall when I am feeling down. Monday night, with the sounds of fireworks exploding all around my apartment, I took some colored pencils and transcribed them onto a blank sheet of paper that is now posted to the inside of my bathroom door so that I see them at least once a day.


There is hope. Even now when it doesn’t seem like it. Even last night as chaos erupted in Dallas. Even as young black men are killed by police. Even a few weeks ago on a terrible Sunday morning at the Pulse nightclub. There is hope.

The author of Lamentations understood the existence of hope. He believed in it, but it took him two and a half chapters to get there. Before he could say “great is Your faithfulness” he had to first lament. He had to speak of his brokenness before that pain could be healed.

Perhaps we as Americans need to do the same. Before we can heal, before we can see hope, maybe we just need to lament. Can we come together as a nation and mourn? Can we weep over our losses? Can we cry out in grief? Can we ask if there is any sorrow like our sorrow?

We need to demonstrate our grief. If that means we gather in the streets and protest, then let it be protests. If it means candlelight prayer vigils, then let's pray together. If that means we sit alone in our rooms and cry, then let it out. If it means we wander off into the woods and curse at the skies, I believe in a God who is big enough to hear our profanities.

Whatever it is, we need to mourn. Now is a time to lament. If we can do that, I promise you there is hope.

7.07.2016

How do you explain hatred?

In 1938, Detective Comics published the first issue of Action Comics featuring an alien with godlike powers who wore blue tights and a red cape. His name was Superman - the first modern superhero. Nearly 80 years later, Superman is still one of the most popular and beloved fictional characters every created. He has become an American icon and a prototype for many more comic book heroes.

Superman was the result of collaboration between Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist). Both were sons of Jewish immigrants working in an era of anti-Semitism. Through the medium of comic books and super-powered beings, Siegel and Shuster portrayed an exaggerated version of the Jewish experience in America. People of their heritage were shunned, discriminated against, harassed. Jewish Americans were treated with skepticism and disdain. Yet their ingenuity helped build much of American society; their influence built or revolutionized the film industry, banking, publishing, and the sciences. The Jews living in America felt like aliens in a strange land, despised yet wanting nothing more than to help. Superman was an alien in a strange land, misunderstood yet wanting nothing more than to save lives.

In a way, Siegle and Shuster created a fearsome creature that would be a guardian to the American people as a way of subtly convincing readers how that which they feared could save them. They were selling acceptance of Jewish peoples in the form of a man with unnatural strength and the power to fly. If such a powerful being came into our world, (Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!) would it be revered or feared? Human nature tends to be scared of that which it does not understand. We are afraid of things that are abnormal and weird.
image courtesy of Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment

That is what happened during Jesus' time. John the Baptist was a strange man. He lived in isolation, wore strange clothes, and ate bugs. He criticized those in power and as a result was feared by Herod who though John might lead a rebellion. In the end, John the Baptist was beheaded. When Jesus began his ministry, he taught about love and a new heavenly kingdom and a radically different way of living. Much like John who preceded Jesus, the religious and political leaders of the day felt threatened. They were worried of a revolt lead by Jesus, the charismatic and popular teacher who spoke against power and corruption. They feared what they did not understand and could not control so they had Jesus executed, crucified like a common criminal.

It is sad how frequently how fear steers our culture. Whether it is ancient Judea, or the anti-Semitism of the 20th century, or today and this very moment, little has changed. John the Baptist and Jesus were feared because they were different. The Jews were hated because they were different. It makes me wonder who is different now.

Homeless people?
The LBGT community?
Syrian refugees?
Mexican immigrants and migrant workers?
African Americans and the Black Lives Matters movement?
Hillary Clinton supporters or Donald Trump fans?
Your neighbor?
My neighbor?
You?
Me?

Fear leads people into drastic and often irrational actions. In the last 48 hours, we have seen this played out in horrifying measure. For unexplainable reasons, fear led law enforcement to end the lives of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.

When my kids heard about these news stories, they want to know why. Why would someone do that? Why did this happen? Aren't the police supposed to help? Aren't they supposed to prevent stuff like this from happening? Why are people so angry?

