Monday, November 11, 2019

Tears for America

This morning I was reflecting on Veterans Day, and I thought of all my friends who have served in the U.S. military. I thought of the great privilege of living in our country. It really brought me to tears. My father, grandfather, and other ancestors fought for our freedom.

In our land, we live in peace. I don't have to worry about marauding gangs coming through town, breaking into houses and businesses. Soldiers don't stand watch on the corners because we don't need them there. People from all around the world long to live in the U.S. because of the great opportunities, resources, and freedom here.

We celebrate innovation in America. We allow creative minds to benefit from their inventions. Inventors can patent and market their new creations, bringing new products and technologies to the rest of us. We expect every gadget to be improved every year, from cars to vacuum cleaners to cell phones. And we also expect to be able to get any item in the world delivered to our door, often overnight. Our culture is all about better, faster, cheaper.

We are also a generous people. As charities thrive, our country shares love with all kinds of needy people--those with medical needs, financial needs, emotional needs, spiritual needs. When there is some disaster, we respond with food, medicine, equipment, workers. We do that across the country and around the world.

Our great blessings bring tears to my eyes. But there are also other kinds of tears. We incarcerate more people than other countries. We don't always live up to our belief that "all men are created equal." Our free market has rewarded greed. There are high rates of suicide and addiction. We can monetize virtually any endeavor. We tend to be materialistic. We claim to value life, but often fail to protect people until they are born. We believe in equality, but minorities find that some are more equal than others.

We long for society to be just, fair, and free. Our highest ideals are lofty, and we often fall short of them. In spite of our imperfection, we also like to "encourage" other cultures to take on our ways of life and government, assuming that our way is best for everyone. Doesn't everyone think like we do?

At home, too many are at each others' political throats. The "gotcha" culture sets a trap for everyone who takes a stand. Our principles say that everyone has a right to free speech, no matter how absurd or offensive that speech may be. But some self-appointed guardians have created arbitrary rules of political correctness.

There is a gap between our principles and our reality. But our principles really are worth fighting for. Thank you to our Veterans for taking that stand and putting their lives on the line. May we seek to honor that sacrifice by living into the real American values of truth, honor, and justice.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Big Itch

Yes, it's a big itch. Somehow this stuff finds me. My last two bouts with itchy plants have been particularly severe, and I never saw the offending plants.

I am rather an expert at spotting poison ivy and poison oak. Poison sumac, I'm not so sure about. Apparently it was sumac that attacked me in August. Then last week I was pulling out kudzu when again I was exposed to urushiol, the poison in those poison plants. The gap between my work gloves and my long sleeves provided plenty of room for skin contamination.

I did wash my arms, but not soon enough, not thoroughly enough. Sigh.

I have heard that the reaction to these poison plants worsens with each exposure. And I've been getting the rash since childhood. I have gone for months and years with no breakouts, but this season has been brutal for me.

I want to find some spiritual lesson in this, or maybe a Bible verse about no itching in heaven. In the meantime, I can only try soaps and lotions to treat myself.

I promise to be more careful. I promise to wash my skin, way more than necessary. I promise to keep looking for something good in these plants. No, that's a lie. I just want to kill it.

A severed poison ivy vine by the farm creek. 
I blew through this vine with my 12 gauge one winter.
Die, hateful plant.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Reparations for Slave Descendants

I need to start with a disclaimer here. I have not researched the case for giving reparations to descendants of American slaves. There may be some compelling reasons for the U.S. to make these payments. But in my ignorance, I have a few observations.

Americans of African descent live in a context that white people cannot begin to understand. A black friend of mine told me recently that if his car broke down at night along a highway near Stokesdale, he would not consider leaving his vehicle to find help. It would be dangerous for him to flag down another car or to approach a house nearby. People would feel threatened by him and could cause him harm. That is not the world I live in as a white man.

Money fixes everything. Or so we think. Our American capitalist society agrees that everything can be monetized. Spending money equals addressing a problem. If Americans of African descent have been wronged, then we can buy our way of it. The payments might not make things right, but they will make things better, the thought goes. And if things are not actually better, at least we did something. We tried. This mode of thinking minimizes the struggles of black Americans. It is based on a false assumption: that money will fix everything. But reparations cannot make my friend feel safe on a roadside at night. No amount of money can change that.

