6.23.2017

A Movie Review in Two Parts, Part 2 - The Perfect Allegory of Our Time

As we left the theater, Christian was buzzing with excitement. He declared Kong: Skull Island is now his new favorite movie. Well, second favorite right behind Doctor Strange. The jump scares weren't too scary. The combat scenes kept him engaged. He loved seeing the bond built between Kong and the photographer Mason. Marlow's comedic relief made him laugh. He was stunned by the scenery from jungles to village to boneyard, to riverways. And the size of the monstrous King Kong filled him with awe, so much so that he started cheering for the beast before Marlow revealed Kong as the island's guardian.

image courtesy of Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures

On the drive home, Christian had one question. "Why was Packard so determined to kill Kong?" He couldn't understand how Packard was unable to see what everyone else understood to be true - that Kong was a hero. He's a good monster. How could Packard be so blinded to hate that he ignored all of the advice given to him?

I gave him the simplest and truest answer I could provide.

Some people live in a world of black and white. For these people, everyone is classified as for us or against us. They divide their world into an us and them. We are the good guys and they are the enemies. Packard was one of these people. He was a career military man fresh from the battles of Vietnam. He thought of the war as a just cause and wanted to continue fighting. With US troops returning home, Packard saw the mission to Skull Island as a new battlefield. War was his purpose and he needed an enemy. As a well-trained soldier, Packard believed he was the good guy which automatically made Kong the villain. The deaths resulting from the initial firefight with the giant ape only served to confirm Packard's preconceived notions. Packard took the loss of life personally and he could only place the blame on Kong.

The beast was nothing more than an enemy to be defeated and no amount of reason could dissuade Packard.

As we talked, I began to explain more. The simple explanation really doesn't adequately answer Christian's question. How could one man's quest for revenge blind him to the goodness of his enemy? Because that's how hatred works in real life. We live in an era of identity politics where our world is divided between us and them. It is easier to scapegoat the other than to accept and remedy our own flaws. We're Americans and they are Mexican immigrants. We're Americans and they are Syrian refugees. We're the moral majority and they advocate gay rights. We're white America and they are black. It makes us afraid and people act stupid when they're scared.

We see this black and white world in our government. The Democrats view themselves as the good guys and the Republicans as treasonous foes. The Republicans think they're the patriots and the Democrats are enemies of the state hellbent on destroying the USA. Congress is eternally deadlocked refusing to come to the bargaining table, constantly seeing the other side as the party of bad ideas.

We see this black and white world in our churches. We want our houses of worship to remain safe for us. We separate into groups: we are saved, they are pagans. We isolate and ignore God's call to preach the gospel to all peoples. We struggle to build any meaningful connection with outside groups from the homeless population to the LGBT community. We are lost trying to help those with addiction or mental illness. We fail to live up to the biblical call to care for orphans, widows, and foreigners. We're us and they're them and it is easier to build a wall to separate us from them than it is to treat them with love like God.

We see this black and white world in armed conflicts on every continent of this planet. The enemy is always dehumanized to absolve soldiers from the emotional toll of warfare. Vietnamese soldiers were called Charlie. Combatants in the Middle East have been called ragheads. We're the good guys and they are the enemy.

There is a problem with such an outlook on life. No one thinks of themselves as the bad guy. No one looks at their actions and think "Yeah, we're totally evil. We're definitely going to hell for this." Even as Bashar al-Assad gasses his own people and drops bombs on schools and hospitals, he sees himself as a hero. The ISIS militants carrying out horrific acts of terror in Paris and London see themselves as holy and just. Vladimir Putin believes he is a good guy. El Chapo thinks he's decent man. Theresa May believes she is on the side of all that is right. President Trump thinks he's the best. Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway all think they speak truth. Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan believe they want what is best for our nation. CNN and FOX news portray themselves as the most reliable source of news. Taco Bell claims to serve good food.

In Packard's hatred for Kong, he represents everyone who seeks to separate the world into us and them. He is the living embodiment of Trump's travel bans. He is Brexit. He is China's human rights violations. He is religious extremism. He is patriarchy, homophobia, and discrimination. He is the conflict between police officers and the African American community. He is everyone's racist uncle. He is YouTube's comment sections.

By refusing to listen to the advice of the tracker, photographer, and former WWII pilot, Packard represents everyone who is unwilling to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. He is the lack of empathy that plagues our world. He is the resistance against diversity. He represents those who automatically dismiss anyone who disagrees as wrong. He is everyone you know who will not listen to anyone with differing viewpoints.

