Talking in public

I can’t tell if social media is helping or hurting our discourse.  In part because I have friends from so many political, religious and ideological sides, I see a variety of articles, comments and arguments about ISIL, gun control, the US presidential election and so on.  Some I vehemently disagree with, others I find articulate my own ideas and position well.  But one theme is constant among almost all of it… a sense of loss and confusion, on both sides of the issues.  Both sides seem unable, or perhaps unwilling, to understand how the other side sees the world.  Convinced that their side is the correct one, both sides seem more intent on trying to convince each other or defend perceived attacks against their position rather than trying to listen and carry on a discourse that uplifts and encourages one another.  The good Lord knows I’ve been plenty guilty of that myself, unfortunately.  Thankfully I have friends who are willing to put up with me and forgive my mistakes, even if we still don’t agree on things.

That being said, I don’t know how to help improve the situation…  I see people, whom I know to be kind loving individuals in person, take on wholly different personas online and it makes me wonder how I come across to those who disagree with me.  What will it take to get us to a place where we listen to each other, truly listen?  One of the things that has been coming to mind recently has been something I was taught in my interpersonal communication class many moons ago about “active listening.”  One of the features of active listening is to first empty yourself of the response.  Listen, reflect back what you have heard and then once you are both clear on what was said, then move forward with the next point of discussion.  It requires patience, time, and a willingness to not immediately jump to your next point.  I need to start putting it into practice more.

But I wonder, in the age of Trump (and I group him separate from the rest of the GOP field), if the idea of discussion is going the way of compromise and collaboration, as words and ideas that are somehow too toxic for people to use.  One of the most disturbing things to me during the first Democratic debate was Hilary’s response when asked who her enemies were.  First, what the hell was the point of asking that question?  But more importantly, she listed Republicans as her enemy…and even if she was speaking in jest, it belies the greater problem in our current public discourse.  Listening to Ted Cruz say most violent criminals are Democrats just adds fuel to the fire.

I have friends and family both who are both Republicans and conservatives (as I have learned from them, they are NOT always the same).  I do not consider them my enemy, although I am most decidedly liberal in comparison, nor would I want to be considered their enemy.  When we start demonizing our opponents we are already far far down the path towards a world in which our children will wonder why we let things get so bad.  I disagree with many of my conservative friends on a variety of issues.  But I respect them as people and friends first and foremost.  Maybe we should start there…

But what do I know?

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Taking a breather

I have decided to ban myself from Facebook for a few days.  Despite what I am sure it may feel like to some of my friends, it was not a hasty decision or even prompted by any specific incident.  It was rather a culmination of things that just became too much in the wake of the Paris attack and our conversations about it.  Although admittedly I’m not sure conversations is even the right word for what was happening.  Demonizing might be a better word.

The Left was dehumanizing the opposite side by calling them racist, xenophobic, challenging their beliefs, ignoring their valid concerns and engaging in name-calling.  The Right was dehumanizing the opposite side by making crude comparisons, ignoring their valid concerns, refusing to see any side but their own and engaging in slander against a whole group of people, innocent and not.  I am not proud of the fact that I was one of these voices at times.

It just got to be too much.  Too much negativity, too much anger, too much hurt.  Everywhere I turned people that I know and love and respect (whether I agree with them or not) were posting things that vilified one group or the other, were arguing with people that I know they also love and respect in ways that frankly bothered me.  It was like someone has tossed a grenade of fear into social media and we were using the shockwave to reinforce our worst perceptions about each other.  Whether “pointy-headed, naïve commie liberal” or “racist, ignorant conservative”, the discussions were less about sharing ideas and finding ways to build common ground and more about pitting “my” version of reality against “yours” and proving my way is the only right way to see things.  And I engaged.  I did it to… and for that I am truly sorry.

As a minister in a faith community that claims the name of Christ, I feel like this last week was not one of my better weeks.

I was not a presence of his love, peace and justice among the world in which I live.  I did not lift people up, care for their wounds, or listen to their concerns in the ways that I probably should have.  I struggled to show love to my neighbors.  I questioned whether I even wanted to remain known as a “Christian.”  But I believe God is real.  I trust in the experiences that I have had and others have shared with me throughout my life.  I trust that Christ is love and calls us to live a better life than we see is possible now.  I hope for and have faith that the world can be a better place.  But I can’t build that world, which we call Zion, if I do not walk the walk as well as talk the talk.  And this week I hurt people.  Whether I meant to or not is irrelevant.  I showed people a caricature of a Christian who says one thing but does another.  I screwed up.