Reparations can actually be harmful to the recipients. An American Indian friend of mine believes that reparations to Native Americans exacerbated their plight. He talks about growing up on "the res" and the struggles of his neighbors to navigate in the broader American culture. Not only did the reparations fail to help, they actually hurt Native Americans. I must confess that I was unaware of these payments to Indians, but my friend saw a lot of negative fallout from them. Reparations for African Americans might work better than those for Native Americans. But we would do well to anticipate unintended consequences from reparations.

I think reparation payments are the wrong approach to the racial divide in America. This divide runs much deeper than dollars and cents. Hearts and attitudes need to change. And maybe that will get us started on changing law enforcement, food systems, the judicial system, hiring practices, lending practices, and mistrust.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Farewell, Dixie Classic Fair

So, we went to the Dixie Classic Fair for the last time on Saturday. Next year the Fair will have a different name. Now we know that the word “Dixie” is offensive. So much for Dixie Cups and Dixie Chicks.

The term Dixie actually comes from New Orleans, where French culture influenced the local slang. In French the word for ten is dix. The ten dollar bills that circulated were known as “dixes.” Over time people associated dixes with the Louisiana region and eventually all of the South was known as “Dixie.”

I have rejected the effort to change the Fair’s name because it attributes a racist, hateful quality to a word that has no such meaning. Or does it?

Thanks to an article in the Greensboro News & Record, I learned that there is more to it. The Fair began in 1882 as a grain exposition. A few years later they included tobacco in the exposition. From there the Fair grew. But in 1956 they changed the name from the Winston-Salem Fair to the Dixie Classic Fair. It was a whites-only event. The (Colored) Carolina Fair was the black version in the 1950s. Until 1963, the DC Fair remained for whites only. Hmm, does that look racist?

The article quoted a Winston-Salem resident who remembers being excluded from the DC Fair as a child. She surely sees the name of the Fair differently than I do.

I wish they would not change the name of the Fair. I have decades of Fair memories, especially with my children. The Fair represents happy, carefree times—times of cotton candy, funnel cakes, Ferris
wheel rides, petting sheep, feeding goats, seeing huge pumpkins, and admiring creative crafts. My associations with Dixie Classic Fair are all positive.

That’s not the case for everyone.

Would I be willing to accept a name change, even though I don’t like it? Maybe that is especially appropriate. African Americans for centuries have had things forced on them. Things that were not right, not fair, not reasonable. An event name change is a small annoyance for me. Maybe, just maybe, I might have some slight idea of the injustice our neighbors have endured for generations. Maybe this name change will help me see that many people look differently at the DC Fair. Events that bring me happy memories can bring painful memories to others. Maybe they should just get over it.

Maybe with the name change I should just get over it.

I wish they would not change the name of the Fair.

Even more, I wish that the Fair had never excluded anyone.

Monday, September 30, 2019

All the Right Answers

I thought that by now I would have a lot more answers. Turns out that I had a lot more answers when I was younger. I was in hot pursuit of the right model of doing church, the right theology (you know, the one that answers all the questions), the right way to disciple others, the right way to lead people, the right way to grow a church, the right way to answer the questions of a godless culture, the right way to vote.

I just thought that I would have more of life figured out by now, after 30 years in ministry. Maybe I know more than I realize. But it seems like I have more questions than ever. In fact some of the things I once knew, I don’t really know anymore. The more I study the Bible, the more depth and nuance I find.

What happens when a person dies? Does a Christian immediately go to heaven? Then what happens at the final Resurrection? Does that usher in the kingdom of heaven? What about all the visions of heaven that speak of heaven on earth? Isn’t there some final authority on end times? Doesn’t anybody have it all figured out? Who is actually going to be in heaven? Isn’t this earth going to be discarded?

At this point in ministry, I expected to be in a suburban church, a pastor of some sort, working in a well-oiled machine of ministry. We would have answers to all the questions. We would have discipleship programs for all ages and interests. We would take care of the needy, in a sanitized way of course. We would knock on doors and find people hungry for the good news, ready to join us. They would come to our VBS, our Christmas programs, our Easter shows. They would pray the right prayers at the right times to get right with God through Jesus. They would get baptized and invite their friends to plug into our ministry. They would all live nice, happy, Christian lives and smile at their neighbors.