From that perspective, Packard is a lot like the angry minority that has taken over our government. He reminds me of the ugliest segments of our culture. He shows us the worst parts of ourselves. Sure, Kong: Skull Island is not a perfect movie, but it is the perfect allegory of our time.

6.22.2017

A Movie Review in Two Parts, Part 1 - About Kong: Skull Island

I wasn't sure what to expect of Kong: Skull Island. It's the second film in the Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures shared universe (AKA MonsterVerse), and I was a bit disappointed by the first movie in the franchise - 2014's Godzilla. But Kong received mostly positive reviews, looked visually stunning in a way that it must be seen on the big screen or not at all, the cast features Loki and Nick Fury, and I needed something to watch at the theater with my oldest on Father's Day. Additionally, Kong was directed by the same guy that brought us the quirky, sweet, and heartbreaking coming of age story The Kings of Summer. So I felt Kong was worth a shot. I was pleasantly surprised.

Now, let's be clear, this is not the best movie ever. There are flaws. It is heavy on exposition - often at a pace you'll miss it if you're not paying close enough attention. The character set up designed to make us care about characters that are eventually killed off is hit and miss. The ending, while satisfying, is wholly predictable. The tone shifts from a standard action genre romp with all of tropes, to mixing in horror elements, to a sci-fi reimagining of a National Geographic documentary, to an admiring tribute of Apocalypse Now, and back to a summertime adventure. At times, it felt like Kong didn't know what kind of movie it wanted to be.

In the film, John Goodman plays a manipulative cryptozoologist employed by Monarch - a government funded secret organization that exists to study and hunt down giant monsters. Goodman's Bill Randa believes an unmapped and unexplored island in the South Pacific is home to these creatures. As the Vietnam war comes to a close, Randa convinces a senator to fund a scientific expedition to the island complete with military escort. The crew travelling to Skull Island includes seismologist and Monarch employee Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), biologist San (Tian Jing), tracker and former British SAS captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), compassionate anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) finishing his tour of duty in Vietnam, and a bunch of mostly disposable soldiers and helicopter pilots belonging to Packard's squadron who really just want to go home.

Once on the island, they drop seismic charges from the sky which angers Kong, a giant ape. Or as one soldier asked "Is that a monkey?" Kong methodically brings down all of the helicopters in a fit of rage. The survivors of the various crashes are split into isolated groups and each attempt to achieve different goals.

Packard, with Randa, wants to recover the weapons cache from one of the other helicopters so he can confront and kill King Kong. Along the way they encounter a giant spider with legs like bamboo trees and a flock of pterodactyl-like vultures. In another group, Conrad, Mason, San, and Brooks trek to the north end of the island in hopes of rescue from an anticipated supply drop at an exfil point. This second group is captured by a local tribe and meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a missing WWII lieutenant who crashed on Skull Island during a dogfight and lived with the natives since 1944.

Marlow explains his survival and the friendship he formed with his former enemy, a Japanese pilot who was also stranded after the same WWII dogfight. According to Marlow, the tribe worships King Kong and consider him their protector from bigger and deadlier lizard-like creatures called skullcrawlers. This second group invites Marlow to accompany them so he can return home a war hero. He agrees and escorts them on a boat he built from the wreckage of his and the Japanese planes.

The two groups converge and hope to reach the north shore, but are unable to continue because Packard refuses to give up his self-appointed mission: to bring down the monster Kong. Conrad, Mason, and Marlow attempt to convince Packard to leave Kong alone. They warn him that killing Kong will leave them vulnerable to something worse. But Packard refuses because he blames for the deaths of his men. He wants vengeance.

Earlier in the movie, after the helicopters all crashed, there is a stunning shot of Conrad and Kong staring each other down. It is pure cinematic magic where the anger in Conrad's eyes match Kong's fierce expression. Between the man and the monster, there is no love lost. That brief scene sets up a bitter rivalry with no possibility of a peaceful resolution. As a viewer, you know from that moment on that one will kill the other.

image courtesy of Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures

I won't spoil the remaining plot line. If you're a movie junkie like me, you could probably guess on your own. Yet by the time credits roll, Kong: Skull Island accomplishes what it set out to do - entertain. Many of the big action set pieces were thrilling. The cinematography was stunning and frequently far more beautiful than what is found in typical summer blockbusters and big studio tent-poles; a ton of credit is due to the director of photography. And John C. Reilly turned out to be the action star I never knew I needed.