I am left to explain hatred to my kids. I have to give a reason for racism, xenophobia, ableism, and homophobia. I have to describe discrimination and profiling and how it happens. In the process of this conversation, I feel like I am justifying the inexcusable. Because when my son asks me "Why would anyone hate someone because of the color of their skin?" the only appropriate answer is "They shouldn't."

These conversations break my heart. They are soul wounding discussions that should never have a need to exist. So I apologized. I told my oldest son that I was sorry how my generation has created such a mess of our culture. I told him that he deserves better. I told him his brother and sister deserve better. And I feel absolutely powerless to change anything.

My son told me it is OK. And with wisdom that should never belong to an eleven year old child, he said, "Maybe, when my generation is older, we'll see how cruddy the world is and do something about it."

This kid gives me hope. Our governments are gridlocked. Our police forces are reactionary. News media preaches misinformation. Everyone is scared and angry. But my son believes his generation has the power to fix it. I want to believe him and I hope that you do too.

7.03.2016

Is It Bliss?

The proverb proposes “ignorance is bliss.” I have often wondered the origin of the phrase with some strange hope to travel back in time, prevent its adoption into popular usage – like a literary terminator sent into the past to kill what would destroy us, forever protecting our lexicon.

Is ignorance really bliss? What does that even mean?

Alas, I am not a T-800, nor do I possess Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique. What I do have is access to the internet and my google-fu is strong. I don’t have to ignorantly wonder about useless trivia for all eternity. If I want to know where something originated, I only need to spend a few of minutes with a search engine and diligent study.

While the powers to defy boundaries of time and space belong only to The Doctor and his companions: I can peruse the texts of history and Thomas Gray is safe from my intellectual wrath.

Who is Thomas Gray? Gray was an eighteenth century poet, a scholar and a professor at Cambridge University. By all accounts, he was an intelligent and eloquent man. He spent most of his free time reading or playing a harpsichord. He had an interest in botany, physical sciences, and locations of antiquity. His most famous poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ contained lines that immediately found their way into common use in the English language – phrases like “celestial fire” and “kindred spirit.”

Thomas Gray is also to blame for first penning the words “ignorance is bliss.” It is found in the final stanza of his poem, ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.


Over the past 270 years, the original meaning of Gray’s words has been replaced. Gone is the loving nostalgia of faded youth. Gone is the fond remembrance of being in school and getting an education. Instead, the final eight words of a beautiful poem are immortalized and taken as gospel: happiness is found in ignorance and wisdom is foolish. Modern America has embraced these words to become a higher calling – that idiocy is something to which we should aspire. Ignorance is bliss. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Where did we go wrong? How did we come to interpret this work of prose into a twisted American ideal? It couldn’t have been at the birth of our nation. A little more than forty years after Gray’s Ode was published, Benjamin Franklin wrote his autobiography which contained his list of thirteen virtues for moral perfection: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. While recognizing it was impossible to be perfect, attempting to reach perfection made Ben better and happier.

Please note, Franklin did not list ignorance as a virtue. Yet a large portion of American culture lives as if it was, gleefully bragging about their disdain for any semblance of intellect. This is the culture that turned Honey Boo Boo into a star, clings to debunked conspiracy theories, and denigrates those with Ivy League degrees as elitists. We use ignorance as an excuse; we cannot be held accountable for things of which we were not aware, dodging personal responsibility in an effort to maintain our pursuit of happiness. We never have to be wrong nor do we ever need to be challenged. This trend is alarming, but nowhere does it concern me more than within the church.

It needs to stop. We can no longer demonize scientific inquiry as some great evil. We can no longer shun those with an insatiable appetite for knowledge. We can no longer discourage education.

If we as Christians believe in a God who literally created everything, then we must also believe the same God created the seismic shifts and eons of erosion that formed our continents and gave shape to our mountains and coastlines. If we believe in a God who was the creative spark at the origin of our species, we must also believe the same God gave us brains and intends for us to use them. If we believe in a God who wove the tapestries in this world of scenic vistas teaming with wildlife, we must also believe the same God wants us to care for and preserve that natural world. If we believe in a God who decorated the heavens with countless stars and distant galaxies, we must believe the same God wants us to explore those extraterrestrial depths and understand our universe.

