Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Weapons of Our Warfare

Many of us continue to try to make sense of the senseless tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. People of faith have offered helpful and not so helpful explanations and prescriptions after the tragedy.

I agree with my Christian brothers and sisters when they say that atrocities like Sandy Hook reflect issues of the heart and mind. I agree that laws do not address those issues well. No law or collection of legal actions can guarantee that Sandy Hook will never happen again. Nor will they address the core issues that lead a person to commit such atrocities.

But my friends and I diverge when they suggest that because this involves matters of heart and because we have no ironclad guarantees resulting from our action, then nothing can be done. Some of my friends, people I respect greatly, suggest or explicitly state that no law can be enacted, no regulation can be administered, no personal or communal soul searching is necessary, no action is relevant, and no remedy is available to make these atrocities less devastating, less costly, and less common.

Twenty-seven wooden angels commemorating the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
I reject this belief of my dear brothers and sisters. Ours is not a faith that says that because evil is in the heart and violence is in the world, there is nothing we can do about it. Nor are we prohibited from addressing and minimizing the effects of sin. We were not called to this Christian life to sit back and watch sin run rampant. Sin will always be with us in this life, and according to our Scriptures, the human heart will continue to be wicked. But we do have resources to address both the wickedness and its effects. We are people who offer hope. And there is more to our calling than waiting till everyone follows Jesus or waiting until Jesus returns. On the contrary, we have a proud Christian history of addressing sin and its effects using all resources at our disposal, including the championing of legislation.

We Americans are, after all, a nation of laws, not of weapons. The right to bear arms itself is enshrined in legislation. But laws can be ineffective, overly restrictive, or just stupid. We have heard a sickening array of those proposals in the past week. But if all legislation falls into that category, then I suppose we should try anarchy until Jesus comes. We don’t do so because laws do serve a purpose.

Since I agree with my friends that laws don’t effectively address the heart and mind core issues, then why have laws? Because they address the common good. By advancing the common good, we limit the impact of deceitful hearts. We do our part in the Kingdom of God—not that we will see it fulfilled next week or next year or whenever some legislation goes into effect, but we “kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight” (Thanks, Bruce Cockburn).

I am horrified by Christian cries against any gun restriction for anybody under any circumstances. I understand the libertarian stance, and I recognize that a Constitutional law professor can establish legal justification. But I cannot reconcile those cries with my Christian calling.
I’m afraid that my friends’ rhetoric reflects more than a difference of opinion between them and me. I’m afraid (and I here’s the part I especially hate saying) it reflects a commitment to something else above the full Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m no perfect Christian, nor do I expect them to be, but I expect us to proclaim the truth of Jesus more loudly than we do the fallible documents of the state or our own pursuit of "rights." And I expect that Gospel to be effectual in all aspects of this life as well as the next. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I believe 
We need to recapture the gospel glow of the early Christians, who ... refused to shape their witness according to the mundane patterns of the world. Willingly they sacrificed fame, fortune, and life itself in behalf of a cause they knew to be right. Quantitatively small, they were qualitatively giants. Their powerful gospel put an end to such barbaric evils as infanticide and bloody gladiatorial contests....If the church of Jesus Christ is to regain once more its power,  message, and authentic ring, it must conform only to the demands of the gospel. (from "Transformed Nonconformist," in Strength to Love, 1963)
Gospel proclamation takes courage, it takes willingness, it takes guts, it takes desire, it takes a refusal to sit back in proud judgment and a willingness to enter into the fray with an open heart. The answer to wickedness is not resignation.  It is love. Tough love often, complicated love sometimes, even sacrificial love (as in “I might have to give up some secular rights”) but it takes love. Courage and love, both affairs of the heart, can address sins of the heart. And they can give us the will and the means to dare to entertain policies and actions that limit the potential effects of that sin...until Jesus returns.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Way It's Supposed to Be: Reflections on Sandy Hook

I finally remembered the unicorn. It had been in our car since Sunday when our granddaughters, five-year-old Chelsea and 18-month-old Zoey, went to church with us. We took the girls home after Sunday lunch, but Chelsea left the little stuffed toy in our car.