The third (and next film) in the MonsterVerse is titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters. But after seeing Kong: Skull Island, I dispute the validity of that title. Kong is king. When the fourth film, Godzilla vs. Kong rolls out in 2020, I will be cheering for the big ape.

6.16.2017

Changing Perspectives: Committed to Non-Violence

In three short verses in Matthew chapter five, Jesus provides instruction on how to assert your own sense of dignity when others attempt to strip it away. He told us how to maintain our humanity when other seek to humiliate us.

When we understand the context – the culture and laws of the original audience, it changes our perspective. We can take off the western lenses we normally use to read scripture and view it from the standpoint of someone living under the oppression of Roman occupation. I can no longer see this passage as a lesson in humility, instead I see it as a call for justice. Jesus never intended us to be doormats. Jesus never wanted us to passively suffer abuse. He knew we would be mocked and persecuted, but he wanted us to know that we could still insist others show us respect. He knew people would treat us like crap, but he continually reminded us that we were worth more – that we had inherent value as adopted children in God’s family.

So, he gave three pieces of instruction. If someone insults you as unworthy, dare them to treat you like an equal. If someone tries to make you experience shame, make them feel ashamed. If someone uses the law to burden you, use that law to your advantage. These are acts of generosity, but they are also acts of rebellion. They force your abuser to see your humanity and regret their cruelty.

If you see me as an equal, maybe you won’t slap me again. If you’re embarrassed to see me naked, maybe next time you won’t take my clothes. If you don’t want to me to carry your pack for two miles, maybe you won’t force me to carry it at all. Maybe, if you see me as a human being, you will treat me like one. Maybe, if you see my dignity, you will respect me.

At the end, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. He gives us options to avoid the harm our enemies want to cause us, then he tells us to love them and pray for them. This whole passage is soaked in grace. How much better could this world be if we showed love and grace to those who oppose and mistreat us? How much stronger would we be if we held the boundaries to say, “you can’t treat me like this” but still hope our enemies experience blessings? What could we achieve if we looked at our opponents and said, “I won’t let you hurt me, but I want the best for you.”

Nowhere in this sermon does Jesus suggest we act with vengeance. He does not instruct us to repay violence with violence. Jewish law allowed an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. But Jesus insists such measures are counterproductive. Instead, he says, “don’t resist.”


When faced with oppression or abuse, we think there are only two options: fight back or let it happen. Jesus shows us there is a third option: challenge it. Don’t fight against them, show them so much grace that their actions seem absurd. Don’t resist an evil person, subvert them. You can’t control them. Instead, let their behavior lead them to their ruin, you don’t have to go down with them. What Jesus advises we do in the face of adversity is passive. It’s non-violent. It is more rewarding than suffering in silence and it is far more effective than revenge.

A slight change in perspective. And suddenly, I see Jesus’ words as something so much more audacious, more daring, more dangerous, more rebellious, more subversive, more powerful, and more beautiful than I ever have before.

I also believe this message is more essential now than ever before in American history. As the government seeks to restrict our freedoms, we need to demand they see our dignity. Under threat of foreign and homegrown terrorism, we must demonstrate our humanity. To combat school bullying, we should empower and protect the powerless. With a populace struggling through drug addiction and mental health issues, grace is needed in abundance. During protests opposing racial discrimination and police brutality, we need a little peaceful subversion.

None of the challenges facing our country can be solved with violence. Thankfully, Jesus gave us three non-violent methods to subvert the powers that be: turning the other cheek, giving the shirt off our backs, and going the extra mile.

6.15.2017

Changing Perspectives: Go the Extra Mile

The third directive Jesus delivers has become common in our modern lexicon. It is an idiom that has taken a motivational form. “If someone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles.” We have shortened it to the phrase: go the extra mile.

With our modern perspectives, we take this to mean we should go above and beyond expectations. Do more than required. Put in the extra effort. After all, in America, we don’t reward people for doing the basic duties of their jobs, we want them to exceed bare minimums. We don’t want good experiences, we want greatness – such an impressive experience is only achievable if we go the proverbial extra mile.


Of course, this isn’t what Jesus was talking about. It is a nice notion and I won’t dispute that contributing greater effort is a worthy cause. But Jesus wasn’t talking about working hard. He was talking about the law.