So I am taking a break.

I hope to spend the next few days with God.  As Christ showed us, sometimes we need that break.  To pray with Him, to be with Him… to recharge so that when we reenter the world we are not over-come by it.  I pray for all those affected by the Paris attacks, and yes, that includes the killers and more importantly, their families.  I pray for the thousands of refugees around the world who will suffer needlessly because of the actions of a few.  I pray for me, that I will be a better mirror of Christ’s love to the world I live in.  And I pray for us all, that as God promises, Love will overcome Fear and Division.

See you in a few…

Racism in MY state?

So I know, I haven’t been on here for a while.  I tend to go through spurts, so for the readers that hang in there through my dry-spells I appreciate your support.  It may get even more sketchy here in a few months as N and Boo and D and I are expecting to add another member to the family next Summer.

Family 1

But today I want to relate something else, relating to the controversy at Mizzou.  Having grown up in the area, I am not at all surprised by the concerns the minority students raised about racism.  Not being minority myself I get to experience a level of comfort granted to me simply by being a white male.  But I remember vividly as a teenager listening to two other white young men talking in the bathroom at school about going to beat up “that uppity nigger” after class.  I remember too that there was a right side and wrong side “of the tracks” to live on based on your race, without anyone having to say it.  And this was in the late 90’s.  Not all that long ago really.

I remember too, when D was about 7 or 8, we were in line at a Wal-Mart near down-town KC.  It happens to be the Wal-Mart on that side of town, that is most frequented by minorities and is staffed mostly by minorities.  The cashier was taking forever to get through the line, chatting with all the customers and I was in a hurry to leave so I switched lanes without really thinking anything about it.  D, with the honesty that comes from children, piped up and asked me if we had switched lanes because the cashier was black.

Now…  I have grown up with friends of color.  I am fairly sure that I am not racist in what I do or say, nor is my family.  That being said, I was shocked by D’s statement and observation.  The cashier taking forever was in fact an older black lady who enjoyed visiting with each of her customers.  And had I not been in a rush to leave I probably would have stayed in line.  But the new cashier, who was moving through her line at a fast pace was white.  Growing up attending urban schools with minority students (way more than I ever had in my classes growing up), D still sensed/knew there was something unequal about our skin tones even though I had tried to make sure he grew up with a respect for all persons.  It was one of many times over the years I have had to re-evaluate what I thought I knew about race and privilege and the state of our country today.

So, back to Mizzou and the present day.

I was talking with a friend about the controversy surrounding the campus when they mentioned something that struck me.  The friend mentioned that they thought it was “ironic” that the black student doing the hunger strike that kicked off the protests had called the (mostly) white administration privileged when he himself comes from a family who apparently makes millions.  The friend couldn’t understand how this student could claim to be un-privileged simply because they were rich.  We engaged in a friendly, and I hope insightful, discussion where one of the points I made was that the whole point of privilege is how we look/think about it.

As a white guy, I can afford to think of privilege in terms of money because I don’t have to worry about being pulled over for being black, or worry about being followed in the store because I’m black, or being denied a job because of my race.  For me privilege can be a fairly straightforward thing.  But minorities don’t have that luxury.  For them, insofar as a white guy with no sociology training can assume so for that I’m sorry, privilege is much more multi-layered.  It involves equal opportunities that I simply don’t have to worry about and equal access to things that I just get through no action on my part.

However, this leads to another point and I think, the most relevant one.  When we talk about race and privilege it becomes easy for us to talk past each other.  In speaking with my friend, I realized that what they were talking about when it came to privilege in no way really resembled what the student was talking about.  It made me wonder how often that happens in our conversations to each other.

I don’t know what the answer is and I don’t know how soon things will get better.  But I believe that what the students at Mizzou did was necessary and I know we have to keep trying, to talk, to raise awareness… if we stop talking about race the way some people want, then like an open wound, it will just scab over without really healing.  We have to get past and through the muck and mess and hurt that has built up over generations and we can only do that by continuing to talk to and with each other.  Sometimes in conversations, sometimes in protests.

Just remember to be patient with each other and that in the end, things CAN improve.  For all of us.