My training never prepared me for a life of unanswered questions. I learned how a normal church should run. But there are no normal churches anywhere. Only churches with problems. Some problems and churches are bigger than others. Problems must be addressed right away, and then church will be right and normal again. But “normal” is fiction.

Life is deeper than I knew. There are grey areas. There are good questions without definitive answers. There are people who will challenge my assumptions. Even my role models and gurus don’t have all the answers. Life is mysterious, much more so than I ever knew.

Maybe that’s the big surprise: the more I try to figure out life, the more mysterious it becomes. I thought by now I would have fewer questions. I thought that I understood life years ago. Now I see that I don’t. While my understanding grows, the mystery grows more.

There will always be questions. I will never figure everything out.

But somehow there is joy. It is a profound joy. It is a joy in the swirl of mystery. It is richer and more satisfying than knowing everything. Thank God.

Friday, September 27, 2019

2 Words in Heaven

I recently heard someone on the radio say that he couldn't wait to hear God's first words to him in heaven: "Well done." This is a reference to Jesus' parable in Matthew 25, in which a master entrusts money to his servants to invest while the master is away. Those who invest well receive the master's commendation when he returns: "Well done, you good and faithful servant."

Lots of Christians serve God with enthusiasm and energy, hoping to hear those two words. Of course we want to use our resources well, to be good stewards. We Americans are achievers, and we want to achieve all we can for Jesus. We want him to be proud of us. We want him to wonder what he would do without us. We want to earn his respect.

Some of us may wonder if we are doing enough. What if Jesus doesn't give us the high five of superior production? What if we could have done better?

Sadly, the truth is that we all could have done better. Uh oh. Maybe we idolize those words of congratulations from Jesus. Maybe we really want to worship our resumes, and get God to follow us on Instagram. We achievers want some by-God recognition, especially there in heaven where everybody's watching.

Could we be missing the point?

I'm not sure that Jesus will tell me, "Well done." I have certainly not maximized achievement with the resources given to me. And frankly, I don't especially want to hear that from him.

The two words I long to hear from Jesus are:

"Hi Dave!"

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

7 Types of Friends

As I reflect on the power of relationships, I see that there are different ways that people approach friendship.  I'm just making this stuff up, but it seems to make sense.  Here are some types of friends that I see.

The Hider avoids relationships at every turn.  He enters every conversation looking for a way to end  He may fear being exposed, or may feel inadequate.  The hider wants to be discovered, but doesn’t feel worthy.  He wants to see the other person make the effort, because only then can he tell if that person truly wants to be friends.

The Diver jumps right in.  She has never met a stranger.  She tells you her life story in the grocery line.  Everyone is interested in her life, or so she thinks.  The diver gets in too deep too fast in nearly every relationship, and often gets hurt.  The diver shares so much information, that it overwhelms her friends.  Others may find themselves avoiding divers.

The Runner runs from relationship.  It’s hard to catch a runner.  He will avoid commitment, and cancel plans with flimsy excuses.  Runners are content to be alone, and don’t believe that Jesus wants to bless them through friendships.  Friendship is valuable, but he would rather observe it than experience it.

The Stone Waller is an easy person to get to know—at first.  This person makes friends easily, but only allows people to get so close.  When the relationship reaches a certain point, the stone waller refuses to go deeper.  Such people have experienced hurt with too much vulnerability, and they don’t want to go there again.  They may have lots of shallow friends, and constantly see people go in and out of their lives.

The Tiptoer goes into relationship slowly.  She gradually gains trust and earns respect.  The tiptoer counts the cost of friendship very carefully.  She wants deep friendships, but finds it difficult to open up.  When she feels betrayed or let down by someone, she takes that person off the deep friendship track in her life.  She may have lots of friends, but only a few close friends.  

The Clinger constantly looks for one person to escort him through life.  This is a needy person who will use up anyone who openly befriends him.  The clinger may turn on someone who begins pulling away.

The Normal Person is a fictitious creation that we all imagine is out there somewhere.  Well, maybe not. But I think that even normal people sometimes slide into one of the patterns above. Our challenge is to love people, even when they act weird.  And we can hope that others will love us when we are.  

Even more amazing is that God uses all these weird people in our lives to shape us into more godly people.  Only God could do that.