During his life, Jesus ministered to people under Roman rule. The Empire used military might to expand their territory. To maintain control and order in the far-flung territories away from the heart of Rome, Caesar used the practice of impressment to coerce locals into joining the military, serving in loyalty to the emperor. Along with this method of conscription, impressment afforded soldiers special rights and privileges under the law. One of those legal allowances is that a Roman soldier could compel a Jewish native to carry their gear for one mile.

The packs these soldiers had to carry were heavy and could weigh up to 100 pounds. Roman soldiers were human just like the rest of us; it is understandable if they grew weary lugging their burdens around in the deserts of ancient Israel. To motivate them, and provide occasional relief, the law granted them the ability to force a Jew to carry their pack for one Roman mile – equal to 1000 paces. If you were a Jewish citizen, you were not allowed to resist. To do so would be an act of rebellion and the Roman empire delivered harsh punishments to anyone who defied them.

This is why Jesus chose the language he used. The word ἀγγαρεύσει (angareusei) is only used once in the New Testament, when Jesus talks about going one Roman Mile. Angareusei means “compelled to go” or “forced to go.” If anyone angareusei you one mile, go two. There is another word Jesus used in the original language that adds context lost in English translations: ὕπαγε (pronounced hupagey) which means to be led away under someone else’s authority. Jesus is describing a situation where one of his listeners could be compelled or forced to walk a mile by their authority according to Roman law of impressment.

If I lived with these laws dictating my life, I would do everything I could to avoid Roman soldiers. If I saw them coming my direction, I would turn around and walk the other way, ducking into random alleys or stranger’s homes. If they caught up with me and decided I needed to carry their packs, I would not be given a choice. Their orders were not requests. I would be, like Jesus said, forced to go.

To be asked to carry the pack for a soldier was demeaning. It was forced hard labor for no other reason than your heritage and ethnicity. They knew their status was above you and their demands reinforced the notion that the Jews were a conquered people. This was the definition of oppression. Which makes the second half of Jesus’ statement confusing. If going one mile was so brutal and humiliating, why would he tell us to go two miles?

Just as refusing to carry a soldier’s pack for a mile when ordered to do so was a crime punishable by imprisonment, that same law dictated that the soldier could only force a Jewish citizen to go one mile at the most. There were limits. The Roman Empire had to balance their desire to subjugate the citizenry with the need to discourage insurrection.

Jesus knew that Roman soldiers could force you to go one mile, but they could not make you go two. And just as a Jewish citizen would be jailed for refusing to carry a pack for a mile, the soldier could face consequences if the citizen were to carry that pack for more than a mile. Carrying a pack for the second mile is generous, but it is also challenging. The Roman soldier would be faced with a decision: demand you stop or risk the possibility of punishment. Regardless of what option the soldier takes, he would be more hesitant to order another Jewish citizen to carry his gear.

Being forced to carry a heavy pack for a mile was humiliating. The generous offer to carry it for a second mile shifts the humiliation to the soldier. Going the first mile robbed the Jewish citizen of their dignity. By going the second mile, they reclaimed their dignity. By going another mile, the Jewish citizen was demonstrating their humanity to a soldier who viewed them as a lower class of people. If a Roman soldier didn’t want me to carry their pack a second mile, they shouldn’t have asked me to carry it for the first mile.

In this verse, Jesus wasn’t telling his audience to work harder, put in more effort, or be more generous. He was giving them a way to say, “I exist and I deserve better.”

6.14.2017

Changing Perspectives: Give the Shirt Off Your Back

Let’s go streaking! Or not. I mean, it depends on how confident you feel about yourself when you’re naked. We live in a body-shaming culture, creating an atmosphere where most people would be embarrassed to shed their clothes. Outside of strip clubs and nudist resorts, bared skin and exposed bits tend to generate feelings of shame. So, if you do not like the idea of being seen wearing nothing, then streaking isn’t something you would enjoy.

Americans have an awkward relationship with nudity. It is at once glorified and demonized. We seek it out for our own titillation yet treat the object of our lusts with hostility. By American standards, if I see you naked, you should be humiliated, not me. However, in biblical times, people had an opposite reaction to nakedness. Back then, I would feel ashamed to see you naked – not the other way around. We see this evidenced in the life of King David. When we study his stories, we can see how he reacted to ogling and being ogled.

