My Fathers Sermon on Peace

 

Dad and Leon

Two weeks ago, Feb 26th, was my father’s last Sunday alive.  In usual fashion, he found himself at church around 9:30am preparing to teach Sunday School.  I did not attend his Sunday School class that morning.  I missed his last lesson.  In retrospect, I wish I had not worked so much on the weekends, long Saturdays, and had had more strength to wake up and drag my troop to church for Sunday School regularly.  I’d have liked to sat in on a few more of his lessons, asked a few more questions, and sat more readily at the feet of the singularly most important man in my life. 

Today, is Sunday, March 12, 2017.  My father would have turned 66 in August, he just celebrated 38 years with my mother.  He was just at my daughters 2 year old Birthday party two weeks ago and tomorrow is my 36th birthday.  The first one I will spend without my father writing me a card, telling me he loves, wishing me a happy birthday.  I am not much worried about memorializing my birth this year.  In tribute to what my father did each Sunday, and would be doing today if he were here, I share with all of you a rare thing: One of his sermons.  He preached a handful of times and this is one of them.  It is on a topic he held dear to him: inner peace.

Below is a typed copy of the 4 page handwritten manuscript of my father’s sermon on peace. 

Peace was a central gospel theme for him: peace through trust in God, peace through salvation by faith, peace by knowing it is well with your soul, peace and harmony in relationship to one another as indicative of our love for God.  A Gospel absent the peace of God in Christ is no Gospel.  My father longed for, and lived, with peace and harmony with everyone.  I cannot recall a single person he ever spoke ill of or held in contempt.  Even if he was wronged, he may acknowledge the shadiness of the person but he would never gossip or speak ill publicly of them.  He wanted peace.  He had peace.  And he had it because he believed in God. 

My prayer this morning, is the prayer of Thomas: Lord, help me be like my father, help my disbelief.  In so doing, give me, and those around me, nothing more, or less, than peace.      

“Peace”   by Mitch Napier

Read John 16:33 : “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Is there a secret to inner peace?  When you think about peace, what do you think the average person thinks about?  I believe they think of peace among nations on a global scale, generally speaking.  I believe people may also think about peace at home, at work.

One thing that seems definite is that after trouble more trouble follows.  (this is why inner peace is the key.  If we can attain inner peace all others would fall in HIM.  When peace does not abound, trouble is present).  Let’s reflect on the past for examples: WW 1, Depression, WW 2, Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, escalating fuel prices, unemployment on the rise, crime on the increase, the bible taken out of schools, Gulf War, Bosnian conflict, Abortion, and most recently 9/11 and the war on terrorism – and it goes on.  Look in your local paper daily, read about the troubles, again it only seems the thing we can count on is trouble after trouble. 

Yet the thing that keeps us going is the personal Quest for inner peace.  Someone writes a book about inner peace and people flock to it.  A man stands up and says he found the secret to peace, people flock to him.  People have a hunger for peace.  There is no natural peace that comes automatically after the storm has been weathered. 

Have you ever found something that in your heart when it was over you knew everything would be alright?  I have.  I was unemployed [with a family to take care of] for 10 months.  If only I could have found a job everything would be alright.  I got the job to late and lost the house.  If I only got that promotion…yet then would follow more debt.  If I get through this illness, then we have  medical bills.

An example of another family’s situation was Jane Welsh Carlisle, who was working on the 1st volume of the French Revolution.  During his writing, the tension and stress was great in his home (you ever experienced this?)  Finally, the manuscript was finished.  At last he had peace.  He turned it over to John Stewart Mill to read.  A few days passed and John Mill showed up at the Carlisle home with a nightmarish expression on his face.  Jane thought the worst and asked what was wrong.  Mr. Mill stated his maid accidentally burned the manuscript.  Trouble.

But Jesus said in the world you’ll have tribulation.

You see, trouble comes to mankind in all forms due to our freedom and sinfulness.  Most people look to the world and world leaders for peace.  It’s always someone else who can make it better!  But the truth is, we must start at home, with ourselves. 

There is a story about a family in California that put their house up for sale.  They wanted a better neighborhood, better neighbors, more room, a house with no trouble.  So they listed it with an agent.  Several weeks later they were going through a real estate guide looking for a home.  They finally came to a consensus on a home that sounded perfect!  They immediately called before someone else purchased it.  To their amazement, the home they thought sounded perfect was their own home.

Some will say peace is in nature, look at your surroundings and the animals.  Some peace may be in achievement.  Peace can be found through psychology: lack of love, trust, selfishness, etc., as obstacles.  But sooner or later we find that peace does not come by any rational process!  Paul said the peace of God passeth all understanding.  Peace sought for through the world is always temporary!  That promotion, the accomplishments we make, a new car, anew house, a new dress suit—BUT all these are temporary for sooner or later trouble is back and we are searching again! 

Peace comes to us by meeting certain conditions!

1.       We must have faith in God.  Without seeing we must believe on Jesus that he was sent by the Father and died for our sins on the cross and arose the Third Day victorious over sin!!  He overcame the world! & defeated sin!

2.       We must worship God.  Through daily living we let the trouble and trials of the world affect and irritate us!  That’s why worship is so important.  When we truly worship God our focus is on God and his Kingdom, on being a servant not being served.  Then, and only then, can God meet our inner needs!  Worship is vital to a peaceful existence!  We stop controlling things and allow God to control us!  Worship is the whole that includes the all!!

3.      We must be in Gods will.  Only by being in his will is their peace.  This is the most difficult – discerning his will for our life.  But I believe God reveals his will to each of us by his indwelling Spirit- for if we have accepted salvation (and the free gift of God) he dwells within us and directs us.  Does this mean we no longer make a wrong decision?  No- Jesus knows our weaknesses and will direct his spirit to lead and make correction to our deficiencies. We must be willing to listen and obey and grow.

If we do all this we truly are servants and Jesus promised in him we would have peace for he has overcome the world!!  What Jesus has promised he will deliver – we must believe and exercise our faith to have the peace that only Jesus gives! 

Inner peace comes as a result of obeying Christs greatest commandment that we love one another.  When we obey that commandment we are following his will and in his will is power!!

Do you want that peace?  Are your troubles weighing you down?  My troubles were Food Lion.  I wanted peace back.  I called upon Jesus to carry my burden and I claimed his promises that in him I’d have peace because he overcame the world!!  Hallelujah!! 

Jesus is calling on you.  If you have a need, if you need the peace that surpasseth all understanding, please come and let Jesus meet that need!!

*Sing Just as I Am!  But without one plea but that they blood was shed for me.

My Confession: God Made Me Do It! Or why I am in a DMin Program

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It takes very little for many of us to become enamored with intellectualism and knowledge.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  Knowledge is power and when suddenly one acquires knowledge that seems to give you leverage over others…well, not only do you acquire said knowledge but one begins to sense the power associated therewith.  It feels good to know things.  It feels good to be able to articulate ideas, think through dilemmas and forge pathways toward answers.  Knowledge “unsticks” a person and it feels good to get unstuck, even if one is not terribly sure what this new unstuck place is.

Unstuck is awesome because suddenly the world is larger, your mind is open, things are bigger, meanings are deeper and the things you were raised with don’t seem as constricting.  Very literally, knowledge opens the world in a way that was previously closed. It’s remarkable and its impact inestimable on the psyche.

For many of us, this epiphany and shiny new knowledge happens in college.

This is that college kid swagger that T.I. refers to when he raps and the pretentiousness that is often associated with kids who go off to school as student.  Somewhere during the process of learning the student becomes a self-promoting expert (usually before graduation).  It is amazing how naïve we can be as people who think we know more than we do at the ripe old age of 20, our opinions presumably forged in the dark night of our infantile experiences.

I’ll never forget sitting in one of my professor’s office as a junior in college.  I had just been home for the holidays and I was complaining to him about how “closed minded my parents were,” how they “didn’t get it” and how if they were only as smart as me then they’d see the light on a certain issue.

The prof sat there, hands folded across his lap, leaned back, listening.  He grinned, nodded and there were not a few “uh huhs.”  After I was done, he leaned over and said, “well, did you communicate your concerns as a loving son who has a passion for the church and wants to see them grow spiritually or did you communicate as a smart ass?”

Whelp.  He pegged me.  The Holy Spirit used my prof to get real.  After I got over the fact that my prof had just pulled some Pauline vulgarity on me, I realized he was right.  It didn’t quite settle in at that point, but he was right.

The hubris I exhibited in those early years, and in smaller measures through seminary as I began to relax a bit more, set me on a path I was sure ordained by God.  My original intent was to take this knowledge, my unstuckness, and be a preacher, but at this point I knew my life would take on an academic trajectory; I wanted to be a religion professor. All the signs seemed to be pointing in that direction.

I had done well in college and seminary.  I had earned awards for my work.  I had been published during seminary and post-seminary.  I had presented papers, contributed to journals and taught some classes.  I enjoyed reading and writing; I enjoyed teaching, presenting and challenging others to think deeply about God, world and one another.  That is what I wanted to do and more than a few people told me I was right.

To save everyone the details, events had happened in my life that made it clear to me the Spirit had opened these doors and it was my job to walk through them.  I could not have written the script of the actors, institutions and friendships that had been pivotal for my academic journey.

My journey as an academic, however, came to a screeching halt February 2014.  From 2008-2014 material realities that were seemingly carrying me to the land of academic promise (which doesn’t quite seem to be promised land anymore) ended in a cul de sac.

