Observations from attending my first midnight mass

Attending a midnight mass is an activity that has been on my bucket list for many years. This year, I (hopefully) get the privilege of sleeping in on Christmas morning, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to visit one of Coeur d'Alene's Catholic churches and experience a midnight mass.

The following are my observations from the service.

1. That is a lot of standing and sitting and standing and sitting and standing and sitting and standing and kneeling and standing and sitting and standing and kneeling and sitting and standing and sitting. If I was a faithful Catholic, I would probably be a skinnier man.
2. I should have stretched before the service. My calf muscles are screaming at me in protest.
3. I should have also peed before the service started.
4. Not as much Latin as I expected. Granted, I know the amount of Latin used during mass varies from church to church. But I was still expecting to hear more.
5. That being said, O Come All Ye Faithful sounds beautiful when sung in Latin.
6. I hope I didn't look too awkward. All that bowing and hand raising and hand motions and walking in circles and surprise hugging. I had no idea what the heck I was supposed to be doing.
7. Yes, I said hugging. It was accompanied by the phrase "peace be with you."
8. The 'Christian side-hug' must be strictly a protestant thing.
9. That was real wine. Cabernet Sauvignon if I had to guess. But I could be wrong.
10. Did you know that the sentence, "Well, it's 1:15." is a joke? Neither did I. But everyone laughed. Except me. I hope that didn't make me look awkward.

That was an interesting experience. Another bucket list item checked off of the list. I'm glad I did it. I might even go again someday.


T is for Tidings

Not all news is good news. Good news is a real and valid entity, but there also exists bad news. Some of it will sour your taste and weaken your emotional fortitude. Some of it is simply nothing more than ugly – disheartening at best. And sometimes, news can mean different things to different people.

For example:

Christmas Eve is a week away.

For some people, this is fantastic news. These are the people who got all of their gift shopping done in August. Who started listening to Christmas music in October. Who find it easy to get into the holiday spirit. Who revel in ugly sweaters that they only wear this time of year. Who fill their homes with decorations, laughter, cheer, guests from out of town, and the delectable scents of baked goodies.

For others, this is urgent news. These are the people that have procrastinated pulling the decorations out of the garage. Who have forgotten to schedule their year-end PTO. Who haven’t yet purchased a single present. It’s time to check those wish lists that are sitting unread in their inbox or wadded up on a sheet of wide ruled notebook paper stuffed in their back pockets.

There is also a segment of our population that views this as bad news. A first holiday season without a loved one. Traditions that trigger hurtful memories of a troubled childhood. Anniversaries of a tragic event. Estranged family members. Broken relationships. Financial stresses. Seasonal depression.

We hear the carols and the familiar lyrics “tidings of comfort and joy.” These words resonate with a great many people. Others hear those words at a time of discomfort and lament.

To be honest, this Christmas will probably be the most difficult one I have ever experienced. Even with the holiday playlist on my iPod on constant rotation at home and at work and in my car, I’m still having a difficult time being merry. Not to say I’m the Grinch with a heart that is two sizes too small. It just means that the smile on my face takes more effort than usual. That my murmurs of “happy holidays” are born out of sincerity instead of an oblivious platitude. That every laugh, every prayer, every best wish, every hug is deliberate.

It means I am living in this grey area between heartbreak and abundant bliss, between relief and remorse, between hope and sorrow. I have never more fully understood the lines from that Counting Crows song “walks along the edge of where the ocean meets the land, just like walking on a wire in the circus.”

It also means I’m wrestling with the understanding of the difference between happiness and joy.

So Christmas Eve is a week away. What kind of tidings does that bring? Is it good news or bad news? Well, in my world, it’s a little bit of both. Like I’m walking on a wire.


S is for Stories and Superheroes

I love a good story. Actually, I crave them. A well told story is a narcotic; it makes me feel powerful and vital – like I could conquer the world. But deeper than that, I believe that humanity’s existence is dependent on our ability to tell our stories and pass on the stories of those who came before us.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a quote on the Kennedy Center website that has stuck with me. It delighted me so much that I have it posted on the wall of my office: “Telling stories is an essential part of being human. People everywhere, throughout history, have told and still tell stories. Whether it's to remember history, to communicate feelings, or honor an individual, telling stories helps us understand the world in which we live.


Drops mic. Walks away.

In those three sentences is a truth that you will find repeated in resources for teaching literacy to young learners and encouraging youth to appreciate literature. You will see it in academic papers and writers' workshops. Over and over again – storytelling is an essential part of being human. In our modern era, we have a multitude of mediums available to seek out the stories of others and to tell our own. We have oral traditions and books like past generations, but we also have newer outlets like television, movies, comic books, video games, blogs, podcasts, and social media.

Stories are everywhere in our world. The challenge is finding a good one.