The first example is in 1 Chronicles 15 and 16. The ark of the covenant had been stored in the home of Obed-Edom for three months. His whole household was blessed during that time and David wanted to bring it back to Jerusalem where it belonged. He gathered the temple guards and servants to help carry the ark and returned to Obed-Edom’s home to retrieve it. When David and the Levites returned to Jerusalem with the ark, it was a time of celebration. There was a parade, music, singing, and dancing. David got caught up in the moment and stripped down to nothing but his linen ephod. He bared his body and partied hard.

Saul’s daughter, Michal, was watching all of this. She was not impressed. According to scripture, she “despised him in her heart.” That is a strong reaction to seeing someone dressed in less than appropriate. This story is repeated in 2 Samuel 6. In this passage, David returns home after the celebration where an angry Michal was waiting. She greeted him with a “how dare you” speech. She complained about how he was “going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls.” She called him vulgar. From Michal’s perspective, she was ashamed to see her husband dancing naked in public. Michal believed the servants and slaves should also feel the same embarrassment from witnessing David’s indecent display.

Later, in 2 Samuel 11, the roles were reversed. Instead of women seeing David nearly naked, David was peeping on a bathing neighbor. Scripture makes it clear that David was not where he should be; it was the time of year when kings went off to war, yet David was chilling at home. One night, while taking a walk on the palace roof, he noticed a sexy lady taking a bath. He was literally creeping on the girl next door. Multiple bad choices followed; the subsequent verses tell of an affair, attempts at fraud, and a murder conspiracy. The next chapter, a prophet named Nathan visits and rebukes David. The shame for seeing Bathsheba naked belonged to David. The guilt of the affair was David’s. And the penalty of killing Bathsheba’s husband also fell on David. As David finally realized the weight of all he had done, he said, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

When Jewish audiences listened to Jesus preach, this was their understanding of nudity. In their history, Michal was ashamed to see David naked, but David was shamed for seeing Bathsheba naked. Nudity humiliated the viewer, not the nude person. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus was speaking to a crowd with these sensibilities. When he told the crowds, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well,” they had a different perspective than we do.

To fully understand what Jesus wanted to convey, we need to talk about first century fashion in the Middle East. Average citizens would have dressed in two layers. The tunic (usually translated into English as a shirt) covered the body as the inner layer. Over the tunic, they wore a cloak or mantle which we translate to mean coat. This dual layer is a foreign concept to us because in the modern world, we only wear coats when it is cold outside.

Jesus addressed people losing their shirt in a lawsuit. The only reason you would be sued for the shirt off your back is if you didn’t have the financial means to be sued for currency. When the collector came to take your shirt (or rather, tunic) they were taking a piece of your dignity. It was as if they were saying, “You can’t even afford to pay your debts, so I am taking your most basic article of clothing.” There is something cruel about this situation. How embarrassing would it be today if the IRS raided your closet to satisfy your tax debt? How awkward would it be if casinos insisted you removed an article of clothing every time you lost a hand of blackjack?

But we as Americans are callous. We read this scripture and think, “they took your tunic, at least you still have your cloak.” Yet Jesus urged his listeners to give that up too. They took your tunic, let them have your cloak. With Jewish fashion, if you gave away your cloak and tunic, you’d either be naked or stripped to your chonies. This is the biblical call to go streaking.


In our western view of shame and nudity, this would be humiliating for us - like that bad dream where you show up to work or school completely naked; everyone points at you and laughs. But Jesus' contemporaries didn’t think like we do. Ancient Jews were more embarrassed to see a naked person than they were to be naked.

There is only one reason a collector would sue to take your shirt: to disgrace you. How would you ever be able to reclaim your dignity? Give the collector your cloak too. Now they have all your clothes and you’re butt naked. For Jesus’ original audience, they would know such a subversive act would cause the collector to feel shame. The collector would suffer the humiliation they intended to inflict upon you.

Which reminds me of David’s response when Michal protested his revealing dance. He said, “I will become even more undignified than this.”

6.13.2017

Changing Perspectives: Turn the Other Cheek

Hit someone. Not literally, rather imagine yourself hitting someone. Likely, you see that person standing in front of you, face to face. If you're right-handed, you throw a right jab into their left shoulder or on the left side of their jaw line. If you're left-handed, it's a left jab to their right side. Or if you possess a mean streak, you delivered an uppercut, sending your foe sprawling backwards and possibly knocking them out. We've watched enough Rocky movies. We played Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! We know how this works.


When Jesus talked about someone striking your cheek, this is what we envision. We think boxing matches. We think mixed martial arts. We think drunken bar-room brawl. We think "Meet me on the playground after school." We think a couple of guys who are up to no good started making trouble in my neighborhood.

