Monday, December 02, 2013

20 Things That Are NOT the News

Apart from my newswriting class in 8th grade at Wahiawa Intermediate School, I have not studied journalism. So I don’t claim to be an expert in this area. But I am bothered by some discourse these days that pretends to be news. So according to me, here is some stuff that is NOT the news.

1. The headline is not the news.

2. That ticker at the bottom of the screen is not the news.

3. If you saw it on Comedy Central, it was not the news.

4. If you saw it on a number of other networks (which I won’t name because I’m more interested in generating light than heat), it quite likely wasn’t the news.

5. Speculation is not the news.

6. Insinuation is not the news.

7. Conjecture is not the news.

8. Name-calling is not the news.

9. Wondering aloud is not the news.

10. Predicting doom is not the news.

11. “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge” is not the news.

12. Trying to look confused while reading the story usually renders it “not the news.”

13. Commentary, talk radio, and talk TV are mostly not the news.

14. Popular opinion polls are often not the news.

15. Polls of already like-minded people are not the news.

16. Anything in the comments section is not the news (unless it’s a link to the actual news).

17. Relating what some public figure did NOT do is hardly ever the news.

18. Relating what some public figure did NOT say is not the news.

19. Except in the case of an unsolved crime or a missing person, if the story ends with, “No word on whether…,” it probably isn’t the news.

20. This piece is opinion; it too is not the news.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

How Horror Movies Begin

We bought the bed and breakfast Groupon a few months ago before the time change. We weren’t thinking of how early the days get dark in November. The Groupon restricted our one-night stay to begin on a Sunday - Thursday. We chose a Thursday night, leaving town after work.

We were due to arrive at Natchez Hills B&B between 5:00 and 6:00 pm. I had printed out a map and directions, but we figured we’d rely mainly upon the Google Maps navigator.

Laura programmed her iPhone for directions from my office to the B&B address in Hampshire, TN. Accompanied by the comforting voice of GPS Lady and by our own musical mixtapes of anniversaries past, we enjoyed the drive, even after getting stuck in inexplicable traffic outside of Columbia.

It was a straight shot down I-65 until we got to Columbia, where we picked up US 412. We traveled through town and into more rural areas. And then it was dark. And there were windy roads. And GPS Lady said, “ In a quarter mile, turn right on Taylor Store Road…turn left on Love Branch Road…turn right on Southpoint.   

And then more windy roads. Laura said, “Well this is in the boonies.” “Yeah,” I said, calmly and wisely.  I’m the wise one because I trust GPS Lady. More windy roads. And Laura said, “But there aren’t any signs…of any kind.” “Yeah.” And there was silence.

I’m sure that at this point, GPS Lady meant to break the silence with, “I’m sorry, folks; I got nothin’. I’m as lost as you are.” But she didn't. 

Finally our headlights shone upon a sign; it read “Pleasant Union Cemetery.” And GPS Lady said with all confidence, “You have reached your destination.”

Cue suspenseful music.

* * *

Rather than panicking, we resorted to laughing. I think that’s the proper response when you feel like you're in a horror movie. Looking at the iPhone, we saw that GPS Lady was right; we had reached the destination listed. But it wasn’t the destination Laura programmed in. Somehow the address changed….to a cemetery.

We re-programmed, and GPS Lady apparently got her bearings. In about 30 minutes, she led us to what seemed to be the right place. Unlit dark-colored signs, when discovered, helped us. And although the long driveway brought back that eerie feeling, we arrived at a row of cabins and what appeared to be a big house.

We got out of the car and knocked on the door of the house. No answer. We tried the door, and it was unlocked, so we went in. We waited a few seconds, and then Laura began, “Hello?! Hello?! Okay someone’s coming…I think. Hello?! Did you hear that? Hello?!”

I finally looked up the phone number for the place and called the reservation desk. We learned later that Melissa, my contact, was in Georgia, not right around the corner. She told us which cabin we were to stay in. She said that it should be unlocked.