Confession time:

Lately, I've been binging on superhero stories. In the past couple of months, I've caught up on all of the super powered movies that I've missed over the past couple of years: Captain America Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man (and its sequel), X-Men Days of Future Past, and Wolverine; sometime this weekend I will be watching Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m working through the second season of Arrow on Netflix instant. I've kept up with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Gotham, and Constantine. My oldest and I finished watching the last few episodes of Avengers Assemble. I've read a Guardians of the Galaxy graphic novel and am midway through an Avengers graphic novel.

For most of my life (not to mention the first few decades of their existence before I entered planet earth) comic books were seen as a subculture reserved for nerds and social misfits. There was an idea that reading comic books made you some sort of miscreant. The crossover appeal to wider markets were either complete failures (Howard the Duck) or contrived as campy comedies (60s era Batman TV show). It hasn't been until recent years the major studios began to take comic books seriously and recognized their mainstream appeal. Better scripts, bigger budgets, more recognizable names cast as lead actors.

Suddenly, it's cool to be a geek.

My kids are lucky. They can talk about superheroes at school without all of the other kids labeling them as dorks. They have nearly 80 years worth of comics available to read. Their favorite characters are being portrayed as worthy role models. The actors that play these characters are being recognized for their charitable work, their kindness, and their generosity. Books featuring comic heroes are printed at every reading level from pre-k through high school. Comic books are more accessible and acceptable now than ever before.

More so, comic books are beginning to be viewed as more than entertainment. Educators are seeing value in them as powerful methods to help kids become better students. Studies are finding that kids who read comic books tend to be more creative and have better vocabularies than kids that don't read comic books. These stories are tools for academic achievement and weapons to fight against illiteracy – nonprofit foundations are finding success in helping low-income and developmentally disabled kids learn to read by using comics. One study even suggested that the vocabulary in comic books is written at a higher grade level than newspapers due to having less space to convey big ideas; this makes comics more complex yet laid out in a visual format that makes sense to kids – even if they don't understand a word, those visual cues help them understand the context and meaning far more than in picture free texts. Despite the differences between comic book stories and traditional literature, comic books are equally valid. They follow the same literary devices as other forms of fiction: character development, plot arcs of conflict to climax and resolution, setting and world building, themes and symbolism.

With that in mind, last weekend provided a moment of pride when I caught my daughter reading her older brother's Guardians of the Galaxy comic book. She identifies with Gamora (the dangerous girl), Rocket (the sarcastic raccoon) and Groot (the friendly yet fiercely protective sentient tree). It was not an easy read for her. She struggled pronouncing some words and frequently asked me to help her sound out a word or tell her the definition of other words. But she made the effort and smiled the whole time.

I am happy to see my kids reading and enjoying comic books. Not just for the reasons I listed above. Yes, it sparks their creativity, expands their vocabulary, and encourages them to enjoy reading. But comic books are still more than that. Comic books carry on the tradition of storytelling that is essential to human existence. This year is Batman’s 75th anniversary, but superheroes are much older. If you take a serious look at human history, you will find that superheroes have been a central aspect of the stories we've told since our ancestors began telling stories.

The ancient Jews had Moses and Abraham, figures that play predominant roles in three different religions. The New Testament book of Hebrews listed the heroes of the faith – people who “conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” The Egyptians had Isis, Osiris, and Ra. The Greeks had their gods and demigods. The far east had stories of Genghis Khan, Emperor Qin, the samurai, the shoguns, and ronins. The middle ages produced exaggerated stories of the Templars and Europe gave us tales of fairy godmothers, King Arthur, and Robin Hood. Even America’s Wild West had their tall tales of Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and Pecos Bill. All superheroes in one form or another.

Throughout time, people from different cultures all over the world have used these stories to remember their histories. They expressed their emotions through these stories. They told and retold these stories to honor individuals. These stories helped them to understand their world.

More than any others, these stories of superheroes communicate what it means to be human – even when the characters featured are more than human. We can't be superhuman ourselves, but we see in them qualities that we desire. Honor. Courage. Strength. Passion. Loyalty. Self sacrifice. Dedication. The ability to fly. Whether it is Jason and the Argonauts quest for the golden fleece or Peter Parker's struggles balancing power and responsibility, superheroes reveal our humanity. They inspire us to be better people. Telling these stories is an essential part of being human.

My older son, inspired by his favorite superhero, Captain America.


Dear white people

First of all, allow me to apologize for the awkward title. As a person lacking melanin, this post might as well be headlined "Dear me." My grasp on the hurt and anger in black communities across our nation is feeble at best. I was raised in the suburbs - and one that was closer to rural pastures than the inner city (my high school was nicknamed Cow Pie High for a reason). The struggle of growing up in the American ghetto is as foreign to me as the Tibetan alphabet.