This is America, we think fist to face.

But first century Jews and Roman citizens would not have had the same approach to the sermon that we do. Jesus was also specific in his language making it clear that he wasn't talking about bare-knuckle fighting. The two words Jesus used that provides us context are the method and target of this hypothetical strike.

First, the method. Jesus said, "When someone slaps you ... " There are two ways to slap someone: with an open palm or with the back of your hand. In the original Greek language, the word was ῥαπίζει – pronounced rhapizei – which means to strike and is where we get the English word rap (think Edgar Allan Poe “some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door”). On its own, this word could be any kind of hit from a punch to the use of a blunt force weapon. Yet most translations use slap for a reason which has everything to do with where the slap lands.

The target of the strike is the right cheek. Jesus’ words were δεξιὰν σιαγόνα or dexion (meaning the right-hand side) siagóna (meaning the jawbone or cheek). Jesus describes it as follows: when someone rhapizei your dexion siagóna – strikes or hits your right side’s jawbone or cheek.

Why is this important? Remember, Jesus lived in first century Palestine. Toilet paper wasn’t used until the sixth century in China, and it wasn’t commercially patented in America until 1857. During ancient times in the Middle East, people used their left hand for sanitary purposes. The Jewish crowds who were listening to Jesus preach would have considered their left hand to be unclean. They would only strike someone using their right hand.

Go back to imagining yourself hitting someone. They are facing you and you must punch their right side using your right hand. It’s a little bit awkward. Now resort to a slap. If you use an open palm with your right hand, you’d slap their left cheek. If you want to strike their right cheek with your right hand, you would slap them with the back of your hand. This is where it gets interesting. It is embarrassing to get slapped. That has never been a kind gesture in any culture. But in the Roman Empire, a backhanded slap was reserved for those whom the assaulter feels are inferior. In other words, if I were to slap your left cheek with an open fist, I would be insulting you, but I would see you as my equal. But if I were to deliver a backhanded slap, I would still be insulting you, but I would also be demonstrating how I think I am better than you – you wouldn’t be worth an open fist.

This understanding makes the words of Jesus much more radical. He begins, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek,” and ends with instruction “turn to them the other cheek.” Modern audiences miss what Jesus is trying to say. We read this and think Jesus wants us to get beat up. “Well, if someone hits you, let them hit you again!” That is not the point Jesus wanted to make. Instead, he was urging you to assert your own worth.

If someone slaps your right cheek, they see you as a person with lesser stature. If someone slaps your right cheek, show them your humanity. Turning your other cheek doesn’t guarantee you’ll be hit a second time. The possibility is there, but only if they see you as an equal. Turning the other cheek is your way of saying, I’m here. I’m human. You are not better than me. Show me some respect.

6.12.2017

Changing Perspectives: Fighting Back

The 80s and 90s were strange times to be raised in the church. Our parents faithfully honored the opulence of PTL with Jim and Tammy Faye but we lived meager lives. We received mixed messages about the virtues of pride and humility. Our youth pastors tried to simultaneously embrace the silliness of the 80s and the angst of the 90s. We weren't allowed to see movies at the theater or attend school dances because those activities could lead to hand-holding, hand-holding led to kissing, kissing would inevitably tumble into sex, and sex before marriage was the ultimate sin. Yet our moms spent their days watching soap operas - shows where everybody was having extra-marital sexual affairs with everyone else.

As a kid, no other conflicting lessons confused me more than the formal and informal teachings on violence. Pastors would preach a sermon on the verse declaring "blessed are the peacemakers" while choirs would sing "Onward Christian Soldiers." We were taught to be pacifists in Sunday school, then went home and watched The A-Team. Our parent's generation celebrated both Martin Luther King Jr's non-violent protests and Braveheart's battle cry "They can take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!" We were given the advice to play nice, and then told to toughen up. War and violence were often praised with equal measure as peace and passivity. After all, Jesus taught us to love our enemies but he also flipped tables. It was difficult to understand Christ as both a lion and a lamb when our cultural icon for a lion was Bruce Willis in Die Hard and our symbol for a lamb was Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile.