That is the kind of God that King Solomon worshiped. He did not see ignorance as a virtue. Rather he valued wisdom. In the biblical book of Proverbs, Solomon wrote, “Hold on to wisdom, and it will take care of you. Love it, and it will keep you safe. Wisdom is the most important thing; so get wisdom. If it costs everything you have, get understanding. Treasure wisdom, and it will make you great; hold on to it, and it will bring you honor. It will be like flowers in your hair and like a beautiful crown on your head.”

The Apostle James encourages his readers to ask God for wisdom if we lack it because God will give it to us generously and without reproach.

It is wisdom, not ignorance that will take care of us. It is wisdom, not ignorance that makes us great. We should be asking for wisdom, not ignorance. Because God gives wisdom, not ignorance.

Knowledge and wisdom are both spiritual gifts. We need to stop treating them as taboo topics or nefarious qualities. If we are to abide by the words of the first chapter of Isaiah, wisdom is essential.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause.
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.

Justice requires wisdom. Caring for the orphan and widow takes wisdom. God is clearly asking his people to think. He wants us to reason together. Rational, critical thinking.

Does that mean we should ignore Thomas Gray’s poem? Of course not, but we should put it into context. He was looking at a younger generation as a reflection his own days of youth. He wondered if knowledge of the future would ruin their joy. If you knew what would happen to you over the next twenty years, would it inspire you or discourage you? Gray figured it would be better for kids to be unaware of the pains and trials of their future as it would diminish their joy.

To be ignorant of the past is dangerous. To be ignorant of current events is irrational. But to be ignorant of the future? Well, that is bliss.

6.25.2016

Ugly Americans

There was an incident in Florida. Not the shooting at Pulse or the gator at Disney World. It should have been innocuous: a couple of dudes from Brazil filming tricks on self-balancing scooters known as hoverboards. Not a big deal, no cause for concern. Probably trying to be the next YouTube stars - inspired by people like Johnny Knoxville and Bam Margera.

What elevated their video from stupid tricks to an incident was the actions of a third party. An obese white woman in an SUV pulled to a stop in the middle of the road (blocking traffic) to berate the two boys in an onslaught of racist and homophobic rants. She assumed they were of Arab decent and were studying the flight patterns from a nearby airport to plot the next big terrorist attack. The worst part of her vulgar and belligerent verbal assault is that she lauded herself as someone who loved Jesus while these two boys were condemned to hell.

One of the two wannabe YouTubers filmed the exchange from his phone. A friend of mine shared his video on Facebook and I watched in shocked fascination like seeing a train wreck happen in slow motion. I couldn't help but think this woman represented everything that is wrong with America. Angry. Hateful. Xenophobic. Jingoistic. Arrogant. Ham-fisted. Obnoxious. Filled with blunderbuss. Generally unhealthy. Ignorant and oblivious. Granted, I know people like this are not symbolic of all Americans. I know they are a noisy and horrific minority emboldened by the flagrant violations of civility displayed by those who want to lead our nation. Yet they are the stereotype. They are the Ugly Americans our foreign friends think of when asked to describe American tourists.

Even worse, if you ask your atheist friends to describe how they view the average Christian, this woman is what they describe. Hostile, judgmental, hypocritical, paranoid, fearful, unintelligent, and rude. It grieves me to see displays like this - when people who claim to live under the banner of Jesus act in ways contrary to fundamental Christian doctrine. People like this Floridian woman fit the description of what Brennan Manning called the greatest cause of atheism:


When Jesus described the greatest commandment, He told us to love God with every element of our being. He then quoted Levitical law to describe the second greatest command: love your neighbor as you love yourself. I thought of those verses of scripture while watching the confrontation between this woman and the two guys from Brazil. Is this the kind of love that Jesus talked about? It can't be. Does this woman know who is her neighbor? Is she really loving them the way she loves herself? If so, she is abnormally self-loathing. Even if the worst of what she assumed was true, was she abiding by what Jesus instructed in the gospel of Luke? “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who are cruel to you.” How could she? There was nothing loving or good or prayerful about her stream of insults, profanities, and derogatory comments. If what the apostle John wrote about love is true – “whoever loves has been born of God and knows God and anyone who does not love does not know God,” then I find it unbelievable that this woman knows the God she claimed to love.