Ever since #Ferguson first became a trending topic, I have watched live streams of the riots and protests. I have read countless articles from people both directly and indirectly involved in the controversies. I listen to of hip-hop. I follow Shaun King on twitter. All of what I've learned over the past few months confirms one thing: I will never truly understand what it is like to be a young black male in America. For me to presume that I know what's best for them, or to instruct them on how they should act and respond to crisis, or to claim any superiority over them is summed up in one simple word: arrogance.

While watching news reports, reading editorials, and surfing through my facebook and twitter feeds, I see more arrogance than anything else. More arrogance than compassion. More arrogance than understanding. More arrogance than problem solving. More arrogance than introspection.

As a white person, my perspective is and always will be skewed. We are all a sum total of our life experiences. Mine are that of a kid that came of age during the grunge explosion in a conservative Christian home somewhere north of Seattle, and now lives in an area that is 93% white. My history belongs to a theater nerd, a movie and music junkie, and a religious student. In my experiences with police, I have generally been given the benefit of doubt. I have rarely (if ever) been viewed as a threat.

However, as a Christian, I am compelled to say something. The level of arrogance I see is appealing. I believe in a God who hates it and promises to put an end to the arrogant. I believe that my God does not show any preference or favor based on skin tone. I believe that, as an adopted child of God, a black Christian is as much my brother or sister as is a white Christian; that in Christ we are all equal. And finally, if we are all family - regardless of race, then I believe that when one member of that family suffers, we all share that suffering and we should all care for each other.

My faith creates a paradox. From the perspective of my race alone, I lack understanding. But my faith requires that I see past my own skin. It demands that I sacrifice my self for the sake of others. I am compelled to provide comfort to those who are hurting. And - as I mentioned in my previous post - I believe that we are called to mourn with those who mourn.

With that perspective, I will climb onto my soapbox for a moment and as lovingly as possible share a message for all who share my paler pigmentation: Shut up. You're not helping.

Now, I must clarify a few things. I am not asking you to apologize for being white. I am not asking you to feel ashamed of your heritage. That is a unique part of the way God made you and should be celebrated as an aspect of the diversity in our world.

In respect to recent tragedies crossing news desks this summer, I have no desire to pick a side. I do not want this to be an "us vs them" debate. Individual events that happened in the microcosm of those communities only reflect (and possibly magnify) greater issues present in our culture.

I am not trying to make anyone a saint or a hero, nor am I willing to vilify anyone. I recognize that Michael Brown was a flawed individual just as much as Darren Wilson is a flawed individual. As with the majority of officer involved deaths, I believe that mistakes were made on both sides of the badge. I do not want to make any declaration of guilt or innocence for either the victims or the police officers. To judge any of them is far above my pay grade.

What I do know is that the African American community is grieving. I don't have to understand how or why they are hurting to realize that they are. It is my duty to stand with them and say "your pain is my pain." In this way, I follow the example of Jesus who wept for the loss of life. I honor my God who longs to heal the brokenhearted, who keeps track of our sorrows, and paid the price for our wrongs.

My admonition is not to provoke or anger anyone. It is a sincere request to think before you speak. Words have power and the words you contribute can either heal or harm. And if you choose the latter, please shut up.

"But they're more likely to be killed due to black on black violence. Why don't you talk about that?" True. But white people are more likely to be killed by another white person. So shut up, you're not helping.

"Yeah well, here's a news story of a white kid that was shot and killed by a white suspect. Where's the riots and protests for him?" Was the black suspect a police officer? No. Shut up, you're not helping.

"Police kill more white people than black people." And white people are still 62% of the US population. But comparing white deaths to white population and black deaths to black population shows you don't understand how ratios work. Shut up, you're not helping.

"The police are human too." So are the people they killed. Shut up, you're not helping.

"They're thugs, they deserved to die." Are you saying that stealing a pack of cigars is worth a death sentence? Does illegally selling a tax free cigarette deserve being choked and suffocated as a penalty? Should kids be shot for holding an airsoft gun? Shut up, you're not helping.

"This is just victim mentality. They need to stop playing the victim card." Statements like this enforce the feeling of being victimized. Shut up, you're not helping.

Any time you toss out comments like those in quotation marks above, you're telling an entire group of people that their feelings are invalid. You're saying that they're not allowed to experience their grief and sorrow. You're denying their right to be outraged. Now imagine how you would react if someone treated you that way. What if you were mad or sad and your emotions were completely rejected as irrational? That is called empathy.

Empathy is a funny thing. You don't have to agree with someone, or even like someone to demonstrate it. Empathy opens doors to civil and productive discourse. Empathy erases mistrust and discord. Empathy heals emotional wounds. Our nation needs more empathy.

Please consider the weight of your words. This is a time to build bridges, not throw Molotov cocktails. This is a time to ask "What could we do differently?" Not, "What should you have done differently?" The goal should be preventing more shootings like Mike Brown's, not blaming Mike Brown. We need reason, not rhetoric.