Even the games we played as teens frequently took a brutal turn. My youth group's favorite activity was called "Wink-em Blink-em." This game's instructions are more complicated than could be fully explained in a simple blog post. However, it involved players winking at other players of the opposite gender prompting the person winked at to attempt an escape from the person standing behind them. It sounds innocent but my peers took it to extremes. Our rounds of Wink-em Blink-em often ended with bruised limbs, pulled hair, torn shirts, bloody scratches, and broken fingernails. Afterwards, an adult volunteer would lead a devotional reading Bible verses urging us to "make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification."

It was enough to make a kid like me question if it was even possible to be a peacemaker. After all, my generation came of age when one of the biggest songs played on the radio was about a bullied kid named Jeremy who spoke in class with lyrics like "the dead lay in pools of maroon below" and "he hit me with a surprise left, my jaw left hurting dropped wide open." In that pre-Columbine era, bullying was practically accepted. Or at best, it was ignored. This was all before the existence of programs like Dude Be Nice or the It Gets Better campaign. If you were (like I was) beat up or picked on, the recommendations we were given was either “stick up for yourself” or “just stand there and take it.”

The latter instruction was usually the one provided by well-intentioned youth pastors. They relied on the sermon on the mount, guided us with the words of Jesus. Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, and the persecuted. Rejoice and be glad when people insult and hurt you or lie about you. Don't get angry because anger is sinful. Befriend your enemies and pray for them. Don't resist an evil person. Turn the other cheek. Give up your clothes. Walk an extra mile. Give the bullies your lunch money.

I was a nerd growing up in an age where the geeks and nerds routinely got our asses kicked for being freaks. After getting teased and physically accosted at school, someone would tell me what the bible says. If someone hits you, let them hit you again. If they take part of your outfit, let them take it all. If someone forces you to do something, do it twice.

Derived from the fifth chapter of Matthew, verses 38-42 were the highlights of this passive advice. Even the NCV translation of the Bible titles this section "Don't Fight Back." I shouldn't need to say this but the "biblical" instruction I was given did more harm than good. I was led to believe that our purpose was to suffer. Whether intentional or not, the lesson I learned was that we were to be punching bags for the abusers, bullies, assholes, and jerks of this world.

Too often, we read scripture from a Western viewpoint. We filter the Word of God with modern bias. Yet, in doing so, we miss a very important detail about the Gospels: Jesus was a Jew. More than that, He was a Jew, living in ancient Palestine under Roman occupation. His people were an oppressed population ruled by foreign tyrants.

When we study passages like these verses from Matthew, we need to understand the meaning is far deeper, more audacious, and of greater power than we could ever perceive through the context of 21st Century Americana. When we begin to understand the culture and traditions of Jewish life combined with laws and expectations of the Roman Empire, we get a better perspective on what Jesus really intended. We can hear his words with the outlook of his original audience. His talk discouraging taking an eye for an eye was about human dignity as much as it was about de-escalating conflict. When interpreted with American ideals of vocabulary and syntax, what sounds like quiet resignation is actually a call of rebellion; it is a peaceful way of fighting back against the powers that be.

Over the past couple years, I have been learning more and more about what life was like when Jesus walked the earth. I'm unlearning unhealthy lessons from my youth and my perspectives are changing. What I am discovering in this process is that the Bible truly is living and active. I am finding out how the words of Jesus are bigger, better, and perhaps more wild and dangerous than I have ever known before.

6.09.2017

On the last day of school

For my kids,

Today was your last day of school and summer break has officially begun. This last year has been one of the most challenging seasons in your lives but also one of the most rewarding. You have all grown so much. Not just physically (y'all are taller) but also emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. It has been a joy watching you transform into the persons you were created to be.

Christian, your school year has perhaps been the most arduous. This is the year that everything changed - not only for you but also for all of your classmates. Gone are the days of elementary school and recess three times a day. You entered the brave new world of middle school. More teachers, more students, more text books. New things to remember like bell schedules and locker combinations. The social rules became more complex as you and all of your peers attempted to figure out where you belong in the hierarchy of popular kids, rebels, jocks, and geeks. Everyone is battling the insecurities that comes with middle school as you want to fit in and to be treated like grownups yet you're still kids.

I don't want to overlook the heartbreaks of this last year. I know how hard it is when people you thought would be a lifelong friend suddenly change and the friendship was lost. I know how much it hurts when you feel like no one understands you. I know the stress of trying and failing to keep up when it seems like your teachers set impossible standards. I've been there. You're not alone.