There was a part of me that wanted to share the video. I thought 'We should make her famous for all of the wrong reasons. Turn her into a sensation like the Chewbacca mom, but in reverse. She should be shamed and humiliated.' But I abstained. Here is why.

1. It was horrifically disgusting. I am not typically offended by foul language. One of the songs on the soundtrack to my life is Little Lion Man by Mumford & Sons, a song with a chorus that sings "It was not your fault but mine, I really F@#%ed it up this time." One of my all-time favorite movies is Kevin Smith's Clerks - they drop several dozen f-bombs in that script and I laugh. I hear vulgarities throughout the day almost every day and usually shrug it off. Even with my high threshold for what it takes to offend me, this woman exceeded it with gusto and kept going. The depths of her crudity was astounding - in casual obscenities, in racial and homophobic slurs, in her graphic depiction of sexual acts, in her relentless attempt to paint these two boys as terrorists and pedophiles. I know that many of my friends and family have more delicate tolerance for unwholesome talk than me; if I was offended by the language in the video, I know several who would be greatly appalled.

2. The altercation ended poorly. The Brazilian boys didn’t invite their attacker's verbal barrage. They didn't deserve it. I would expect them to respond defensively; that is the normal fight or flight response humanity has hardwired into our brains. When threatened, we either freeze or retaliate. These two boys fought back but they did not do so gracefully. In some ways, their response was just as ugly as the woman who started it. Instead of deescalating the situation, they riled the woman up even more. While I can't fault them, I don't applaud their actions either.

3. In light of the hate crime and terrorist attack in Orlando, the LGBT community is already fearful of people like this woman. They are hurt. They don't feel safe. They are scared. I've chatted with a few of my gay friends over the past couple weeks and they all have expressed similar emotions. The shooting in Orlando was terrifying, but many of the reactions from straight conservatives have been just as hurtful. Reposting a video where someone demonstrates so much vile hatred for my gay friends would only add insults to the injury they've already endured. I value their friendships too much to subject them to more contempt.

4. Would sharing the video make me any better than her? If I believe that the two Brazilians were what Jesus would say were her neighbors, then wouldn't she be my neighbor? If she failed to demonstrate love to her neighbors, then I would also fail to show love by sharing a video with the intent to shame and humiliate. If I am to live the way I believe God commands me, then I must show love to people I don't like, I must love people that offend me. Even if they are complete strangers. Honestly, I don't always get it right. Sometimes, I should show love and fail to do it.

5. There is enough anger and hate in our world. I really don’t want to add to the noise. If I am going to climb up on a soap box, I would rather shout about grace and reconciliation than to point at someone and say "Look at this fool." Instead I cling to the words of Martin Luther King Jr, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." When I fail to live up to the standard I proclaim, it is time I admit it like I am now and aim to do better the next time.

6.18.2016

The Best Gifts

I made a mistake. In a conversation with my daughter, I mentioned that tomorrow is Father’s Day. This news caused her great distress.

“But, I didn’t get you anything?” She said.
“Get me anything for what?”
“For Father’s Day. I didn’t get you a Father’s Day present.”
“That’s OK. I got you, I don’t need anything else.”

That didn’t pacify her.

“But I always get you a Father’s Day present.”
“Oh, Sweetheart. I have enough stuff. I don’t need more stuff.”
“But I like getting you superhero figurines. Remember? I got you Superman last year and Flash the year before that?”

Of course I remember. Both figures are on top of my TV next to the Wii.

“My sweet Zu.” I picked her up and set her on top of an elevated surface to make sure she could look me straight in the eyes. “I love all of the gifts you got me but the best gift you could ever give is you. You are enough. I love you and you are the only thing I need.”