For a while, I mourned the PhD.  I mourned that I did not have the liberty to pursue it at any cost.  It was a distant homeland I would never enter.  It made sense for me.  It made sense for how I thought, the world I liked to engage, and what animated me as a person.  In a very strong sense, it felt like a calling.

Have you ever heard your calling only to be wrong? 

The PhD would have been one the most arduous journeys I could submit myself to, and in the end, prove to myself who I really was.  In my mind, (beginning from the time of my early twenties to just a few years ago) it was the pinnacle of intellectual rigor and I wanted that badge.

Now, that badge would never arrive.

However, I knew what I would never do; I would never take the easy route and get a doctorate as a Doctor of Ministry.  I would rather have nothing than have THAT degree.

Early in my college years I began to look with disdain on Doctor of Ministry degrees…thinking that most holders of the degree were complete jokes.

Dmin’s were practical degrees and I hated my practical classes, except preaching class…I always loved that one.

In fact, many of us undergraduates would make fun of the classes we had in praxis, how shallow they were, how useless, how much they wasted our time.  The reading was boring, obvious and not challenging in the slightest.  We were stuck thinking about Christian education and global missions when we could have been pondering things that really mattered like Barth’s Theology, a proper exegesis of sanctification within a canonical context or the distinctions of Pauline theology between Luther and Calvin.

Why would I want a degree dependent on praxis when there were real degrees worth earning?

Practical classes sucked and seemed too subjective and “touchy feely” for my taste.  I even rid myself of most of my library that was praxis driven as if to purge myself of such useless material and make room for things that really mattered like Lacan and Raymond Brown.

The Dmin was something any village idiot could get online via Liberty University.  Even places like Vanderbilt quit offering them because the degree had been watered down.  One need only pay your money and write a ludicrous thesis to attain such lowly doctoral status.  I had heard folks with DMins speak and preach.  I was unimpressed.  I wanted to create as much distance between myself and them as possible.

These were degrees pursued by pastors not smart enough to do a PhD, so they took the easy way out to get a Doctorate to get the infamous DR. in front of their names.

If I was going to pursue a doctorate it would be the granddaddy of them all, the PhD, or it would be nothing at all.  My MDiv would do just fine.

This was my opinion regarding the Doctorate of Ministry Degree for quite a while. Even while in seminary, many of the DMin. thesis written for graduation hadn’t done much to change my opinion.

But life has a funny way of happening.  Since the life of King David God has been one who often employs irony.

Who am I if I am not going to be a teacher?  What should I do if I cannot do a PhD?  Is this my calling or is my calling different?  How can I be so good at something yet not have opportunity to pursue it?  Am I to be a pastor with an academic tilt or an academic that does church ministry frequently?

These questions animated my thoughts.  The thing is though, I was neither going to be a pastor now, or a teacher, both of those occupations never coming to fruition.  It seemed my life had become totally disconnected from my calling.  Sure, I had done some part time ministry and wore the label “pastor” but I never felt like that was it.  Even after 5-6 years of such I never felt like that was “my place.”  I had been working toward something and now I’d never get there.

“Here I am, Send me”…and yet all that was happening was me standing still…a simple “here I am.”

The few times I needed a church to want me, they didn’t…and when I needed the Academy to take me, it wouldn’t.  Seems I had missed this “calling” thing all along…either as an external voice crying out to Moses or as Parker Palmer would encourage one to “listen within.”  I was tone deaf both directions.

About a year and a half after my PhD dreams had been dashed against the rocky ledges of life and the Church I wanted to serve found service from another, a series of texts messages put me back on the path.  For about 16 months I had been stalled, sitting on the side of the road, making pizza.  It’s ok, it’s a first world problem and I happen to like making pizza.

Into the silence of going nowhere, I hear a voice, “Hey, I am involved with the DMin program here at Mercer.  You should apply…we can do some really cool things in ethnography, wedding together theory and praxis.”

It’s wasn’t God text messaging me but it might as well have been.

Have you heard my opinion of a Dmin?

Asking me if I wanted to apply for a DMin was like asking Moses to lead the people out of Egypt: there’s a million reasons why I shouldn’t.  For starters, how do I reconcile considering this degree with my opinion of it and will I “fit” with the group of folks pursuing its ends?  Is this a “cop out”  to earn a doctorate or is this another moving of the Spirit…moving in others and now toward me?  I’m not even doing traditional ministry…why would a DMin program want something as unconventional as I have to offer?

As I investigated the program and what type of work I’d be capable of doing within it, I knew within 2 weeks it was something I needed to do.  Like all programs this degree would be what I made of it.  If I wanted to take the easy road, go lightweight, and just earn a piece of paper by paying for it, then I could of course do that.  But that’s not me.

This degree opened a window of opportunity to wed theory and praxis in a way I had never done.  It could make me the complete scholar and minister I had never been.

My undergraduate and masters work was all theory.  Yeah, I did ministry, but the work never took strong consideration of developing praxis from within, and out of, a rigorous theoretical apparatus.

Anyone can read a Missions book and follow the Roman Road, or preach a deductive salvation sermon that takes 15 minutes and a lot of shallow opinion to write.  These are not the questions that inspired me…and if they don’t inspire me I’m sure God must be bored with them.

The questions this degree set my mind upon were deep and wide, like how might the work of anthropology inform our theology and help us traverse culture in order to communicate Christ in meaningful ways?  What might Peter Berger have to do with Bible and what might Charles Taylor’s God have to do with the pagans Paul encounters on Mars Hill?  Might there be a connection between missiology and Pierre Bourdieu…and how might fieldwork inform our theology?  How does the incarnation as contextual theology inform the development of our own contextual missiology…and what potentials have yet to be explored?

These are the sorts of questions I am after and the sorts of questions this degree has invited me to ask.  We are not content with letting theology and bible be singular topics that only inform only one another.  If we can say that God is sovereign in any capacity then we must also say it is our duty to engage our work within the full realm of theoretical and practical contributions, and across the full spectrum of theological and secular voices.

This pursuit, the engagement of gospel and culture, is where the Spirit has me at this moment.  Being here at this moment then precludes me being elsewhere and may explain why I am here and not there.  I have wondered many times, and even heard people ask me in church, “surely God hasn’t given you all that knowledge to just sit here.”

Touché friendly lay person, touché. 

Since I graduated seminary some interesting things have happened inside of me.

First, I no longer care if people think I am smart.  I have nothing to prove to anyone.

Second, I have grown to disdain idle debate, metaphysical queries to which no one can possibly know the answer and in which we are simply theological naval gazers.  I simply do not care if God can make a rock that even God cannot pick up.  Don’t ask me if God knows the future because I don’t care.  I commend Augustine for thinking the Greeks were cray cray with all this perichoresis business.

Third, doctrine has lost most of its importance to me.  It is often idle and does nothing to enhance a relationship with God in Christ.  It is simply a dividing line that demarcates who is in and out…something the Gospel seems antithetical towards.  I am interested in real life, real life with God and real life with others.  I will not die on any doctrinal hill.

Fourth, my gift isn’t one that requires me to be stuck in an ivory tower.  Why do I know what I know?  Why have I learned what I have learned?  I believe it is so I can engage the changing demographics of our country, most noticeably having the ability to engage with those who have a strong antipathy toward anything having to do with faith, religion or God.

Fifth, I see a strong need for thoughtful people of faith to be bridges to culture.  There are many negative opinions about the church and it is often because many people never meet a thoughtful follower of Jesus.

Sixth, the role of pastor is not singular.  I am the only bivocational minister with a secular job, that I know of, pursuing advanced ministerial studies in the DMin program I attend.  There is room for a myriad of characters when it comes to living in the new creation.  In a real way, I am living out Wesley’s proclamation, “the world is my parish.”  That is my case…as I have no parish.

Seventh, I want to be involved in an authentic ministry that, to use the words of Miroslav Volf, is characterized by “inclusion and embrace.”  If following Jesus means anything to me nowadays, it means creating a community out of a people who are not supposed to have any place of belonging…or out of people who have been excluded.

Eighth, faith and belief are to be grounded in common human experience and are not things we can ascend to in our understanding.  One cannot attain God by an act of the mind, but rather only through the movement of the heart.

Ninth, I am open to creating a community of faith for those who have no home anywhere but would like a home somewhere.  There can still be church even when one cannot bring themselves to go to church.

Tenth, I believe that God is at work in the secular, present and at work in people even though God is never a conscious reality to any of them.  The vestiges of transcendence are to be disclosed not foreclosed.

Eleventh, for missions to mean anything moving forward, it will mean recreating, reforming and reshaping the institutional church to look less like itself and more like Jesus.

Since finishing seminary my work in the church, academic pursuits and secular job have all persuaded me of these realities.  My heart and mind have changed.  I am no longer drunk on my own intellectual abilities nor am I fascinated by the ability of others.  Life is about more than looking smart and beating into submission all the supposed “ignorant” people around us.  When this is our approach we become nothing but asses even as we think we are being prophets.  Balaam comes to mind.  If my participation in ministry is not more than being right, and more than being knowledgeable, than my ministry is nothing more than nothing.

I once thought large portions of my intellect and ability would be poured into creating a new doctrine of God or creating newer postmodern hermeneutics used to interpret biblical texts.  I now believe large portions of my time will be used in a theo-anthropological endeavor as one that seeks to discover the divine that never left instead of convince others of a divine they have never seen.  I hope to map the stories of others in the hope that I’ll be mapping nothing less than the incarnation.