This has not been an easy year. Perhaps it is because of those struggles that the successes have been so much sweeter. It has been an honor to laugh with you and play with you and help you with your homework. It was a wonderful privilege to see you perform in two orchestra concerts, and to see you learn your instrument easier and quicker than I imagined. I have been astonished at the insight you have shown into the nature of life from the microcosm of your school to the grand existence of all humanity. Your tenacity in the face of adversity has been admirable. You want to save the world and after what I've seen from you this year, there is no doubt in my mind that you can do it.


Zu, my sweet girl. This is the year your chronological age reached double digits. Along with your birthday came your requests for more special rights and more responsibilities. I started allowing you to stay up later with your big brother, and even though you still fall asleep quickly after you get that extra time, you usually do so cuddling with me. You need to know that in those moments, there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be than right there with you.

Like your older brother, you faced many hurdles in school. Yet you faced them with a mix of grace, aplomb, and a healthy dose of silliness. You are on the verge of adolescence yet still clinging to childlike awe. This year, you have lived in that tension, with one foot wanting to remain in your childhood forever and the other foot longing to be older. You are one part Wonder Woman and one part Dora the Explorer. You'd probably be more like Dora except you keep misplacing your backpack. Inside this frame of a spunky girl, I see glimpses of the lady you will soon become - filled with fire, compassion, and sassy wit. It's like that Ben Folds song we both love: "You got your mamma's taste but you got my mouth."

I know I am not the only one who sees your potential. Which is a great relief to me. One of my greatest fears about being your dad is how woefully unprepared I am to be a dad with a daughter. When it comes to hair and make up and feminine stuff, I have no idea what I am doing. But I know that I don't have to do it alone because my friends all adore you. As you tackle new challenges next year and in the years to come, I know that you will have an army to support and encourage you.


JJ, the changes in you this year have been the easiest to measure. You are taller, leaner, stronger, braver and more articulate now than when the school year started. While the same is true for your brother and sister, this growth has been most obvious with you. You are a wholly different person than you were nine months ago.

Today, I see a little man. A sharp dresser with a style all your own, you insisted on wearing shorts through most of the winter - even when there was deep snow covering the ground. You are unafraid to dance when the music is playing and often bust a groove when there isn't any music to be heard. You long for autonomy - doing your homework with minimal assistance, volunteering to do chores assigned to your siblings, defining your own identity, and demonstrating scant interest in what anyone else thinks about you.

The thing that has impressed me most this last year and the biggest transformation in you is one you might not even realize you're doing. More than ever before, you are beginning to express yourself. You are attempting to communicate your feelings, your wants and needs, your hopes and fears, your dreams and passions, what makes you angry or sad, and what brings you joy. I don't have to tell you who you are because you already know, and you will not hesitate to tell me.


For all of us, this was a tough year but it was also a good year. Now the fun begins. For the first time in a long time, I am genuinely excited for summer. And I can't wait to see what next year brings.

Sincerely, Dad.

6.04.2017

What's in a Name?

Does your car have a name?

Just about eight years ago, I wrote about how we name things. Primarily homes and vehicles. I gave my first car (an '87 Acura Legend) the name Papa Smurf, but after getting married and starting a family, I was too busy naming pets and children to think about christening my transport. I even lamented the lack of monikers given to my cars in that post.

Mourn no more. If I was bummed that my transportation was nothing more than metal on wheels with no official title beyond make and model, then it was up to me to remedy that situation. Since writing the post about naming things, I set out to do just that once again.

First was a forest green Ford Explorer that wasn't in the best condition. That was "The Hooptie-Mobile." Then came a red Grand Am named "Rebel Red." After Rebel Red's engine imploded, I acquired an old silver Lexus that had some quirks. Some windows wouldn't roll down - one was bondo'd shut. The paint was peeling. The windshield wipers were slightly too big for the windshield, and the wipers only had one speed: frantic. It had something that looked like a bullet hole in the back bumper. And it did not like freeways - shuddering once it reached 50 MPH. But it worked. For a little more than a year, it got me to work, church, and the kids' schools. Thanks to some battery issues when I first got the car, I gave it the name "Ghost." It refused to turn over one morning but started up without qualms later that night. It was as if it knew I was going to have a gooey for lunch that day and insisted I walk to work to burn off the extra calories. Either that or a specter of some sort possessed it for a day, so it became the Ghost.

There is now a new car in my life. And it needs a name. Because of who I am, it deserves a truly geeky alias. Sven? Mjolnir? I don't know yet, but I am open to suggestions.


PS: It's a Honda. And the kids love it.

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.