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.


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.”


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.


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.


Love is Louder

We see a lot of hatred and anger in our world today. A day after writing the words “there will always be bad people with evil intents,” I wake up to news that one such person walked into a nightclub and opened fire – killing 50 and injuring dozens with a level of violence that defies comprehension.

This one man’s religious fervor drove him to hate an entire community. My religion? Here is what I read when I open my bible.

• “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
• “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” (Psalm 51: 17)
• “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. (Psalm 103:8)
• “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.” (Proverbs 3:3)
• “Hatred stirs up trouble, but love forgives all wrongs.” (Proverbs 10:12)
• “Those who make evil plans will be ruined, but those who plan to do good will be loved and trusted.” (Proverbs 14:22)
• “Whoever pursues righteousness and unfailing love will find life, righteousness, and honor.” (Proverbs 21:21)
• “For love is as strong as death, It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.” (Song of Songs 8:6)
• “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. (Lamentations 3:22)
• “But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always.” (Hosea 12:16)
• “This is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
• “But I say to you, love your enemies. Pray for those who hurt you.” (Matthew 5:44)
• “If you love only the people who love you, what praise should you get? … But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without hoping to get anything back.” (Luke 6:32-35)
• “I give you a new command: Love each other. You must love each other as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)
• “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
• “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.” (Romans 12:9)
• “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.” (Romans 12:14-16)
• “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13: 10)
• “Be alert. Continue strong in the faith. Have courage, and be strong. Do everything in love.” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)
• “Always be humble, gentle, and patient, accepting each other in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)
• “This is my prayer for you: that your love will grow more and more; that you will have knowledge and understanding with your love; that you will see the difference between good and bad and will choose the good.” (Philippians 1:9-10)
• “Bear with each other, and forgive each other. If someone does wrong to you, forgive that person because the Lord forgave you. Even more than all this, clothe yourself in love. Love is what holds you all together in perfect unity. Let the peace that Christ gives control your thinking, because you were all called together in one body to have peace.” (Colossians 3:13-15)
• “Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. … Remember those who are suffering as if you were suffering with them.” (Hebrews 13:1-3)
• “Dear friends, we should love each other, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has become God’s child and knows God. … if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is made perfect in us. … God is love. Those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. This is how love is made perfect in us: that we can be without fear on the day God judges us, because in this world we are like him. Where God’s love is, there is no fear, because God’s perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 7-18)

Page after page, I read of a God who loves me and calls me to love others. I read of a God who cares for the brokenhearted and urges us to follow His example. Jesus said that the two greatest commands were to love God with every ounce of our being and to love our neighbors the same way we love ourselves. So I will choose to love.

My heart is broken for the city of Orlando as their communities have been disrupted by acts of hatred and terror. My heart mourns with my LGBT friends as they have been confronted again with violence and contempt.

image courtesy of The Daily Beast

Hate is easy. It does not require any effort or mental deliberation. But love is louder. Love is bigger. Love is stronger. Love is braver. Love is wilder. Love is more powerful. Love is crazy beautiful.

Hatred inflicts pain but love heals wounds. So I dare you to love. Love the messy and the broken. Love the lost. Love the complicated. Love the strange. Love those who are difficult to like. Love your friends and love your enemies. Love when it is scary. Love when everything inside of you wants to run away screaming. Love when it would be easier to show spite.

In the wake of these tragedies, let us love. Let us be bold. Let us be audacious. Let it be loud and obnoxious. Let our love drown out the noise of those who choose to steal, kill, and destroy.


Teach your children well

When I was a kid, my mom's radio was almost permanently tuned to 97.3 KBSG, Seattle’s (former) oldies station. I was raised listening to the music of the 50's and 60's. Simon & Garfunkle, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, The Righteous Brothers, The Monkeys, The Turtles, The Temptations.

There are a few songs I heard frequently enough that I can still remember every lyric despite not listening in years. One of those tunes is from Crosby, Stills & Nash: Teach Your Children.

I strive to do just that - to teach my children well. How to throw and catch a football (of which my daughter picked up quicker than either of her brothers); how to cook and use kitchen appliances; basic musical components of rhythm and melody; homework assistance in math and English; the quirky historical events you won't find in a text book; showing esteem to their elders; how to be a good friend to others; how to care for and enjoy nature; various theories about time travel and quantum physics; the joys of literature. My goal is to make sure my kids grow up to become well rounded and intelligent adults. I want them to be happy and healthy humans regardless of where their goals and dreams take them in this world.