We found the little building in the dark and eventually entered. Just then, the phone rang. It was Melissa. “I just wanted to make sure you were at the right bed and breakfast. Sometimes people make a wrong turn and end up at another place. Are you sure you’re in the right cabin?”
“Um, I guess I'm pretty sure…”

Cue music.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

After the Break-Up

I still can’t find any clear documentation of the day that Laura dumped me. We had known each other for 10 years, and we had dated for three. In conversations, we had touched on potential marriage some day. We tried to explore, to anticipate, to assess the potential challenges of remarriage, parenting and step-parenting, and race. In addition, we each had our peculiar quirks and foibles. We had been talking. And then she broke up with me.

Last week I stumbled upon a document that narrowed down the dump date.  It had to be before September 15, 1994. Upon further investigation, I could see that Dump Day was sometime in mid to late August of that year. By early September, I was down in the lowlands of self-pity (I have the journals to prove it). I also knew that my own selfishness had brought on this breakup. At that point I could have related to the author (thanks Jeff) of “I Didn't Love My Wife When We Got Married.”

And then in my wallowing—and praying, can’t discount the praying—I discovered a hopeful possibility. My specific memory is unclear, but I am guessing that an answering machine message reminded me that we had scheduled a counseling session for September 16. When we made the appointment, we were still a couple, but clearly wanting help for our relationship. So just before the appointment date, using the pretense of that counseling session, I called Laura. 

Tony: I got a message to remind us that we have a counseling appointment on Friday. I just wanted to know what you wanted to do about it.

Laura: I don’t know why you’re asking. We’re broken up, and you don’t want to marry me, so what would be the point?

Tony: I do want to marry you.

Laura: What?

Tony: I do want to marry you.

Laura: Well, I want to marry you, too.

Tony: You do?

Laura: Yes.

We kept the counseling appointment, and barely two months later (after a slightly less lame second proposal), we were married.

And now we begin our 20th year of marriage. It has not been all smooth sailing. But, although I loved Laura when we got married, I love her more now. I hope I love her better.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sacramental Grace

Nine-year-old Damon told his parents that he was baptized today at our church. He was a little confused. There were four baptisms this morning—something for everyone: three babies were sprinkled; one adult was immersed. Damon was clearly fascinated, wandering out of our pew to get a closer look at the man getting dipped in a tub.

And then it was time for Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper. Damon, Zoey, and I served. It was supposed to be just Damon and me. He kept asking me “What am I supposed to say?” “‘The body of Jesus,’” I said, “or ‘the blood of Jesus.’”

Once we were called up and were served the elements, we turned around and there was shy, 2-year-old Zoey standing with us in front of the whole congregation. She served with us. And Damon spoke grace, “the blood of Jesus,” to each person we served. He told us  later “I said it softly, but they all said ‘Thank you.’” Grace.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Zimmerman and Trayvon: Is There a Christian Way Forward?

“What do you think this incident has revealed about us?” a friend asked me over coffee a few days after the George Zimmerman verdict. His question referred not only to the incident, the trial, and the verdict, but also to the reactions to it all. My initial answer to him was the general pontificating that comes natural to me. Upon further reflection, I sought out those who are attempting to move us toward productive understanding and positive action. Among them are Frank Viola and Derwin Gray, a white man and an African American man, who want Christians in particular to pay attention to “The Race Card of the Early Christians – What They Can Teach Us Today.”

The writers remind us that racial tensions are not new to the world stage. After describing the racial hatred between Jews and non-Jews in the first century, they say:
But alas, in the first-century, there emerged a group of people on the planet who transcended this racial hostility. Here was a group of people who saw themselves as members of the same family . . . a people made up of Jews, Gentiles, slaves, free, rich, poor, male and female.
This Christian vision is worth embracing. And although these writers speak with a bit of hyperbole saying, “In all of human history, there has never been so much animosity, hatred, and violence between two groups of people as there has been between the Jew and the Gentile,” the enmity was clear.

That hatred notwithstanding, Gray and Viola paint a picture of a first century church that bears little resemblance to the record in the New Testament. Christian conversion of Jews and Gentiles did not  automatically result in a first century love-in. Nearly every New Testament writer—Paul, Luke, John, Peter, and James— attests to conflicts, dissensions, disputes, and arguments. Paul brags to the Galatian church, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.” He goes on to describe the racial situation:
Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy…
This was more like the self-selected same-race groups at high school lunch than like the “third race” utopia that Gray and Viola describe. There were disputes about circumcision, about eating food offered to idols, and about discrimination in the treatment of widows. There were questions about mission, loyalty,  leadership and friendship. Most of the New Testament would not have been written were it not for these disputes. The first century church is no perfect model of same-mindedness!