Thus, in an ultimate twist of irony I now find myself doing a degree I had once foresworn and thinking about practical things, like missiology, that had at one time been the subject of my scorn.

And God laughs.

I never imagined I could bridge faith, praxis and theory in a way that would deepen myself while also deepening the church and serving others.  I never considered I’d be investing into the potential of bridging Gospel and culture.  I had never thought I would feel compelled to be a part of the monumental shift that is taking place regarding faith and religion in the West.  It is scary but it is full of excitement and opportunity.  No one knows what will happen as we continue to lift the veil off Constantinian Christianity but I am exhilarated by the possibilities that lie ahead for followers of Jesus.  I am thankful for the possibilities faith and belief can have in a world where these ideas do not represent power or big churches, but rather embody love and salvation for us all.

I had imagined I would stand on the boundary between church and university, but in a world in which both of those institutions are being questioned (and more irrelevant) it seems the boundary I am called toward is the one between faith and culture, institutions and post-institutionalism, ethics and eros.  This the boundary for which my education has, and is, preparing me, and its one in which I am comfortable finding myself even as those on either side may continue to wonder why.

Thus, I do this Dmin, a degree I once hated, thinking topics I once loathed, and discovering in it all why God has me here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts From World 3

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A fool can offer words, a creator can offer worlds

An academic can show you a world, a dreamer invites you into it

Consumers of knowledge are everywhere, generators of knowledge are the rarity

Anyone can summarize the great thoughts of others, yet not simply anyone can have great thoughts

An English teacher can beat a word into submission, a wordsmith can heal its wounds

A protector of doctrine can outline a concept, a lover of the world asks the concept why

A Truth can be hard/concrete or it can be Truth

The beginning of truth is the end of knowledge

Prose can show you the road, only poetry can create it

History can give you a story, the future must give you a home

You can audition for the world or you can make the world watch your audition

God can be your cage or God can be gateway

If God is love than love is our ultimate concern

The letterbox is the world, what do we drop into it

We can use our imagination or we can die thinking we see

Why be busy learning the story of others when you can write the story yourself

Meaning can be learned…might it be better created

Pain cannot be written, it can only be felt

Silence has a voice heard in its speechlessness

Vision is not what you see it’s what happens when you close your eyes

Love is unspeakable; it is the language of her stare

It is not happiness to write, it is sadness to quiet it

Longfellow turned to words, why must you then turn to Law

Thoreau found himself in the woods, after he was lost

Poe saw beauty yet we confuse it with madness

Freud thought the unthinkable and we remain thoughtless

Lacan dared write the real and we confused it with his words

Jesus is the son of freedom and we have preached a gospel of sadness

Faith is never certain and certainty cannot be faith

If you fear nothing than for what do you live

 

 

 

 

 

A Thanksgiving Re-Membering

It was probably 22 years ago when I made the comment that would follow me the rest of my days. I was a 13 year old kid riding in the back seat of my parents car on the way to West Virginia for Thanksgiving.

My mother, always the astute observant one, said, “well today is the busiest travel day of the year.” Her son (me) not to be trumped by her astuteness responds, “What? Wednesday?” My mother looks at me like the idiot I am, the 13 year old boy who was as clueless as he seemed, and said “No you knucklehead, it’s the day before thanksgiving.”

Now, flash-forward 20 years and 2 degrees of higher learning later…I am sure I will be reminded this year, as every year, of what is apparently my dullest intellectual moment.

But this is what partly what holidays are about: those moments of memory making that get lodged in familial consciousness and become part of a larger narrative. Moments that help us re-member the moment when its gone and provide a connection and place of belonging long after.

Last night I watched the Thanksgiving episode of the new TV show, This is Us. If you have been missing this, stop doing so. I rarely watch TV and never saw an episode of Friends until it had been off the air for 5 years…but this show is excellent. The elements at play and the multiple narratives in this family unit transcend the screen and speak to all of us.

Aside further commentary on the show, last night’s episode was about (among many substories) the making of family traditions and how those influence the present. The episode pitched present practice in light of historical happening. We saw characters doing things particular to that family such as the traditional Thanksgiving walk in the woods, hot dogs wrapped with melted cheese and rolled in crushed saltines, and the infamous Pilgrim Rick. We scratched our heads and wondered how this family got here with these forms of life.

The episode unfolded and gave viewers insight into the peculiarity of this family and how they became who they are, how past practice shaped present life. It was also a catalyst for the future, an open ended uncertain one (just like all of ours) but I’ll refrain from going further.

This episode took my back to Thanksgivings I will never again live. They are the dead living Thanksgivings that shape the present yet still provide an entrance into an unknown future.

For the majority of my life, until the passing of my grandmother in 2012, Thanksgiving was always spent in West Virginia. I remember riding north on Interstate 75 to the 64 West junction, the Lexington to Ashland corridor, on the way to West Virginia.

As we would near the end of that stretch of 64 and pass over the river into W.V. I would look up at the interstate sign that welcomed us. It read “ Welcome to Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia.”

As a child, I always understood the “wild” part but it was much later that I understood the “wonderful.”

We would arrive at my grandparents the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

As we stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door, my grandpa would stomp through the house as only he could; it seemed the pictures inside were most likely hanging on for dear life with every step he took.

He’d open the door with a billowing southern drawl and would say, “Come on in, come on in.” Then, almost like a religious tradition, he would yell at my grandma, “Mom, Mick and them is here…are you hungry? Mom, go to the kitchen an fix’em sumthin.”

My grandma would usually hop up, straighten her shirt, give us a hug and ask, “Are y’all hungry? You’re probably hungry. I’ll go fix ya sumthin.”

My grandpa wasn’t a huge fan of wearing shirts, so he’d often make this greeting shirtless.
Did I mention he liked to give hugs?

We’d walk through the door and the heat from the wood burning stove would smack you in the face. He’d ask if you were cold and if he needed to add wood to the stove. No one ever indicated they were cold…because that was impossible in that home at this time of year.

The evening would ensue with conversation, hugs, grandma making some hot cocoa or perhaps even making the hamburger you didn’t ask for and eating it anyway.

We didn’t stay up long because the next 3 days would find us in the woods. We’d crash wherever we could crash and for kids my age that meant the floor or couch.

You see, my grandparents lived in the woods. It was the kind of woods that lived in the woods, not the kind of woods you could drive out of and be at Wal-Mart in 15 minutes. It took work and a good dose of Imodium to want to go into town from their house.

As my grandpa was not want to say, “You can kiss yourself driving around these hills.” There isn’t the slightest bit of hyperbole in that phrase.

So when we got there for Thanksgiving it was to stay, in the house, in the woods. Most of our time would be spent in the woods as well.

Early Thanksgiving morning we would get up around 5am, put on our coveralls, gather the shotguns, and head into the woods, the cold pitch black night behind their home.

My grandparents lived in a “holler,” a small grassy flat in-between 2 mountains. We would literally walk out of the house and within a 50 yards be walking up a hill. There were no flat places to walk really and no way to use a 4 wheeler either. We did it all by foot, often a 45 minute walk with the ice bitten weeds crunching beneath our feet. We were going into our part of the pitch black where we would sit as the sun rose, hoping to not only see deer but maybe even bring one down the hill.

I’ll never forget those walks up those hills, Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving. It was brutal. I always thought I was in good shape until early Thanksgiving morning every year. Often it made me question my sanity for doing so and it certainly made me wonder how my grandpa got up these hills when my 15 year old body was thinking of a billion other things it would rather be doing at the moment.

Usually my dad, myself and an uncle or two would walk together and then part ways in the dark…being careful to tell one another where we’d be.

And then, as if reaching the pinnacle of Mount Sinai, we’d arrive. Then, we would sit. It was a little anti-climactic. We didn’t use fancy tree stands or fancy hunting covers. We wore camo and sat on the ground or stood beside a tree.

Daniel Boone would have been proud.

Those mornings were characterized by the wind howling through those mountains, shaking the trees overhead. Squirrels would litter the forest floor, making your head turn in multiple directions in hopes that it was a deer. We would sit in these woods for hours, on that hilly 100 acre farm that was my grandparent’s home.

As the sun slowly rose, and the dark gradually give way to the light, there was often a chorus of gun fire as hunters would fall upon unsuspecting deer. The realization that if we didn’t have a deer now, we most likely wouldn’t, had set in…but stay in the woods we did. Hope springs eternal in two places: Baseball spring training and in the mind of hunters.

Then, around 11am if nothing was happening, like Moses we would descend the hill.
It was time to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

Above my grandparents home, on top of the hill, was a large clearing where cattle used to graze. It was a large open field that you could literally look all the way across, several hundred yards long and it least 200 yards wide. My family and I often meet up in that clearing, survey the grassy plain and surrounding woods. We’d discuss how the morning went and would accompany one another down the hill. It was usually a time of laughter and genuflection.

We’d descend down the washed out road, overgrown with thorn and thistle, that led to the house. In earlier days, when I was younger, this process also included dodging the occasional cow pattie.

We’d arrive at the bottom of the hill, pretend we were wrestlers and hold the barb wire fence for one another as we passed through it and trudge to the house.
Climbing onto the porch, coveralls and boots would be removed, loaded guns would lean against the house, and we’d enter the house greeted to the smell of homemade biscuits, canned green beans and turkey.