While I get to teach my kids about the good in life, of hobbies and academics, of the wonders of the natural world and the possibilities of science, of God and hope and family, I also have to teach them about things that are not so happy. Because sexism and racism and homophobia are all still very real parts of our society. Because our communities are divided, bitter, and jaded. Because our nation is still struggling to find a balance in justice and human welfare and individual rights. Because our planet is constantly embroiled in warfare. Because their peers will struggle with addiction and depression. Because America is filled with greed and exploitation while the world beyond our borders face disease and poverty so incredibly difficult for us to comprehend. Because no matter where they go, there will always be bad people with evil intents.

We all know something needs to change. Many want to return to days of innocence and a better America of the 50s. And I could easily long to go back to the 80s and 90s thinking of how much easier life was back then. But I know that our longing for the past is tainted by a view through rose-colored glasses. We deceive ourselves with selective memories and revisionist history. We ignore the flagrant racism of the 50s, the sexual revolution of the 60s, the drug experimentation of the 70s, the proliferation of Wall Street greed in the 80s, the apathy and despondency of the 90s.

We can't go backwards. All we can do is change the future. The best way we can do that is through our kids. Give them the tools to heal the world. Give them opportunities to fix what we broke.

A couple of years ago, when #yesallwomen was a trending topic on Twitter, my first thought was that I didn’t want my daughter to grow up in a society where sexual assault and rape were so prevalent. Then I realized if I wanted that to happen, I needed to teach my sons to be better men. I need to raise my sons in a way that they do not perpetuate the culture of violence against women. I need to show my boys what it means to do the right thing. I need to make sure that my sons know sexual harassment and assault is a line that should never be crossed and that they will be brave enough to stand up to those who do cross that line.

My resolve was doubled during the gamergate controversy as internet trolls engaged in horrific stalking and harassment against women in the video game industry. My daughter loves playing video games and reading comic books. She is as big of a nerd as her brothers - possibly bigger. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misogyny in geek culture and gamergate demonstrated those biases in the ugliest ways possible. I want my daughter to find a safe and welcoming community among geeks. I want her to feel encouraged and supported studying STEM topics. I want her to be free to enjoy what she enjoys without worrying about asshole guys giving her a hard time for being a girl. But in order for that to happen, I need to teach my sons that girls can be geeks too. I need to show them how women make our community better. I need to encourage my boys to defend the rights of girls to play along in their world of superheroes, scientific experiments, and video game quests.

Perhaps this is what disturbs me the most about the news we have seen from Stanford. The Stanford campus averages one rape every two weeks. That was before Brock Turner was caught in the act and restrained by a couple good Samaritans. Perhaps this wouldn’t be news if it wasn’t for the inequality of our legal system, a system where the feelings and future of the perpetrator was elevated above those of the victim. We have seen a judge confirm the worst of what we believe about white privilege, the power of wealth, and preferential treatment given to those with athletic prowess.

As the days have progressed, I have watched an explosion of outrage, disgust, and cries for justice. Some of it aimed at Judge Persky as he cast blame upon a woman who was powerless to resist her attacker, sympathized with the rapist, and handed down a sentence that equates to little more than a slap on the wrist. Much of the ire is against the rapist’s dad, who penned a letter begging for leniency in his son’s sentence.

Regardless of how you feel about the events at Stanford, one thing should be clear. Dan Turner did not heed the advice of Crosby, Stills & Nash. He did not teach his child well. It is because of irresponsible parents like Dan Turner that I have to teach my daughter to protect herself from assholes like Brock Turner. I will have to teach my daughter to avoid boys who see women as conquests. I will teach her that she is loved and valued always. However, my daughter is not the only one who will be learning a lesson.

My sons will learn that they are always in control of their libido.
My sons will learn what consent means.
My sons will learn to own up to their mistakes. Because everyone makes mistakes.
My sons will learn that I will always love them and sometimes love allows the consequence of stupid actions.
My sons will learn that their privileges are not to be exploited but should be use to benefit those in need.
My sons will learn to treat women with gentleness and respect.

I will teach my children well. Even if people like Dan Turner do not.