“OK, Daddy.”

6.17.2016

The Boys & Their Hobbies

My two sons are very different creatures.

JJ fits the traditional masculine mold. He plays rough, grunts and growls, and will eat anything. His interests range from any sport played with a ball to any vehicle with an engine in it (the louder the better). He like comic books, action movies, and stories about monsters. When someone says, "he's all boy," they could be talking about JJ.

Christian does his own thing. Wicked smart and wildly creative. He is a voracious reader and a dreamer of big ideas. He can explain the uncertainty principle, the basics of string theory, the laws of physics, and the intricacies of a black hole. But the unspoken rules of social interaction are foreign concepts. The only reason he demonstrates any interest in athletics is because other kids like it and Christian just wants to be cool and accepted.

As a parent, it's my job to encourage and support their hobbies. If I can help them pursue their dreams, then that is something I should be doing. JJ wants to be an athlete and Christian wants to be a comedian who also writes books.

Of the two, guess which one I am more adequately prepared to lead into their goals.

When I was a kid, my brother was Sporty Spice. Aaron's first love was basketball but he was willing to try most other sports. As an adult, he enters more fantasy leagues than I can count. And his son (my nephew) is a terrific pitcher for their local baseball team.

I landed on the other side of the spectrum. I was the kid more into art and theater and design. I would have rather been on a stage than at home plate. I more comfortable in a rehearsal than a huddle. I would have preferred memorizing scripts than offensive plays. By the time I graduated high school I could deliver a mean soliloquy but I could hardly shoot a free throw.

Christian's goal this summer is to write a book. And he wants to write it with me. When school starts, he wants to join the drama club. Those activities are in my wheelhouse. I can help him with all of the above.

But I get a little lost with JJ. Sure, I could sit on the bleachers and cheer like any other parent. I could passionately point out when a referee makes a bad call like my dad used to do. But I will never possess enough skill or knowledge to coach one of his little league teams. Even worse, I won't ever be the right person to give him tips on how to play better or improve his game.

Of course I will try. Doesn't mean I will be his sportiest teacher, but I will try. Last night, I watched him at baseball practice as he struggled to connect his bat to the ball. It didn't help that the pitching machine was aimed low. Still, JJ seemed to be hesitant in every swing of his bat. Out in the field, he came so close to catching the ball over and over again without ever actually catching it.

There is a part of me that feels a little guilty for not having taught him how to throw, catch, and hit a ball. After all, baseball is America's pastime and such father/son lessons is the epitome of Americana. But I never learned from my dad. An injury prevented him from providing me the same lessons he gave Aaron. Even if he had been physically able, I'm not sure if I would have been interested.

Now, however, with a boy of my own that wants to play every sport in existence, I can't help but feel a little inadequate seeing him struggle yet not knowing what to do to help him increase his skill level.

All things considered though, I can cheer from the sidelines and bleachers and grandstands like a boss. Even if he strikes out every time, nothing beats seeing the grin on my son's face as he stands inside the batter's box.

6.14.2016

Crossfaders & the Damascus Road

In the corporate world, you will occasionally hear the phrase “a come to Jesus moment.” It is a discussion held when an employee is atrocious and their boss wants to give them a final opportunity to shape up because firing them takes too much paper work. The hope is that the threat of termination is so great and believable the slacker will suddenly turn into employee of the month material. It is like Warden Norton greeting the new inmates at Shawshank: “Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me.”

Come to Jesus conversations happen because we know anyone is capable of turning their life around and getting their act together. Deep down we want to believe that such change can happen instantly. We desperately cling to the possibility of now or never moments where life is radically altered.

Call it the American Idol syndrome – seeing a star born out of obscurity and becoming an overnight celebrity. Consider the struggling actresses waiting tables in Hollywood cafes hoping a famous director (or any director) would sit at one of her tables. Comic books are filled with the chance encounter trope launching far too many superhero origin stories: Peter Parker’s spider bite, Reed Richards and Sue Storm’s exposure to cosmic rays, Matt Murdock’s blinding accident as he saved an old man, the explosion that merged Carol Danver’s DNA with Kree markers, or Bruce Banner radiated by a gamma bomb. Even science fiction plucked a computer programmer named Thomas Anderson out of the Matrix and transformed him into Neo.