Grandma had gotten up around the same time as us. We went into the woods; she went into the kitchen. Her time spent working with her hands had usually been more productive than our time in the woods.

We’d congregate in the living room, a small 12×20 space if I can recall, with a stained spackled white ceiling and worn hardwood floors. We’d share stories of what we saw, didn’t see and what we’d hope to see later in the evening when we went back into the woods. My grandpa would then chime in and rehearse the deer equivalency of “big fish” stories and fill our heads with impossible images of bucks with 12 point racks making fun of us as we pretended to be ninjas walking through the leaves.

My grandpa would sit in his recliner like a teenage boy, shirtless, with jeans that hadn’t been washed in a week. He’d have one leg slung over the arm of the seat and the other on the floor usually chewing on a saltine cracker or with a coffee cup in his hand.
He’d smile, laugh, tell us of all the deer sightings he’d had in the past year..or 10, and then grin as only he could and say “yes sir, those deer are up there a watchin you…rolling around laughing at ya as you walk right by em.”

Grandma would then come into the living room, her hair often stuck to her forehead matted from the heat and perspiration generated in their tiny kitchen. She’d say, “foods ready” and then she’d sit on the sofa, relaxing and holding a cup of coffee, as we all entered her office to enjoy the fruit of her labor.

There would often be about a dozen of us or more at their home for Thanksgiving. As my grandma got older (to make it easier on the clean up) we would use Styrofoam plates and eat Thanksgiving dinner in the living room or on the front porch if it wasn’t too cold.

Grandma would ask about how we liked the food and we would eat our fill. She took great pleasure in taking care of her family. She was a child of the Great Depression, so certainly the stereotypes of that era worked their way into my grandparents home, so for better or worse she understood herself as a caretaker. She loved her kids and grandkids. She loved taking care of them, spending time with them, and as she got older and more bold, calling my grandpa on his crap a lot of the times (grandpa was known to exaggerate just a little).
There was nothing better than hearing my grandma laugh as she’d tell an old story or correct my grandpa as he was telling his usual “whopper.”

After supper we’d get redressed and make our way back into the woods, hoping for that illusive Buck we missed earlier that morning…and we’d sit until dark, often times letting the lamp near my grandparents shed guide us back down the hill when the sun was no longer able.

The evening would be filled with stories about what we’ll do differently tomorrow and what parts of the hills need coverage. We’d rehearse what we learned (which was really not much) and how we’d hunt the following day. We’d talk about the gun shots we heard on hills on the other side of the holler or those that were in close proximity. We told lots of stories because that was really the whole purpose of this tradition: continuing the story of Us with each other.

In retrospect, the goal was never bagging a deer; the goal was time, spending time with one another, sharing stories, and being in nature. If we got a deer, great, if not, we still had the experience…and many times the experience is what matters most.

After story time, the next family tradition would begin: cards.

We never used money or real life peanuts, we just kept paper score. Back then, playing was the point. Winning or losing incidental.

Gathered around the kitchen table would be myself, grandpa, my dad, uncles and cousins. On occasion an aunt would play as well. We’d all gather in that tiny kitchen with a hutch too large for its space, and a table that somehow was crunched between a refrigerator on one side and stacks of food on the other. There wasn’t enough room for 6 grown people to sit around a table but there was always room for 6 grown people around the table.

Grandpa would usually begin the ritual with, “You boys want to play cards? Mick, mom’s got the table cleaned up lets go on in there and play some cards. Come on boys.”

My dad would usually shuffle the first hand and he was always the score keeper.

The games of choice: Hearts or Bid 10. Hearts is common enough; it’s the opposite of Spades. Bid 10…well, I’ve never heard of anyone else playing it. Maybe it was made up, maybe it was a thing and isn’t any longer, but for us it was ritual. It was a classic card game dealing cards, revealing the trump suit, and trying to win as many (or as few) hands as possible.

The animation was never lacking at the table. We were all in it for the fun but my grandpa, I think he was in it for the glory.

As for hearts, there was nothing more funny than watching a game of hearts unfold with my grandpa. He’d start out fine. Everyone would be playing nice. A heart here, a heart there. It was as if Oprah was giving out hearts to everyone.

Then, my grandpa would do what he always did: he’d try to shoot the moon. And often it was a success. I don’t believe anyone shot the moon as much as my grandpa…

But, if he tried to shoot the moon and didn’t get it what would ensue would be a dangerous spiral of self destruction. He’d shrug it off, demur its importance and we’d resume play…but then somehow he’d end up getting way too many hearts. His game would fall apart; He’d shoot for the moon again and miss…by 1 card. And we all would just keep feeding him the cards…and he’d get hotter by the moment. (this is where I’d insert an emoji of LOL).

If he was playful, he’d give you a wily smile and say, “Don’t you worry about ole pawpaw, pawpaw will take care of himself.” He’d shrug off the loss and we’d move onto Bid 10.

Bid 10 was a game of chance, skill and pure luck. Chance and luck not being the same in this game. Here, the object was to predict how many hands you would win. If you won that many hands you got positive points. Failure to be a prophet meant negative points. To complicate matters, each game was composed of 20 hands and 20 alone. You start with 10 cards, then 9 and so forth, until you get to 1 card then you go back to 10. Along the way you predict if you will win or lose hands along the way.

My grandpa loved Bid 10. When he was hot and on a roll, he’d even try to cripple the table with the thud of his giant hand against the table placing his card at its center. It was his way of asserting his superiority of the present situation.

My grandpa loved to win but he also loved to see his boys lose.

When he was in it for fun he’d laugh whenever Lady Luck frowned on any of our nights. He’d play it cool, sit in his chair at the tables end, chew his tobacco and laugh. His chair was always close enough to grab the door that led outside, pull it open, spit and resume play. The cool breeze into the tiny kitchen usually didn’t hurt either.

After 2-3 hours of play the card games would come to an end. It was time for bed, time to get rest before we made our way back into the woods.

Thanksgiving Day was over but the Thanksgiving weekend had just begun. The next 2 days would be likewise: Morning walks into the woods, afternoon lunches, front porch or fiery furnace living room conversations, walking back into the woods, then back down the hill for a nightly round of cards.

Throughout our time there aunts and uncles would stroll in and out of the house. Cousins would come and go. Even distant relatives that lived in hollers 10 times removed would make a cameo over the weekend.

If a person could survive staying in woods that were in the woods, in a house that would dry out your sinuses and skin yet keep you warm, and didn’t mind a steady stream of watching Westerns every evening…then you’d love this kind of Thanksgiving. I know I did…and I wish it was the kind I was having this year.

My grandpa never met a stranger and my grandma never harbored ill will. We’d talk about politics and we’d talk about religion. But we never hated one another over either. That’s not to say the family was absent drama; we had it, just like everyone else, but it wasn’t over politics or religion.

These were our rituals. These rituals had the actors of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We are part of a large family. I have 8 aunts and uncles so I never understood what it was like to have a small family get together. Each person was unique, offering their own sense of dry, wry humor.

As I got older, had my own family, and started staying closer to home with my kids, I slowly began to miss out on these Thanksgivings. It was one chapter of my life that gave way to another. I took my kids to my grandparents house a few times but my kids staying at a house in the woods that lives in the woods is a recipe for mental breakdown. Not to mention the house wasn’t large enough for adding humans on top of humans. It was crowded enough growing up…without bringing my newly created clan to the party.

I hate that life does this, that it merges into different tributaries keeping you connected yet slowly creating a distance. I knew growing up that one day would be the last, that one Thanksgiving would be the last one shared with my grandparents in that small house that sat between two mountains.

I knew that a day was coming when I couldn’t rely on an uncle for narcissistic wit or an aunt for long lost hug. I knew there would come a time when my grandma would make her last homemade biscuit and my grandpa throw down his last card. I knew it would happen…but honestly, it sucks even though you know you can’t stop history from making itself.

I knew that one Thanksgiving I would say goodbye to my grandparents for the last time. I knew it and now I live with it.

I miss those days.  I wish I could get them back, bottle them, secure them in my memory. I wish I had one more holiday in that house, with those people, and that I’d make more of it than I probably did.

But I can’t go back. We can’t go back. Those days are gone. My aunts and uncles all have grown kids. My cousins have their own families, who have their families. Someone else owns my grandparents old farm. My grandma was buried in 2012 and my grandpa in 2014.

Pandora has left the building.

To my family, those that helped make these Thanksgivings and memories, I say thank you. My life would be much less without you and my memories more anemic. We have created rituals, lived them, and now re-create them as history has taken us here.

I am sincerely thankful for all of you and the rituals that have shaped who I am and what matters most.

This Thanksgiving I give thanks for all of you, all of us, and all that we have shared.

As I close, I want to share the closing lines I spoke at my grandmother’s funeral. I had the honor of giving the eulogy at both their funerals. I am thankful that my family placed such confidence in me.  I have not shared this publicly before but perhaps there would never be a more appropriate time to do so than now.

The hardest part of telling stories and rehearsing rituals is that parts of the story will inevitably come to an end. Endings are endings…it’s hard to give them a more apt description. We know what they are even as we wish they weren’t.

Saying goodbye to this part of the story, to Thanksgivings past, is saying goodbye to the two people that held it together: my grandparents. This is how I said goodbye to one of them for the last time.