Although racial issues between Jews and Gentiles in the first century are well-documented, the primary Christian dispute in the early church was not a racial tension between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians; it was an ideological difference between Jewish Christians and other Jewish Christians. The issues involved racial justice under the Law, but the dividing line between factions was not race. It was ideology. One group identified with the Gentile Christians, the other did not. And still others seemed either confused or apathetic.

If Viola and Gray reflect a rosier-than-thou view of the early church, they do set before us a vision worth pursuing. The lesson we can take from the first century is the realization that this “third race” aspiration does not come easy. That difficulty leads us back to the twenty first century.

The Martin/Zimmerman incident is a manufactured cause célèbre for race relations. Surely the tragedy and its issues are real. But there are more egregious and clear-cut incidents of potential criminality, unnecessary killing, profiling, and systemic racism. If our primary concern is the reduction of burglaries or the reduction in the murders of young black men, on any day we could find better examples that than this one; homes are broken into every day, and young black men are murdered every day. I say so not to be cavalier about their lives or the crimes. But those daily crimes have not gained national attention. This one has.

Partly because of the attention, this incident serves as an object lesson as well as any from the first century. So if Peter and Paul and James could find a place of both reconciliation and mutual growth, then perhaps we can, too. But it will not be easy or painless.

Like those from the early church, reactors to this incident and the verdict fall into two primary camps. Although race runs rampant through this case, the camps are not defined primarily by race. The rival groups are delineated by identification. In one camp are those who, early in this event, readily, initially, and primarily identified with the emotions, motivations, decisions and actions of George Zimmerman. In the other camp are those who, at the same point, more readily, initially and primarily identified with the probable emotions, motivations, decisions, and actions of Trayvon Martin while he was still alive. Still others remain confused or apathetic.

The issues around this incident are as real as those in the first century: law enforcement, rights to bear arms, self-defense, justifiable homicide, racism, white privilege, and systemic injustice. While Americans can celebrate a history of progress in race relations, this incident and its aftermath re-open the chasm that we have to bridge in race relations. With that opening come a legion of other concerns.

These issues demand resolution, they must not be ignored. Glossing over them is not what Christians are called to in the name of “third race” unity. No, we are called to address them without violating the Christian message, whether in word, deed, or character. To do so demands a stance not readily seen in the cacophony over the past few weeks. We are called to a spirit of humility, justice, and goodness. There are a number of ways we might live out that stance and its spirit. There are a number of ways in which we are not.

When we search the Internet for proof of how bad (racist/criminal) one of these actors was, we are beginning the violation of that Christian principle. When we choose to believe every negative characteristic attributed to one person while rejecting every positive characteristic, we are surely not pursuing a Christian mission. When we rejoice in their punishment, rejoice in their escape from justice, or rejoice in their death, we are surely not approaching with Christian humility and grace. If we cannot make sense of this case without deifying one of the people or demonizing one of them, we are not seeing as God sees.

This was not a conflict between good and evil. It was between two human beings, each with his own feelings, motives, and actions. The tragedy, the missteps, and the injustice do not negate those factors. It is possible that each person believed he was taking the best action available under the circumstances. We can even determine that the man and the teen were not equally responsible for the tragedy without assuming that one was an angel and the other a demon. It is precisely that reduction of humanity that hardens the polarization. The efforts of those who are calling for reconciliation are worthless without a willingness to identify with both of these people. Christian reflection demands that we at least try.

And in the aftermath of the verdict, when we find ourselves categorizing all those who identify differently from us as racists or as race-baiters, we are not seeing through Christian eyes. Without a sense of empathy for people who see differently from us we continue to fall short of the Christian vision. Bridging those gaps takes nothing short of personal interaction. We must put away stances, pontificating, and defensiveness. We must embrace humility, justice, peace and listening.