Church folks seem to cherish this idea of instant redemption and 180 degree conversion. After all, our scriptures tell us, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

So we expect it. We see no greater example than the biblical story of how Saul became Paul. Along the Damascus Road, Saul had an encounter. He was blinded by the light, heard the voice of God, and in an instant his life was changed. He was given a new name and a new mission. The man who was a persecutor of Christians became a follower of Christ.

What if it doesn’t happen like that for us? What if we don’t fall asleep as Peter Parker and wake up the next morning as Spider-Man? What happens if we don’t feel like a new creation? What if we still make mistakes or struggle with this sin thing that the preacher told us Jesus died to forgive? Do we get disappointed? Disillusioned? Do we think that maybe we’re doing something wrong? It’s not supposed to be like this. I’m not even supposed to be here today.

While I believe such radical religious conversions are possible, I think they are relatively rare. Rather, the lives of those who begin to accept and explore the claims of Jesus have more in common with the crossfader on a DJ’s mixer.

When you look at a DJ’s console, there are two channels for music. Each input has individual volume controls – vertically placed sliders where the higher you push it, the louder the output. In between the two channels is a horizontal slider control called a crossfader. If positioned all of the way to the left, 100% of the musical output will come from channel 1. If the crossfader is slid all of the way to the right, 100% of the musical output will come from channel 2. But if the crossfader is placed halfway between the two, you will be sending an equal amount of sound from both channels to your speakers.

A talented DJ can quickly switch back and forth between the two channels to create cool cuts and effects. Most DJ’s – the ones performing at school dances and wedding receptions use this feature as a way to seamlessly transition from one song to the next.


At these kinds of parties, silence is your enemy. However, it would be awkward and almost painful to hear if the DJ started playing a new song at full volume while the previous song was still playing just as loud. The tempos don’t match. Songs could be in different keys. It would be a discordant mess as disastrous as not playing any music. The crossfader allows the first song to fade out as the next fades in. It makes the change feel natural. When done correctly, the audience can’t really tell when one song ends and another begins.

You could say the disciples had an instant conversion. They left everything without question to follow Jesus. But you might recall they still had their struggles and doubts and it took them a while before they realized Jesus might actually be the messiah.

You could remind me that apostle Paul is the poster child of instant conversions. If someone as notorious for being against Christianity could convert to the faith so quickly and easily, then why can’t that happen to everyone else?

Maybe Paul's conversion was not so sudden.

I have no doubts that Paul was ready and willing to believe in Jesus after his encounter along the road to Damascus. But I do not think that God instantly changed everything about Paul. I think that Paul still had questions and objections. I believe that Paul still faced temptations and struggled with sin – even while travelling to preach about how Jesus changes lives. Sure, Paul became the author of a majority of the New Testament but he was still a troubled and flawed individual.

After all, this is the man who was brutally honest about how much he still failed to live up to God’s standards. “I do not understand the things I do. I do not do what I want to do, and I do the things I hate. … I want to do the things that are good, but I do not do them. I do not do the good things I want to do, but I do the bad things I do not want to do.

Paul also understood that he was a work in progress. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul said “I do not mean that I am already as God wants me to be. I have not yet reached that goal, but I continue trying to reach it and to make it mine. … I know that I have not yet reached that goal, but there is one thing I always do. Forgetting the past and straining toward what is ahead, I keep trying to reach the goal and get the prize for which God called me.” In effect, Paul was admitting he doesn’t have it all together. It’s like he was saying “I’m a mess, but God is still working on me.”

It might be unfair of us to expect those miraculous moments that change everything. Perhaps the old you is the track playing on channel one and the new you is the song on channel 2. And God’s hand is on the crossfader slowly sliding the control from left to right. There might be bits of your old life coming through the speakers, but slowly it is fading away. Before long, it will be gone in a seamless transition into a new life.