“As we say goodbye today, there is an image that stands out in my mind of mawmaw. It’s an image that’s not just mine, its all of ours in her family. It’s an image that we share as children and grandchildren. It’s an image that she would often share with grandpa by her side.

The most difficult thing about leaving mawmaw’s house was seeing how much she loved her family…seeing how much she longed for you to stay longer. And she would always say, “Come back and see me,” “Are you sure you can’t stay longer?” Then, reluctantly, we would all say “yes grandma…yes mom…we’ll come back. We’ll see you again.” We would give her a hug, kiss her on the cheek, and she would hold your hands as you pulled away from her hug. We would carry our luggage to the car, shut the door, turn on the engine and begin to pull off that country property surrounded by tall grass, old hollers and the dense woods that we all grew up associating with mawmaw and pawpaws house.
We’d pull out of the back driveway, hoping our cars had good shocks as we would get a vehicular jolt as our car pulls up onto that narrow road that would slowly ascend in front of their house. We would roll down the windows, look back at the house, and there we would see it. We’d see that image…there she stood, with grandpa’s arms around her waist and her’s around him…there she stood…waving. She was waving goodbye. We’d honk our horn, wave some more, and she kept on waving. And the thing about grandma was…she was never the first one to stop waving. We’d always stop waving, but as I often looked back as a child, grandma didn’t stop waving…I never saw it. I imagine she stood there waving, until we were far out of sight…she may have even walked off the porch and looked down the road, just to make sure we were gone before she stopped waiving. Those times we left, we always had a tear in our eye. It would slowly run down our face as we said goodbye to our grandma, our mother. We drove off, turned to the person beside us and talked about when we were coming back to visit her. We were sad to leave her, she was sad to see us go…but we always knew that there would be another visit.
As we leave this place, I think this is the image grandma would like us to remember. Only today, she is the one that stopped waiving first…but that’s ok grandma. We understand…because we know that you really didn’t stop waiving. You may not be standing on the porch this morning waving goodbye; but we all know why…You just went inside for a while to rest. But we know the end of the story, just like so many visits before…we may not know when we’ll see her again. We don’t know when life will bring our paths to cross once more, but just like the road that always led us back to mawmaw’s house…we know that eventually the road will lead that everlasting countryside…and if I know grandma and if I understand how much she loved her family…I know she’ll be standing on the front porch waving when we visit her once more…only then, we’ll never have to say goodbye again. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Rev. 21.4)

I wish all of my family a Happy Thanksgiving and want you all to know I am thankful for each one of you…and for those who are no longer with us.

In memoriam

 

What is “White Privilege?”

privilege

There is a video going viral of a 14 year old boy making an apology tour for “white privilege.”  The video shows a young middle school aged kid reciting a poem at school in which he derides white privilege (thus bringing attention to it) while also refusing to abscond his privilege.

Yes it’s a problem, but no, he’s not voluntarily giving it up. Rather he hopes for the day when no privilege exists.

The video is weird to watch because the kid is 14.  What 14 year old could possibly have been walking around in his own skin self-reflexive enough to understand that his interaction in society is markedly different than people of color?  How has he lived long enough to explore the experiences he recites in his poem?  The parents say they have not “coached” him but it is really hard to imagine all of that came out of his head.

It’s almost like watching a Republican try to speak on behalf of a refugee; it’s just odd and conceptually anachronistic.

After a few minutes of internet trolling this kids poem, it became clear there is a huge disagreement about the topic of the poem: privilege.  Besides all the negative comments about the kid, his parents, and the puppetry that seems to be taking place, privilege is a central issue of disagreement.

Everyone is using the same word but many people are using it differently.

I do not wish to debate the merits of the young man’s poem.  I do, however,  want to look briefly at the concept of privilege because when white people and people of color use this term it is clear we are not sharing in the same Wittgensteinian language game.

First, when people say “white privilege exists” they do not mean that life isn’t hard for white people.  I have heard radio hosts and read many comments wherein this is the interpretation.  This is what has been outraging white people, that the black community, minority communities or the media, seem to be implying that “white privilege” is synonymous with “white ease of life.”

This is simply not the case.

I know many many white people who have hard lives.  I have friends with college degrees who work their butts off and make personal sacrifices to make ends meet for their families and themselves.  I have white friends who are veterans and whom do not have a place of their own to sleep at night. I have family that lives in the Tennessee Appalachia and I see that clearly white privilege doesn’t mean all white people have an easy life, get everything handed to them or that they do not experience discomfort because they are white.

No one is arguing that white people do  life do not suffer.

Life is hard.  It is complex and it can be a tribulation regardless of your skin color.  The term “white privilege” doesn’t negate that your life may be very hard, even if you are white.   All people can have a hard or difficult life; it seems to be an innate part of creation post Adam and Eve.   No one is saying you have an easy life because you are white; you can keep your scars.  No one is taking them from you.

Arriving at that acknowledgment, however, does not now render term “white privilege” meaningless.

Second, the term “white privilege” does not mean you are given first dibs on all the good stuff.  It does not mean that you can skip all societal loops of accomplishment.  It doesn’t mean that you automatically get the best pay, the best job, the best spouse or the best neighborhood.  It doesn’t mean that you automatically get promotions or that you by default are given good grades.

If you have worked hard and accomplished a lot in life…that is great!  You most likely sacrificed time with family/friends for those accomplishments.  I too, am white, and I have spent many hours in study or at work doing what others wouldn’t in order to achieve what others won’t.  I get it.

No one is trying to say you didn’t work hard when they use the term “white privilege.”

President Obama’s comments  “you didn’t build that” made me bristle as much as it did you.   I know what it is like to have employees that want the reward without the work, that want the status without the effort and the notoriety without the sacrifice.  It’s just the country we live in now.  I understand why people of any race react when someone says they have a privileged status yet they have worked hard for everything they have.

I grant you that.  Privilege has not meant you have never had a hard life or that you haven’t worked hard to climb from that life.

These concessions aside, the term “white privilege” is still not meaningless.  It just doesn’t mean what white people think its means.

By “white privilege” one usually means that a person who is white is under less suspicion and given the benefit of doubt in many circumstances.  That’s it. 

It means that you have never felt disadvantaged or been looked at with circumspection in routine daily activities because you are white.  Your whiteness, and mine, have given us different life experiences because we have been looked at differently due to the color of our skin.  The worst is never assumed because I am white and driving at midnight; such is most likely not the case for the typical black male.

Simply put, it means there are no societal obstacles to understanding who I am as a white male.  Society allows me the privilege to show who I am by how I act, what I do and the character with which I live my life.  Nothing about me is assumed because I am white. 

I’d be willing to bet that even the poor Appalachian white person would also be given the benefit of the doubt when they are in public.  They may not feel privileged but in that regard they are.  They are poor, but they are white, and in our society that is usually better than being poor and black.  It’s the difference between assuming the white person may have a WIC voucher in their pocket to buy milk while the black person may be watched for theft.

“White privilege” doesn’t mean that black people can’t find work, get equal pay, apply for the same opportunities or even have the same success.   Black people can do everything white people can do in our society and they often do.   It simply means that because of the color of our skin, consciously or unconsciously, the worst is not usually assumed just by looking at us.

“White privilege” also means not having the pressure of being representative of my entire race.   Black men especially don’t have this luxury.

As a white male, if I commit a crime, am rude in public or commit domestic abuse that act stays with me, and me alone.  I bear the responsibility.  My neighbors, fellow church folk and colleagues at work won’t cast my behavior over all white men everywhere.

This simply won’t be said, “Well, Nathan acted like a complete jerk in public and the cops came out to his house to settle a domestic issue…see, just another example of what’s wrong with white people.”

Most people will understand that my actions do not speak for the majority of white males.  Any white male friends of mine will go to work and the grocery store the next day and most likely not experience any suspicion or staring faces because of what I have done. 

 I’m the crazy white dude, not them.

Black men don’t have this luxury.

How many of you have been in class with lots of white people and maybe two black people?  Has there not been a time when the teacher, or a classmate, looks at one of the black people and asks for “the black perspective?”  This happens all the time in campuses across this country.  We all listen intently, many of us gleaning insight into the feelings of someone with a different perspective.  It is an enriching experience, one from which I have benefited.

The problem with this, however, is that it is assumed that the opinion given by one black person is constitutive of ALL black people.  We have a multiplicity of white views but ONE black view.   This is the working assumption.  White people understand that lots of white people think differently, but far too many white people assume all black people (or LGBTQ people for that matter) think the same.  When one black person speaks it is the absolute on the “black experience.”

How can any person be responsible for something so weighty?  I have no idea what it is like to be a black male and know that when I open my mouth people assume I am speaking for, and representing, an entire race of people.  For black men that do this well, kudos, because I cannot imagine how difficult this is socially.

This is what is meant by “white privilege”: it is the privilege to be seen as you are without any assumptions simply based on the color of your skin.  This is it, nothing more, nothing less.

The trouble is white people don’t see this as “white privilege” because they are not aware it is happening (for a fuller expose on whiteness see my other post here).  We just assume all people are looked at the same, treated the same and experience things like us…we don’t know we are privileged in these ways…and honestly, it is hard for white people to even get outside themselves enough to concede this.  Ironically, this is exactly what it means to be privileged.

This does not mean that “white privilege” exists everywhere, all times and with equal proportion but it does mean that as a culture we have presumed ideas that enter our minds when we encounter certain people.  It means that there are nascent assumptions at work in all of us, the production of literally hundreds of years, that silently creep upon us whether we will it or not.