Voting with my heart and my mind…

I struggled this week as I listened to political commentary and exchanged a series of point/counter-point arguments with people on my Facebook wall.  It’s not that I struggle with where I stood necessarily.  It’s that I struggled to understand where people were coming from.  I’ve mentioned it before in previous posts, I feel like an outsider a lot of times as I listen and talk to people.  A perfect case in point, in my state (Missouri), the state senate overruled the veto of a bill they had passed that prevented local communities from setting a higher standard minimum wage than the state sets.

I would argue that this was a classic case of larger government overreach (for those who say such things are a problem).  Outsiders at Jeff City, the state capitol, were telling other communities in our state how they could and couldn’t regulate local business policy.  The biggest supporter of the veto override was the state Chamber of Commerce and other big businesses.  The local petition to raise the minimum wage had over 100k signatures on it from registered voters.

Yet the same people who argue against government overreach were in many cases the same people who voted to overturn the governor’s veto and so prevent local control.

I point this out because it presents what to me, is the seeming contradiction of the modern Republican party.  It says that it wants smaller government and less government intrusion, but that has proven true only as long as the policies in question align with their own perceptions.  The GOP intrusion into end of life choices, abortion, opposition to same-sex marriage and more are perfect examples of where they are perfectly happy to have the government interfere with people’s lives, but heaven help you if you mess with people’s business.  They don’t want to regulate the money only their version of morality…whether you agree with it or not.  It’s the main reason I registered as a Democrat… not particularly because I am enthralled by the Democratic position, but because I cannot stomach the Republican one.

It’s also the reason I have become such a fan of Bernie Sanders.  He is, in my opinion, the most honest and authentic person running this race and while I don’t agree with him on everything, to me he seems to have his heart in the right place and I am happy to be a part of his political revolution.  #FeeltheBern

Reflections on the odd…

I don’t know why I am such an oddball.

It may simply be a factor of my perception, but I look through my friends’ social media accounts, we visit in person, I watch tv and listen to the radio and people chatting in stores and I wonder, truly and often, “What on earth are they thinking?”  I am not saying this to come across as superior or condescending, while acknowledging that can certainly be how it is perceived.  It is more a matter of truly not understanding how people can hold some of the beliefs that they do.  I think that is one of the reasons I so enjoy honest, respectful debates with people who disagree with me.  I WANT to learn more about what makes them tick.  I WANT to try and understand why they think, feel and see the world the way they do.

One of the things that Bernie Sanders, currently running for president of the US, recently said to a respectful, if not exactly thrilled, arena of conservatives was that “It’s easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you, it is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.”  And I truly believe in this.  The ideals of community that my denomination feels that we are called to create are not communities of conformity.  They are communities that recognize the worth of all persons.  Communities that welcome everyone in.  Not just the ones who look, act and think like the majority.

It is helpful I suppose to explain that in my upbringing I think there were several factors that gave me a somewhat unique perspective of the world that do not allow me to easily integrate with my peers.  First off, I was raised in a denomination that if people had heard of it at all either thought it was a cult or part of a totally different church altogether.  We were emerging from a period in our history where we thought that as a church, we had the “one TRUTH” that all other churches were lacking.  It was a tumultuous time in our denomination’s history, full of excitement, hurt and change.  It also meant that I didn’t have a lot of friends to talk to about religion, in a place and time where religion WAS family (post-script, it is family again now after years of wandering).  Most of my neighbors were Catholic, Baptist and the occasional Lutheran or Methodist.  I was one of less than 5 Community of Christ kids in almost every town I grew up in.

I was also raised in a multi-faith extended family.  On my mother’s side, my aunt and cousins were Jewish, both by blood and by religion.  My Christmas for years consisted of playing Dreidel and lighting the Menorah candles, while one of my cousins told the story and then going in the other room to read the Christmas story from the scriptures and singing Christmas carols.  As an adult I find more and more that I miss that piece of my childhood.  Sharing in the different faiths that made up my family.  I also have cousins and other family who are Pagan and Agnostic.  But down deep we know that being family is what still connects us.  In many ways this is how I understand being a part of the family of God.

Both of my parents were ministers, as were all four of my grandparents.  I was also raised in a household of educators.  My father was an elementary teacher and principal for 35 years and my mother was a high-school and college instructor.  Knowledge and reason helped to provide the foundation for how we understood the world, how we found strength in our faith and what our part in taking care of the world was.