With a Christian attitude, we may take any number of roads toward that Christian vision of unity. In the past weeks I have heard no better first step than the one expressed with awkward honesty and vulnerability by Lesli, a friend of mine. It is not the only first step, but it’s a great example to emulate:

 “Since the trial ended, I am noticing my black friends more and black people, in general. I watched a group of them at breakfast the next morning at that hotel and just smiled…I don't know what their lives have been like with regard to race issues or if they've felt degraded or disrespected for the color of their skin. I am quite sure some have and can guess some may have not. I feel like I should ask some of my black friends about that sometime...and I wonder if they'd be willing to tell me about it—because honestly, I cannot relate based on my own experience….

Going forward, I may need to explore the possibility that living this out as a follower of Christ requires a bit more intentionality than I've brought to the table thus far. A kindness, a word, a smile, a conversation—all far more impactful than assuming folks can look at me and telepathically receive an invisible message on the direction of my heart toward them.

Regardless, anything that makes me stop and look more closely at a person—any person—for a glimpse of the uniqueness only God could've bestowed on them, ultimately, ends up glorifying God.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How to Speak the Truth in Love

Pundits, commentators, bloggers, and other opinionated people like me have been lamenting the demise of civility and the polarization of public discourse. I believe that that polarization has made humility in our discourse nearly impossible.

And we who decry the polarization offer precious few examples (perhaps because of their scarcity) of those who have dared to speak with humility, conviction and respect. One obstacle to speaking with humility is our aversion to ceasing speech when involved in discourse. We cannot respectfully engage people in discourse if we are unwilling to listen to them.

So here is your high profile example of two men who engaged, listened, spoke with respect, disagreed, and developed a lasting friendship. Shane Windemeyer, the gay leader who spearheaded the boycott of Chick-fil-a for its anti-gay activities writes about his developing friendship with Dan Cathy, conservative head of Chick-fil-a. It is a recipe for disagreeing without being disagreeable. It is a model for those of us who have strong Christian beliefs to engage with those who disagree with us, though they may be Christian as well.

I'm afraid that too often we Christians put such confidence in what we believe to be the truth that we forget the love at the heart of the message. But if we follow the model of these two men, even if we don't change minds on certain issues, we proclaim the Gospel in a manner worthy of the message. Read and learn, people, read and learn.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The War on Truth and Unity

“History reverberates with testimonies of a shameful tragedy. Centuries ago a sage named Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. The men who called for his death were not bad men with demonic blood running through their veins. On the contrary they were sincere and respectable citizens of Greece. They genuinely thought Socrates was an atheist because his idea of God had a philosophical depth that probed beyond traditional concepts. Not badness but blindness killed Socrates. Saul was not an evil-intentioned man when he persecuted Christians.  He was a sincere conscientious devotee of Israel’s faith. He thought he was right. He persecuted Christians not because he was devoid of integrity, but because he was devoid of enlightenment. The Christians who engaged in in famous persecutions and shameful inquisitions were not evil men but misguided men. The churchmen who felt an edict from God to withstand the progress of science, whether in the form of a Copernican revolution or a Darwinian theory of natural selection, were not mischievous men but misinformed men. And so Christ’s words from the cross are written in sharp-etched terms across some of the most inexpressible tragedies of history: ‘They know not what they do.’”
—Martin Luther King, Jr. “Love in Action” in Strength to Love

Dr. King could find similar examples in our own day. Sadder still: We have come to the day that Dr. King seemed to want to prevent. The blindness of which he spoke has deteriorated into sinfulness.

A great example is the now quadrennial dustup over pray-ers at the Presidential inauguration. Some of us—apparently only a few of us—are overcome with giddiness when the diverse spectrum of speakers is announced. Four years ago Martin Luther King lieutenant Joseph Lowery (I was his backstage host at a youth ministry event in 1995) and Rick Warren (I led our church’s version of 40 Days of Purpose in 2006) were invited to pray. This time the line-up included Myrlie Evers-Williams (civil rights activist and widow of martyr Medgar Evers) and Louie Giglio (of Passion Worship Movement fame).

But not everyone shares my glee at this diversity. Others operate with obligatory disgust and begin their dirt research. And then the Inauguration Committee’s gesture of unity gets trampled by polarization and namecalling. Welcome to the culture wars!