The terminology isn’t about taking anything away from the hard work of white people or their hardships.   Obversely, it doesn’t take away from the fact that just because you are not “privileged” doesn’t mean you can’t work hard and be successful.  Many can and do.

It simply means that when you walk out the door to enter the world, the world will judge you totally and fully by the content of your character and not the color of your skin.  No assumptions.  No stereotypes.  No universals.  You are free to impact the world through your action and the world will only respond to you in kind.

It’s really not a question of whether or not it exists; it’s a question of whether when you sense in yourself this hint at privileging some over others (without any reason or purpose), that you pause and make a choice to change how you will act toward people of difference.  This is the only way the world will change, when people who can act, know to act and then act differently.

It would  be fantastic to limit the labels black, white, etc., to cultural discussions, but until our rhetoric matches our action (and thoughts) we are only deceiving ourselves.  It easy to say you believe “x” until something other than “x” pops in your mind when that different person enters your space, walks near your car, or is seen in your church/neighborhood.

As a Wise man once said, “Do unto others as you would them do to you” (Luke 6.31)

 

Have You Ever Woke Up White?

MLK POST

Have you ever work up and realized you’re white?

I don’t mean have you gotten out of bed in the morning, brushed your teeth and stared at your Caucasian skin, noting blemishes, razor nicks or an unsightly new hair.

I mean, have you ever woken up and REALIZED YOU ARE WHITE?

Well.  I haven’t either…until this week.

Last Wednesday, July 6, I was running late for an appointment.  I was driving, not recklessly, but a little too fast for the speed limit posted.  A police officer clocked me, quickly got behind my vehicle, turned on his lights, and directed me to pull over.  I was doing 55 in a 45.

The officer, who was white, pulled behind my car, parked and delayed approaching my vehicle.  After a few minutes of gathering his thoughts, or perhaps running my tag, he makes his way to my window, stands slightly out of sight and over my left shoulder and asks “How are you doing today sir?”  I could see him from my peripheral vision because he avoided standing directly beside my car, presumably to protect himself not knowing whom he had just pulled over.

My reply was instant and without concern, “Well officer, I was fine until I was pulled over.”

The officer looked at me and replied, “Well, I understand that.  Have a good day and be safe.”

I replied, “Thank you officer, I’ll watch my speed”

This entire encounter took maybe 60 seconds.  It was the fastest interaction I have ever had with an officer.  At the time, I was thankful for its brevity.

Tuesday evening, July 5, news broke about the altercation between police and Alton Sterling, a black man hustling outside a convenient store in Baton Rouge, LA.  The altercation resulted in Mr. Sterling’s death and an unsightly video of interaction went viral.

Later Wednesday evening, the nation would witness another altercation between a black man and police, which resulted in the death of one Philando Castile.  As with the Louisiana shooting, this one in Minnesota went viral with a video and commentary from his girlfriend that sat next to him as he was shot and dying.

Immediately these events started to shake the foundations of America and the quiet undercurrents of prejudice and violence once again erupted before our eyes.  It’s as if a latent existential crisis had now burst onto the national stage front and center, demanding the attention of everyone.  The shock waves of this violence were instantaneously enormous and threatened to swallow the nation in a race war with endless violence as five Dallas police officers were shot by a black man whose motive for killing them was revenge for the brutality he had recently witnessed, as well as the historical witness of police brutality against the black community.

We are not yet out of the woods.  More violence could be on the way, as one alleged plot to kill police officers has already been foiled.

In an attempt to be peacekeepers and healers, Presidents Bush and Obama spoke at a memorial service for the police, each one offering powerful words of hope and admonition for the future. Town hall meetings are taking place to discuss the tensions between policing and minority communities, protestors are clamoring with their city officials and entire communities are mobilizing to peacefully respond to the current injustices.

It’s not just black people that are seeking change, but many white people are busy advocating for their brothers and sisters in the black community as well. 

As all of this unfolded I began to ask myself, “If I were black would the police stop I encountered Wednesday have been different?”  Can I honestly say that if I were a black man (with all the historical baggage and stereotyping I would be carrying) the officer would have released me in a matter of seconds or would this ordeal have involved a bit more questioning and a longer stop?

Of course, this is hypothetical.  I am not black and there is no way of knowing what the officer would have done if I were, but I don’t think it too far afield to assume that if I were black I would have been detained a few minutes longer, I would have been asked a few more questions, and might have even walked away with a ticket rather than an exhortation to “be safe.”

I really hate writing about this.  I don’t want to comment on race.  I want to ignore it and pretend it isn’t an issue.

I don’t want to write about it.  I don’t want to talk about it.  I want to stay out of the fray.

It is safer to be quite and not say anything.

Yet, how can I not speak up when there is clearly a higher level of suspicion against those with black skin than those with white skin, even when it comes to routine traffic stops.

We do have a race problem in this country and the only people saying otherwise are privileged white people who have never experienced a racist sentiment against them in their lives.  Trying to be white and say race doesn’t matter is like telling someone who’s been abused emotionally it doesn’t matter that they are abused because you’ve never been abused emotionally by anyone.  Their abuse is obviously their misperception of what is happening; it’s not the truth of the matter.  The truth of the matter is they have behaved badly and they most likely deserve the emotional abuse.

Who’s going to say that to another person who has EXPERIENCED ABUSE?  My non-experience cannot negate the experience of another.  It’s simply a different witness but it doesn’t nullify someone with a contrary witness.

That logic doesn’t make any clear sense.  Yet this is exactly what white people do to black people.

We discount their experiences because our perceptions of their experiences are not the same, therefore, they must be misguided and if they’d just drop pointing out to everyone that they are black this whole thing would be better…but isn’t this the epitome of bigotry and racism, thinking ourselves better than others?  Thinking our WHITE ideas (since they happen inside our white bodies) are more exact than BLACK ideas or experiences?

If our ideas are only ideas that would occur to WHITE people, and no black person within our sphere of influence would share them, should that not cause us to pause and say “hold up, maybe my idea isn’t as objective as I thought…maybe I have this idea because I am White??”

In other words, it is not that our whiteness or blackness makes the ideas; It is our skin color that allows us the experiences in life that often give formation to the ideas.

This is a distinction that even the most brilliant talking heads fail to make.

The experiences that ingrain skills, dispositions, and habits into us are usually unconscious; it happens to us without our knowing.  In academic terms it becomes what Pierre Bourdieu calls our habitus.  But there is good news; we are not doomed to our habitus forever.

Bourdieu notes, “Habitus is not the fate that some people read into it.  Being a product of history, it is an open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore, constantly affected by them in a way that either reinforces or modifies its structures.  It is durable BUT NOT ETERNAL [my bold].  Having said this, I must immediately add that there is a probability, inscribed in social destiny associated with definite social conditions, that experiences will confirm habitus, because most people are statistically bound to encounter circumstances that tend to agree with those that originally fashioned their habitus.”

To break this down further, one might say we think, act and are disposed in particular ways because of our particular histories.  Our history provides us with normative habits we can live by and use to make sense of the world.  Our habits also usually decided for us in that they are the result of our social/linguistic conditions (religious, economic, political, sexual, etc.) and experiences therein. Further, this means that one is most likely to encounter the world in ways that agree with those already framed dispositions or habits.

In other words, you think like a white person because you are white and all that goes along with that…even if you fail to realize it.

The silver lining to this, however, is that habtius is an OPEN SYSTEM OF DISPOSITIONS that is subject to our experiences.  As that which forms due to our experiences, it can also be re-formed by new ones.  We are not stuck being suspicious of certain groups of people.  We are not stuck with certain opinions or views.  The goodnews of Bourdieu is, while habitus can provide insight into why we do what we do, and who we are, we do have the possibility to change when we encounter new experiences that challenge our current habitus!

Did you hear me, we can change!  We are not doomed!

This week, I sat in a room with black colleagues who shared their experiences. Their experience didn’t attempt to negate dead police officers.  Their experience didn’t attempt to say cops never kill white people.  It was just their stories and how these events impacted them.  It wasn’t an either/or; it was “this whole situation sucks…here is why I am.”

One black mother shared how she has to give her sons the talk about how to behave in a car for fear of being pulled over because they are black young men.  She spoke of the fear of when her 15 year old will get his license and whether she should make him wait a few more years to drive for fear of what can happen to a young black man in a car alone.

A black father spoke of the pain this produced inside him, how this impacted his community and how he was paying for his kids to talk to a counselor to make sense of all this.

An older black woman said, “I know this is a new problem for many of you, but I have been living with this problem for 60 years.  This is not new…and in our community we have known this.  I am glad many of you are now finally getting to see what we live every day.”

These comments were in sharp juxtaposition to comments I was seeing on facebook and twitter, all by white people.

Rather than see their status as white people, as privileged people, who will never have to fear that their young boys will get pulled over or fear of being followed through a grocery store because of their skin color, they commented as if they were sages…pronouncing objective truth from inside their white bodies.

Comments such as “it doesn’t matter if you are white, black or blue, we don’t have a race problem in this country, we have a death culture”…Ah, yes, spoken as only a white guy can who has never experienced racial profiling.