On the flip side I was also a theatre major and spent years finding a second home in the welcoming embrace of those gypsies, geeks, freaks and oddballs who made up the various theatre groups I was a part of over the years.  They are in many ways still some of my closest and best friends and family.  It was weird being an active and believing Christian surrounded by people whose view of faith tended to be extremely divergent from my own.  But it was also very humbling to be part of such a community of people whose own struggles had made them keen to accept anyone who wanted to truly join the community they had created.  While I may have attended church, they lived it, although I know a number of them who would shudder to think of it in those terms.  🙂

Additionally, I started working in social work at a very young age.  At 14 I began volunteering my summers at a Christian camp for children who had been victims of abuse.  The abuse could range from physical, mental, emotional, sexual to sometimes all of the above.  For a time, we would be paired one-on-one with these children as the camp provided a place of sanctuary for them.  Many of the children had been taken from their homes and placed with other relatives or in the foster program and over the years that I participated in the camps (about five years all told), I heard and saw many horrific examples of people’s inhumanity to the most vulnerable among us including in the lives of my nephews and sister.

But I also saw the incredible strength and resilience of these children as some came back years later to be counselors themselves and the power of love and acceptance in making a difference in these children’s lives.  Sitting on top of a 7-year-old boy and wrestling a stolen kitchen knife away from him, to keep him from stabbing one of the girls at 11pm is one of the most heartbreaking memories I have.  But seeing a child, so badly abused that he will never walk or talk normal again, raise his voice to share in front of the group his hopes and fears for the future, of having a family and wishing to somehow be normal…seeing the love of these kids as they gather around him to show him how much he is loved and accepted as he is, is one of the most cherished memories I have.

I worked in Domestic Violence shelters and Runaway programs for teens for years before finally hitting burnout.  The stress, frustrations and hurts that Social Service workers, Police and other emergency personnel experience is real and hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t gone through it.  But it cost me my first two marriages, lots of sleepless nights, struggles with alcohol and depression.  There is a reason that people in these professions are so hurt.  It’s not because we don’t care, but because we care so much and we see so much misery around us.  We share a common desire to help our fellow human beings and often get frustrated when we can’t “fix” the problems we see.

I have been held-up at gun point.  I have lost people close to me to violence.  I understand, at least on some level, what it is like to have your life threatened.  I don’t ever want to face those circumstances again, but I also know that should that happen I will do everything I can to save those I care about EXCEPT take another life.  In my understanding and belief I cannot do it, nor can I condone it, not even to “save” those I love the most.

This partly comes from my journey as I ran away from church, tried other religions and none and finally found my way back to my roots.  If I truly believe that God shelters and protects me, than it is not my place to save my life through violence.  Martin Luther King and Ghandi had a lot of influence on this as well and will probably be covered more in future posts.

I love to read, to learn and to experience new things.  I want to be challenged on my beliefs, so that I may reexamine them and ensure that they still fit my understanding of the world.  I want to share in the faiths of my friends, but more importantly I want to share in the LIVES of my friends.  Building relationships is so much more a part of what I feel called to do than building church buildings.

I have a dirty sense of humor sometimes.  I have learned to live with the desires of my previous addictions to alcohol, smoking and porn, without giving in to them.   I yell, I scream at people I love sometimes.  I’m not great with money.  I lie.

But I also work on being a better person each day.  One who can look upon each person I meet as an opportunity to build a better world.  To leave this place a little bit better than I found it.  I don’t do this by telling them that I know what it means to be a “sinner” and then shaming or demeaning them into believing like me.  I do it by telling them my own struggles, by empathizing with their questions and accepting their conclusions, giving them space to grown into the person they are meant to be.  I ask forgiveness for the mistakes I make, I strive to make peace with people I have hurt or angered.  I try to understand.

I don’t know why this is such a hard thing for other people to understand.  I only know it sometimes feels like there are only a handful of us out there trying to live this way, but we do it because for us the world could be such a beautiful place if we can get even another one or two to see it through our eyes.

I may be the oddball… but what if I wasn’t?

Foundations

For me these two documents – 1.) http://www.exponentialimprovement.com/cms/uploads/Einstein%20on%20Why%20Socialism.pdf
and
2.) http://www.cofchrist.org/common/cms/resources/Documents/Sharing-in-Community-of-Christ-3rd-edition.pdf

best lay out the foundations for why I believe what I do… about family, faith, community, politics and the world.