That Friday morning, December 14, 2012, we drove to their house to take Chelsea and eight-year-old Damon to school as we do many schooldays. All week I had kept forgetting to return the unicorn. Until that day.

We arrived at their house and found Chelsea as we do every schoolday, dressed and sitting in her little girl chair in the middle of the living room, watching “Charlie and Lola” on TV. Damon was nowhere to be found. We knew he was in the house somewhere, and older people were around but asleep. I finally spotted two legs sticking out from under the Christmas tree like the Wicked Witch of the East under Dorothy's fallen house. After we pulled him out, we laughed a little and gathered up the children and their things.

Before we left the house, Chelsea grabbed a pink box that opens at the top and has two opening drawers in the front. She gave it to me and said “You take this home and put stuff in it.” When we got to the car, she elaborated to Meemaw, “ You put stuff in it, and Peepaw puts stuff in it. Then you can bring it back to me tomorrow or Sunday.” We took in our instructions obediently. I’m pretty sure she just wanted us to have something else of hers since we returned the unicorn.

 Whitsitt Elementary School is only about four blocks from the house, but as the weather is getting colder we prefer driving the kids to school. Once we pulled out of the driveway, Meemaw   started the prayer.  “God we thank you for this day. And we ask that you be with Damon and Chelsea at school today. We ask for their protection. And we pray that they will be obedient to their teachers and kind to their classmates. We pray that everyone will be kind to them. We pray that they will know that You are with them. In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.”  

As we approached the drive up to the school, Meemaw said, as usual, “Wave to Mommy.” Chelsea and Damon’s mom, Chrissy, is a crossing guard at their school. We always wave to her as we drive up to the school.

We parked and headed into the building and walked the short entry hallway. From there, the second through fourth graders turn right and the pre-K through first graders turn left to get to their respective classrooms. At this point we typically wait for Damon’s decision. He might want to go to breakfast, might want to walk alone to class, or might want to have company walking to his second- grade class. “Company” usually means Meemaw, since I am designated to walk with Chelsea, who always just wants to get to class as soon as possible and would be just as happy to walk all by herself.  

Chelsea and I both love the walk, but we are really in different worlds, I think. I am an observer, amazed and delighted to see how the children at Whitsitt respond to one another every day. The school exudes kindness, friendliness, and safety. And yes I have to mention the racial make-up of the student body. It’s perhaps 80% Latino with a handful of black students and white students. That make-up matters to me, mainly because it doesn’t seem to matter to the children. Brown, black, and white pre-K through fourth grade boys and girls walk hand in hand or arm and arm. They are not supposed to speak, because it’s Zone Zero in the halls, but they smile and wave and sneak in a “Hi Chelsea” whenever they can. Chelsea is obediently silent, but also smiles and waves. And she soaks it in.

On this day Damon decided to walk to class on his own, so Meemaw hugged him and said goodbye before joining me and Chelsea. As usual Chelsea’s mood grew more quietly excited as she walked down the hall. We finally got her to her class, where she stopped to hug Meemaw, and I kneeled down so that she could half-hug me. She doesn’t like this moment because she’s already in school mode, but she always accommodates us. By then she was beaming. Mrs. Williams greeted her at the door, and Chelsea entered her kindergarten classroom, her second home, safe and sound.