On the radio, hosts scream at the top of their lungs about why the President and others keep talking about white this and white that, black this and black that, ostensibly saying we only have a race problem because you all keep talking about it!  Again, only a white person can say something like this.  It’s not that black or white people want to have race as a central issue; it’s that it is a central issue regardless of what we want…and it seems that the only class or race saying it’s not a problem is the race that has never suffered persecution in this country because of their skin color!  Shouldn’t this cause white folks to pause and ask “Why are we the only ones saying this?”

Another great white response is to deflect attention from this violence and pin it on other issues, such as black single parent statistics and children raised in single parent, poverty stricken homes.  This move simply keeps the white person from actually taking a stand against brutality or racism and says that the real problem isn’t “you all” or “them” getting profiled, it’s the black community having so many dead beat dads.

Again, only a white person can say this.  It lacks any sense of empathy to relate to black people and their history with police.

And finally, here is a laundry list of comments by white people that attempts to deflect issues of race, “I didn’t own slaves, I don’t know what they are so mad about…that was 150 years ago, they should get over it…if black people wouldn’t talk about race than race wouldn’t be an issue…This is not my fault…the cops wouldn’t have shot him if they didn’t have good reason…don’t be in the wrong place and bad things won’t happen…black on black crime is the real problem, not police brutality…why do just black lives matter, don’t all lives matter…why do they have that chip on their shoulder anyhow, it’s just a crutch to keep race an issue…why do they keep complaining, if they would go find jobs and get off government they wouldn’t have these problems”

And these same white people that make these comments say we don’t have a race problem.  Uh huh.  And on and on and on.

I have heard all this and more, in person and online.  And I, admittedly, used to think of some of these same responses…but I did so, not out of attempting to empathize with the black community, but because I was white and I was unable to see the world outside of my white experiences, and therefore, my white habitus.

But this past week, I woke up and I realized I am white.  It had been a long time coming, but I have finally saw myself in a very literal way, as the skin that covers who I am.  Of course I am not just my skin color, but at the least whatever I am does involve my skin color.  I can no more separate my person from my body than my body from my person…and this means my whiteness and my being are linked…but that doesn’t mean I can’t change.

But Nate, you seem like a thoughtful guy, how could you have held even one of those ideas as an opinion???  First, I am sorry that I have not always thought rightly about race.  Since living in Atlanta and Nashville I have actually enjoyed the difference and it is what I miss about large cities.   I have not been prejudiced for a long time, but I have also never seen my whiteness as clear as I do now.  I have never knowingly done a racist thing but I cannot say I have never had a racist or bigoted based thought.  For these unspoken sentiments I ask for forgiveness.

I believe Jesus once said something about seeking forgiveness for thoughts of the heart and not just actions of the hands.

Why would I have ever had those ideas?

Well.  I’m 35 and I am white.  I’m Protestant.  I am old enough to have had grandparents that referred to candy as “n#**#r toes” not as a conscious attempt to be mean, but as a subconscious linguistic association about black people.  I am old enough to have been told when I was younger to not go to certain parts of town, “where the blacks live…in boogeytown.”  I am old enough to have ridden in cars and been told “lock your doors, we are going through a bad neighborhood.”  The only people I saw on the corners were black people.

I am white enough to have not had much interaction with black people except on school sports teams.  My family did not have any black friends growing up.

No, I wasn’t raised to hate black people.  I wasn’t raised to hate anyone, but I was raised with a subtle racism, inculturated within me, so that fear of black people and difference was part of the story as a child.

That fear shaded my adult life where it bred my inability to see my own privilege as a white male.  Now, at 35, I’m still white, but it’s worse, I am white, educated, have a good job, have a position in the church, and I don’t have any close black friends…only acquaintances.  Given all this how would I see otherwise??

The problem, however, is that this fear can breed misunderstanding.  Misunderstanding can breed apathy, or even worse, it can breed hate and bigotry.

Privilege doesn’t mean that society gave me stuff or that I didn’t have to work for what I have.  I did work hard; no one gave me anything.  All my degrees and work based accomplishments were earned.  Privilege simply means I did not face any societal obstacles or experience public disadvantages or scrutiny because of my skin color.  I was, and am, free to move about the country.  From what I understand, this is also what black people want, the ability to work hard and move about freely, providing themselves and their families with a good, secure life.

As a white man (who usually votes libertarian), I am now aware of my privilege.  I couldn’t see it before, but now, with the help of black and white colleagues, I see it.  Yet I do not understand how being aware of that privilege and acknowledging that black people in general do not enjoy that same privilege is a liberal or conservative observation.  Why is this a republican or democratic issue?  Seems to me this is just finally seeing the elephant in the room.

I am not black.  I am now aware that my experience cannot speak for or in place of a black experience.  It is unfair of me to impute my white eyes over a situation and impute that understanding on black people that have a much different experience.  I’m aware that I do not see the world as my black colleagues.  I don’t fear for my three sons growing up that they will be stopped and harassed by police.

I can speak of equality as an ideal because I am white.  I can criticize my black brothers and sisters for making a big deal of this or that police brutality and I can point to the “facts of the case” and justify why officers did what they did, but all that does is tell the black community (who has suffered these recent losses as well as many losses we will never know) that I am blind, deaf and therefore too dumb to speak as an advocate for a community that bears the brunt of police violence at the hands of white silence.

I want to be a partner and neighbor with all people, but at this time especially with my black colleagues.  I want to insure that their children can grow up feeling safe.  I want my fellow black Americans to feel safe when they are stopped by police.  I want police to feel safe around black people and not assume guilt when they make a traffic stop or question kids on the street corner.  I want an equitable world that looks like white people and black people sharing in this nation and helping one another achieve rather than pointing at the others deficiencies.  To quote MLK, I too want to see a world where children and people will not be “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We are not there yet…we are not there yet.

I used to think this country didn’t have a race problem, but as I have watched and listened to stories and media I have come to an epiphany: We do have a race problem and denial by those who have NEVER been marginalized doesn’t solve this problem…it just means they are clueless and it places our collective societal goals at risk in order to assuage a white peace of mind.

Value Voting is Nonsense

value voters

Recently, the Atlantic published a column describing the transition of part of the American voting segment from value voters to voters of nostalgia.  Christians who used to vote based on a candidates position on abortion, gay rights, euthanasia, pro-family, etc., have forgotten those values and are now voting for their identity as Americans.

We have transitioned from being voters of values to voters of identity, voters who want someone to restore order to the chaos we see surrounding us.

America has lost it way!  Prayer is no longer in schools, apple pie is no longer piping fresh from the oven when dad gets home from work, and gasp, football has surpassed baseball as the nations favorite sport!

We need the good ole days when FDR created the New Deal, Ike gave us the interstate system and grew government spending to do so,  JFK nearly began a nuclear holocaust and Lyndon Johnson was creating the Great Society…not to mention air conditioning was a boon in the middle of the 20th century.

We long for the days when women had much lower social standing, fewer people were educated, gay rights was an oxymoron and your kid could get beat up on the play ground without consequence.

Yes!  Let’s make America Great again!

As large groups of people have coalesced around a bombastic candidate in Donald Trump, they have not found unity in his morality or social views.  In fact, they ignore them.  Instead, people have found unity in the awesomeness of days gone by.  The slogan, “Make America Great” indicates both the opinion that right now isn’t great and that in the distant past such greatness can provide a model for future greatness.

This is just as well.  It’s about time we vote what we really believe: voting for values is nonsense.

The Reagan Coalition had historically long legs.  But its step has finally reached its pinnacle and is now on the descent.

For nearly 30 years the Republican Party convinced voters that if they would vote Republican they would be casting their lot with a party that stands up for American Values, for Christian values.

Republicans vowed to protect unborn babies, pursue amendments to Constitutions preserving “traditional marriage,” and keep the war on drugs at a fever pitch.  Republicans would conserve the America of our grandparents and parents, and in turn, would preserve an America that we would recognize as we hand it off to our children.

All of this was nonsense.

It was religious populism garnering votes as the Republican and Democratic party made indistinguishable decisions.

Both parties spent a lot of money.  Both parties started wars and continued conflicts.  Both parties traded in public interest for their electoral interests.  Both parties spoke like Patriots while acting like bastards.

As the value voting mantra swept through our country and continued to foment political action in our churches, it continued to mean nothing while those who voted based on values felt as if they were really doing something.  In fact, they did nothing but cast their lot with people who would no more change a single “value” law then undo the results of the Civil War.

Libertarian voices tried to speak out and be heard.  Large constituencies of younger people, or disillusioned boomers, who tried to draw attention to economic policy or public policy were silenced because libertarian positions were too liberal.

How can you legalize marijuana?

What…you believe people should be able to do with their body parts what they want so long as it doesn’t infringe on your rights?

You don’t want prayer in schools…are you a pagan!?  Of course wanting prayer in schools is the Christian thing to want!

You don’t want to outlaw abortion?!  How can you even sleep at night?

These questions and more were, and are, frequently asked by values voters.

While many of us look around and have seen for decades that agreeing with George W. Bush on abortion had absolutely nothing to do with the way he governed the country, still a stubborn voting segment has thought voting by values would change something.

In similar fashion, even liberals who thought that agreeing with Bill Clinton on social policy would usher in an American utopia were sorely disappointed…and if you ask far left liberals about President Obama, they would say he, like Clinton, has pandered to the political class and not gone far enough to the Left to institute the sweeping change our country needs.