True to form, someone, who obviously objects to a conservative Christian praying at a Presidential inaugural event, found an old sermon that they believe disqualified Rev. Louie Giglio from praying. They justify this inquisition, probably calling it their journalistic obligation. But more likely it “needed” to be done to stop those Bible-thumping, ignorant, homophobic, right wing fundamentalists from forcing their religion down our throats. Typical outrage ensued, and Mr. Giglio withdrew. The anti-conservative-Christians camp had won. And the unity of our nation took another little blow.

I admit to wishing Mr. Giglio had chosen, like Rick Warren did four years ago, to tough it out and pray for our nation on the occasion of a Presidential inauguration. But I don’t know all of the deliberations that he and his advisors entertained before pulling out. And I honor the respectability of his statement.

This event doesn’t end with the dirt-digging and the decision to withdraw. Well-meaning Christian leaders decided that this is another chance to decry the Obama Administration’s so-called War on Religion. They didn’t have to look far or say much—just  hint that Louie was invited to pray and now he wasn’t praying. ‘Nuff said, right? We all know what happened.  And we must call out the Godless, liberal, Leftist, gay agenda of the Obama Administration.

Except that this incident is an example of just the opposite. The administration’s Inaugural Committee designed the event, invited the guests, and received acceptances.  Among those accepting was Mr. Giglio, whose inclusion in the program was reportedly at the President’s personal request. No further action was taken by the administration until Mr. Giglio withdrew, at which point the Inaugural Committee issued a carefully worded statement emphasizing their desire for inclusion, a desire they demonstrated by inviting such a diverse roster of participants.

Some prominent Christian leaders have ignored the facts. One example comes from Rev. Russell Moore:
“When it is now impossible for one who holds to the catholic Christian view of marriage and the gospel to pray at a public event, we now have a de facto established state church. Just as the pre-constitutional Anglican and congregational churches required a license to preach in order to exclude Baptists, the new state church requires a “license” of embracing sexual liberation in all its forms.”

But the “state” did no such thing. The “state,” meaning The Obama Administration, meaning “The Enemy” invited a prominent Evangelical Christian, who accepted the invitation, and then withdrew under pressure that had nothing to do with the “state.” Perhaps there was a tinge of persecution in the 48 hours between Giglio’s acceptance and his withdrawal, but his defenders’ outrage mocks real religious persecution and ignores the fact that the “state” was the inviter, not the persecutor.

 If I follow Martin Luther King here, I acknowledge that these Christian leaders were just mistaken. In their zeal to defend their rights and their beliefs, they were blind. King warned us in the church of the seeds of this phenomenon which has sprouted and blossomed into a malicious weed:

“Never must the church tire of reminding men that they have a moral responsibility to be intelligent. Must we not admit that the church has often overlooked this moral demand for enlightenment? At times it has talked as though ignorance were a virtue and intelligence a crime. Through its obscurantism, closedmindedness and obstinacy to the truth, the church has often unconsciously encouraged its worshippers to look askance at intelligence.” --“Love in Action” in Strength to Love

It’s possible that their blindness reflects innocent ignorance, but I suggest that their blindness was stoked by their desire to believe something other than the truth. Their devotion to the “Obama is anti-religion” narrative blossomed into an unwillingness to pursue the truth.

This is an object lesson. I am not interested in pointing out who is the worst offender in this scenario. This kind of thinking is a reflection of our times. We line up on either side of any number of issues and lump all of those who disagree with us as into an evil entity identifiable by a buzz word. All we have to say is “fundamentalists” or “Socialists.” We say, “the Left” or “Right Wing.” Sadly even “conservative” and “liberal,” “Democrat” and “Republican,” and “Bush” and “Obama” are code words for “the enemy.” And we hyperbolically decry a War on Religion, a War on Women, a War on the Family, and a War on Equality, and we feel justified, even obligated, to demonize those—even those driven by their faith—who think differently.

As a Christian I am particularly grieved when Christian leaders are perpetuators of these battle lines. In this case once they had determined that those other folks are actually evil, nothing else mattered, even the truth and love in the Gospel of Jesus. The actual facts didn’t serve their narrative so they perpetuated a lie. And they told it and told it and told it so that their lying storyline could survive. This is when their blindness became sinfulness.

Intellectual blindness is not the problem; a total disregard for truth is. My best prayer is “Father, forgive them,” whether or not they know what they do.