After the events at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, that day, we made a point of going to Damon and Chelsea's house after school. We just wanted to see their little faces. When we walked in, Chelsea wanted to know if I had brought back her pink box. I reminded her that I have until Sunday. She giggled, “That’s right. I’ll see you Sunday!”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Fear of a Baseball Cap

It was July 4, 1996. I was with my wife, our four children and our dear friends in the Kroger grocery store parking lot in Franklin, Tennessee. Lots of other patriots had gathered with us anticipating sundown so that we could enjoy the Independence Day celebration. While the sun still shone, we were all just killing time. Cars were lined up in their parking places while the erstwhile occupants lounged on truckbeds or wandered the aisles laughing and taking in the last moments of sun.
Our younger kids were getting restless, so to occupy them I volunteered to accompany them to get drinks and candy in the store. We walked toward the store—this slightly built black man and a gaggle of young white children. All the people we passed were also white, and as we walked I could feel the eyes on me. The kids were innocently oblivious. Not one to shy away, I looked up to greet or at least make eye contact with anyone who dared to keep up the stare. Several young men obliged with scowls that showed me they weren’t in a greeting mood. They wore a standard uniform each punctuated by a baseball cap with a brim curled just a certain way. No-one said anything to me. They didn’t have to. They seemed to know innately that the stare communicated their message.
I felt the message deep in my bones; it was visceral. And not unfamiliar. In earlier months only blocks from that parking lot, young white men sent more explicit messages. On one occasion a carload of baseball-capped young men cruised by hanging out of a car and yelling racial insults at my wife and me. And on another occasion similarly dressed young white men drove by pointing gun-shooting gestures at me.

The intimidation is real, although its effectiveness on me varies according to my mood. Most times it is unsettling but not enough to alter any actions I already had in mind. These guys INTEND to be threatening to me. And I identify them ahead of time by that baseball cap they wear and by the area of town I happen to be in. For me, they are trouble-makers, marked by a number of factors topped off with the baseball cap.

Actually I bear no animosity toward the humble baseball cap. My white son sports a baseball cap with a Dr. Pepper logo. And some of my best friends wear baseball caps; some of those people are white young men from Franklin, Tennessee. People wear baseball caps for various reasons: Some as a fashion statement, some to show team or brand loyalty, some to keep the sun out of their eyes, some to cover up an embarrassing head or hair situation, and some because they play baseball. Folks wear their caps in various ways: Close to the head, sitting atop, backwards, side ways, or slightly askance. Baseball cap wearers come in varied sizes, shapes, ages, colors, and genders. It would be wrong for me to assume that every baseball cap wearing person is somehow dangerous to me.

Despite my history, it would be ridiculous for me to believe that their baseball caps MAKE people trouble-makers or that those caps are symbolic of trouble or even that I should somehow be confused about whether their baseball cap makes them dangerous. A focus on the skin color of the cap-wearer or on a particular area of town does nothing to change the picture. Objectively these guys are no more dangerous to me because they are young white guys wearing baseball caps in this area of Franklin. But as an isolated black man on this turf while groups of baseball-capped guys stare me down, I have reason to feel threatened.

Now what if one of those guys was walking in my multicultural neighborhood with a curled rim baseball cap? I’d feel no twinge of threat. My bones don’t recognize a generic baseball-capped young white guy as someone to fear, someone to pursue. If I did feel threatened by a random baseball-capped young white man in my neighborhood, and if I were a neighborhood watch captain, I would call the police. I would follow their advice.

And if that baseball cap-donned young white man came from behind me and attacked me and I knew I was carrying a semi-automatic weapon, he’d probably still be alive. 

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Are We Losing Winning?

 I spent the day Saturday ragging on Damon’s coach after their first soccer match of the season. After Damon’s team scored their second goal, one of his teammates asked if they were winning. The coach, who was doubling as a referee, replied, “Winning doesn’t matter.”

“Excuse me?!” I said, mainly to Christian, who was coaching his little brother from the sideline. “What did she say?”

I get where the coach was coming from. A long time ago, I played Little League baseball…badly. I got to play because the league said that the coach had to play me. Each game I served my one inning in right field. Most of that time was spent like Chelsea’s one-and-only soccer practice before she quit this year: I would rather be picking flowers (not literally for me, but for Chelsea...). As I stood out in that field, I prayed, as did my coaches, that the ball would never come my way.

I played for two years, one at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and one at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. My two experiences differed very little from each other. But the first year our team came in first place. The second year our team came in fourth place. First place was better.