The first lays out an influential essay by Albert Einstein on why he supported (little-s) socialism versus the capitalism that currently drives our society.  It includes some additional thoughtful commentary and links afterwards that I think is well worth the read although the entire thing can be a little thick.

The second is a publication by my denomination, Community of Christ, and lays out the foundations of our faith.  We are a non-creedal church so belief in these ideas is not required for membership, but this is the official church policy and largely mirrors my own understanding and belief.

I share these out of a desire to help explain why I say and do the things I do, not necessarily out of a desire to change or convert you to my way of thinking.  I do this because, as Bernie Sanders said recently to a crown of students at Liberty University, “It’s easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you, it is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.”

Religious Liberty vs The Law

This probably isn’t news anymore, but here’s a little secret that many in ministry don’t like to discuss openly…we struggle too.  We struggle everyday with feelings of inadequacy, failure, anger, hurt.  We wrestle with the big questions, wonder if our faith is big enough, strong enough.  We worry about all the answers we don’t have, about the answers we do.  And these are on top of all the things that we face just because we’re human just like you and we have lives and jobs and families and responsibilities that weigh on us.

Some of these struggles are caused by internal things.  But others are caused by external stimuli; things that happen that we feel like we have to react to, or not react to as the case may be.  For me one of the most difficult struggles recently has been Ms. Davis’ stand against issuing marriage licenses in KY lately.  Well, I suppose in many ways that’s not entirely true.  It’s not so much her stand as it is all of the noise out of both sides of the issue that I think are obscuring the most important issues at play here.

The first is that these are people involved in this standoff.  Real people, who have family, people who love them, both the couples trying to get married and Ms. Davis herself.  These people have hopes, desires, beliefs; they get hurt, they are struggling with the situation that they find themselves in and they are both being held up as something larger than themselves by activists on both the Right and the Left.  It magnifies and intensifies every aspect of what is already a painful and stressful situation.

The second can best be summed up by the meme below:

ReligiousLaw_meme

However, it’s not entirely that simple either.  (And please note, I am NOT comparing Ms. Davis’ stand to Osama’s murders, but to the rationale behind each one’s stance)

Saying that religious beliefs should be protected and promoted above the law of the land is great if it’s a belief that you agree with.  At that point, sure, what’s the harm in making MY thoughts and MY beliefs that supreme figure of our nation…except that not everyone shares those same thoughts and same beliefs.  What if the religious beliefs being supported are for a religion you disagree with, or are afraid of?  Will you still support those decisions?  And at what point can and should the government intervene?  Be very careful with how much intervention you ask for.  It opens the door to many many unintended consequences…just talk to Hobby Lobby and the Satanic Temple in Detroit.  Pretty sure those two groups never thought they’d have something in common until after Hobby Lobby won their lawsuit in the Supreme Court.

I am not saying that I agree with Ms. Davis, because I don’t.  But I don’t want to dismiss her thoughts and beliefs out of hand either.  As a believer, even one with different beliefs than Ms. Davis, how much do I want the government to force me to do something against my religion?  Because that’s what we’re talking about here.  Personally I think she should just resign.  Or barring that, reassign her to another position and give her duties to someone who can fully carry out the responsibilities of that office.

But to see my first point above, Ms. Davis is a person.  She may be biased against full LGBT rights, but does demonizing her or sending death threats to her house and family make the position of those who disagree with her any stronger?  One of the most powerful forces of the Civil Rights Movement was that it was the persecuted being arrested, not those doing the persecuting.  I fear that this request of gov’t involvement will reframe the discussion in a way that is harmful to the LGBT community for decades to come.

I am also a believer in the building of community, not tearing it down.  And that means living with and dealing with people who agree with me AND people who do not agree with me.  I look at my Facebook wall and the many posts from members and other ministers in my denomination (and other denominations) about this and other decisive topics and I see so much hurt, anger and feelings that run so strongly there seems to be no way for us to hear each other…let alone manage to have a civil conversation about it or attempt to understand why the other person feels the way they do.

It may be a vain hope, but I will keep trying to get people to listen to each other.  Not to change their points of view, but perhaps to more fully see each other as someone of worth.  To understand that in order for our community to grow and be healthy we need ALL of us.  Not just the ones we like.