I played baseball because my brother, Carl—who was still Cochise to me in those days—had played before me. Co experienced all of the pressure that led later parents to go easy on their kids. He was a good player, especially a good pitcher, but I think that, with Dad as his coach, Co never felt he was good enough. Dad had to change his tune by the time I started to play. There was no way to parlay my inability, uncoordination and disinterest into some winning prospect. The best he could do is to hope to get me on a good team and hope I didn’t ruin anything.

I later joined a basketball team of my own volition. I faired no better there, and like Chelsea, I quit pretty early on. But I learned that I liked basketball. It didn’t so much matter how good I was. I liked the game. So by the time I enrolled at Punahou School for my junior year of high school, I was beginning my days playing basketball with a ragtag bunch of classmates. Most of them were better and younger than me, but I still liked playing. I also liked winning.

And I later played basketball on teams or in pickup games, knowing that I would usually be the weakest player on the court. One of my fondest memories remains the day my older brother, Carl, and my younger brother, Keith, and I challenged some guys in a pickup game in Hawaii after my college graduation. My brothers are clearly better athletes than me. I don’t remember who won that game. I do remember that Carl missed a layup, Keith put it back up, I got his miss, and I made the basket. Whether or not we won, I saw myself as the hero—that time.

In my later single adulthood I also enjoyed shooting around by myself. I even used basketball as a sort of worship. I would bring my boombox to the outdoor court at the old Howard School. I’d blast Christian music and sing while I played. I met 12-year-old Josh and 8-year-old Anna that way. They lived across the street from the school. They came over together one day while I was shooting and singing. They introduced themselves and told me that they recognized my Christian music. They asked me where I went to church. Then without asking their parents, they invited me to the weekly Tuesday night dinner they had with close friends from their church. Josh and Anna symbolize basketball benefits that had nothing to do with competition. I had grown to enjoy basketball with or without the competitiveness.

Although I was largely unsuccessful in sports, I did grow up learning to compete, mainly with words. And in those competitions, winning was everything; I would not back down. The residuals of my competitiveness remain today. I like being right. And I like you believing that I am right—even if I’m not.

Then I face moments like this Sunday morning, when Pastor Stephen Handy talked about imitating the humility of Jesus. Again with that Jesus Talk! I loved that in our subsequent Sunday School class, Ken pointed out that Jesus is already a victor and that because of Jesus, we are victors too.

I’m still learning. I have discovered that winning doesn’t have to be everything in order for it to be anything. And in some situations, winning doesn’t even matter. Marriage has been my best laboratory for seeing that “winning doesn’t matter.” I’ve learned that there are some things—such as the relationships themselves—that matter more.

After Damon’s soccer game Saturday, an inattentive teammate asked who won. The coach said, “Nobody won.” I still think she is wrong (which would mean that I am right): Damon’s team won 4-0. It matters. But it's not all that matters.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Food Stamps and Mr. Gingrich

For those like Newt who are still confused that anyone would take offense, the problem isn’t political correctness; it is factual and logical correctness:

·      Most African Americans are NOT on food stamps.
·      Most people on food stamps are NOT African American, the greatest percentage are White.
·      Most African American adults ARE working.
·      Most adults on food stamps ARE working.
·      Most poor adults are either working or trying to work.
·      Great work ethics and poor work ethics persist across the economic spectrum.
·      Many hard-working people still can’t feed their families.

While Mr. Gingrich may be factually correct by stating, “More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history,” it is disingenuous to label President Obama “The Food Stamp President,” without considering WHY so many more people are now on food stamps.

Did I say disingenuous? I mean it is a LIE to say that President Obama wants to make people dependent on the government. President Obama wants to dig the country out of an economic rut and to provide relief to its struggling citizens in the meantime.

Mr. Gingrich’s solutions are based on a distorted, misguided, and erroneous perception of the problems.  His rhetoric may resonate with lots of people, but he and those people are ill-informed—not that I think the right information will change their minds.