Obama ran on change and a new set of values, yet other than a token gay marriage decision by the Supreme Court, he has continued the policy of war, taxation, free trade, expansive oil discovery and government growth of his predecessor.

As with Republicans, so with Democrats: votes cast for similar values are just that, votes.  Sharing a value with a candidate does not mean they will administer the country as they should.

Republicans did not outlaw euthanasia.  They did not make abortion illegal.  They could not stop gay marriage from becoming law.  They cannot get prayer back in schools.

Sharing a professed value can make them your friend but it shouldn’t make them your candidate.

Democrats have not made good on their single payer intentions.  It took President Obama two terms to finally come around and support gay marriage.  The black community continues to have high crime and incarceration rates, while black youths are the single highest unemployed segment of our society, all under the first black president.

Democrats haven’t come good on their values either…why?

Because values DO NOT MATTER in politics.

This was recently illustrated when I watched John Kasich during a CNN town hall.  Someone asked about his approach to appointing a Supreme Court Justice.  His reply?  He did not want an activist judge but neither would he let his personal opinion about gay marriage influence his decision to appoint a judge who was pro gay marriage.  He said, “it’s the law of the land so we move on.”

In other words, he has his personal conviction, but in a secular politic it’s not a deal breaker because it is not the job of the state to uphold religious norms.  Political life and religious life don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

As for commerce, Kasich said, “I don’t understand why we can’t trade with someone who thinks differently than us.  Like the instance of the bakery and gay couple…In my opinion, its trade, sell them a cup cake and move on.  If you disagree then say a prayer for them, but in my opinion it shouldn’t prevent us from the political activity of commerce.” (my rough paraphrase)

Politics and values at the operative level do not go hand in hand, which is why, the value you need to share with a candidate is not their stance on gay marriage or gay cupcakes.

The value you need to share is their principle of governance.

What animates a person’s political philosophy?  How would they legislate and why?

Values come and go with time, but political principles remain.

This is why our Founding Fathers could have diverse opinions on religion, yet they were bound by a pursuit of liberty and freedom.  This is why Benjamin Franklin could be an agnostic and still unite in brotherhood with George Whitfield, even giving money to his ministry.  This is why Thomas Jefferson could be a Deist who did not believe any New Testament mythology, yet he shared a passion for liberty with Baptists and united with them in pursuing an American nation that would embody liberty (albeit one with its contextual limitations).

Christian values did not unite the Founders of our country.  Social values did not unite our Founders either.  Just ask South Carolina if they shared the same values as New York 200 years ago.

What united the country was a love for liberty, a principle.  This principle does not change even as social moors and interpretations of scripture do.  Either you believe in liberal republicanism or you don’t.  Either you agree with John Locke or you don’t, but such is not predicated on a “value” grounded in any “moral” concern.

Thus, I am glad The Donald has entered the world of politics because he has finally disclosed what so many of us have believed for so long: value voting is nonsense.

When you cast your vote today, consider not voting for someone who shares your morality, but perhaps, someone who shares your political vision for the country.

 

 

Death on Ash Wednesday: In Memoriam

ash wednesday

James Napier was a man of stark truth.  A man of black and white.

His affability was matched by his billowing voice, a voice that was as inviting as it was stern and filled with rigid conviction.

“When this old body takes its last breath…I’ll be at the right hand of the father…”

He died on Ash Wednesday, a fitting time to die if a time could ever fit.

Having a conversation with him a couple days before he passed…was difficult.  At that moment, when I wanted to be optimistic and he wanted to be realistic without becoming morbid, anything that one could talk about becomes irrelevant.

When death is literally seen approaching the door, about to let itself in, what does one say at that moment?  What does one think in anticipation of that meeting?

At that moment, things aren’t complicated.  Life is easy.  Death is easy.  Speaking is difficult…but speaking is all we have.

This was the last of words I would speak to him.  I have spoken many words to him throughout the years.  Anyone that knew Uncle Jim would doubtless agree; they too had spoken many words to him.  Jim was that warm summer evening that invites a person onto the front porch, asks them to have a seat, take a sip of a tall glass of sweet tea, smell the honey sickle and enjoy his company.

When Jim was around a few things were going to happen.

One, you were going to get called “son” or “honey.”  It was his way of claiming you with his words.

Two, you were going to get an embrace, accompanied by a smile that took up the entire real estate of his face.

And three, you were going to get genuine conversation.  Jim was capable of talking about the mundane and the sacred, both with unmitigated vigor.

“Honey” he said, “I’m not worried about a thing.  Imma doing alright, but the doc told me, he said, Mr. Napier, you may not make it out of here.”

This.  This is real life.  The stark truth staring him, and our conversation, in the eye.  I asked about his visitors and those who had called him.  He replied that “there were plenty of folks who had called and seen him” and “he had plenty of family and friends who loved him.”  Indeed he did.

That’s why I called.

I wasn’t particularly close to any of my extended great uncles or aunts.  I did not know anyone from my grandmother Napier’s side of the family.  I knew all of my grandpa Napier’s brothers and sisters, but Jim held a special place for many of us simply because he was present.  I don’t say this to suggest that others weren’t.  My perspective is only mine and I allow that it may be fallible.  But what I do know is Jim held a special place in my grandpas heart, and as such, he held a special place in mine.

As I sat on the front pew of my grandpa’s church, at his funeral, listening to my aunts and uncles speak about their father as he lay before us, Jim sat beside me.  He sat upright, stately, a man that had gotten older but still carried his dignity and manhood with care.  He sat beside me, one hand on his cane, the other on my knee, an expression of comfort toward one who would somehow speak to folks who had lost a parent, grandparent, brother and friend.  Just moments earlier I watched as he walked up to the coffin in which my grandpa lay, his eyes becoming misty, as he beheld his brother and friend lifeless.  I don’t understand the loss of losing a brother, and at this time, Jim had just lost his first.  You could tell the pain was deep.  The loss was real.

Jim sat beside me.  He encouraged me as I sat before my family, and my grandpa’s church, about to eulogize my grandfathers nearly 90 years of life.  Once it was my turn to speak, Jim was my familiar face to look at.  It was hard to look at my parents, or aunts or uncles.  Many of them had tears.  I didn’t want to cry…so when I looked at people, I looked at Jim.  He would just nod his head in agreement with my words, a tall order for a man that didn’t agree unless he meant it.

Afterward, Jim embraced me and said, “your grandpa would have been proud of you…you did a fine job son.”  How can I, a grandson of just 33 years old, speak anything meaningful to a man who lived with my grandpa far longer than I?  If Jim was being kind, at that moment, it was much appreciated.

I would say if my grandpa had a brother that was a best friend it would be Jim.  Now, as with any sibling relationship, it wasn’t always peachy.  They would disagree.  They would trust one another.  They would take advantage of one another.  On and on.  They were family and it had all the warts one would expect.  BUT…it also had affection and brotherly love.

During my grandpas final months, when I was able to speak to him, of the things he would talk about when talking mattered, he’d tell me we need to go four wheeling again and he’d also mention “ginsenging” with Jim.  Ironically, in the last conversation I had with Jim he said, “the last time I went four-wheeling was with your grandpa.”

Maybe they weren’t the kind of men to hug one another and say “I love you,” but they did in fact love one another.

The very last time Jim went fourwheeling was with my grandpa.  They used to go often.  Just imagine the movie, “Grumpy Old Men,” only with a West Virginia hills backdrop and probably a little more laughter than you’d hear complaining.

I can hear them now…my grandpa would reply to Jim ”Why son you’re crazy…” to which Jim would reply, “Son, I’m not.  I tell you the truth.”  This would be followed by laughter…only my grandpa didn’t laugh when Jim laughed, unless, of course, it was the rehearsal of a childhood memory in which both men shared.

Those of you who knew my grandpa, French Napier, know that he wasn’t the easiest person to convince of something.  If my grandpa had an idea, that idea wasn’t gonna be shaken easily.  If he had a plan, that plan wouldn’t be shaken easily either.

Well, on our final four-wheeling trip, about a decade ago when Jim would have been 70 and my grandpa 78/79 years old (Jack Lalane had nothing on what these men were capable of in their old age), my grandpa had the bright idea of going up this steep bank with his four wheeler.  He said it was the “best way through” this spot.  Jim disagreed.  Jim, a little less reckless than my grandpa, wanted to drive around it.  I can hear him as clear as if it was this morning, Jim saying, “Now son, you’re too old to be trying stuff like that.  That just ain’t a gonna work.”

(Now this may sound crazy to you readers, but these fellas were used to making their own trails where there weren’t any trails…a slight grade of a hill wasn’t much of a deterrent.  We once drove off the hill from Justice cemetery down to Brush Creek.  You may be thinking, “well there’s aren’t any trails down that steep hill to Brush Creek!”  You are correct…there are not.  That is the point…they just made them.  When you went four-wheeling with Jim and French you followed or got out of the way.)

These words would be followed by Jim’s notorious chuckle.

My grandpa, French, would look at him, wave Jim’s concern off with his hand and he’d go headlong into his plan.

Well, this time, Jim was right and Grandpa was wrong.  Grandpa flipped the four-wheeler and if not for his uncanny ability to get out of tight situations that machine would have landed on him.  I didn’t know a 79 year old could move so quickly, but when grapnda had to…he could tap into that extra step.  Jim knew what it was like fourwheeling with grandpa, so on the back of his four-wheeler one could find a giant gray storage box with an array of tools to get them out of any situation.  He asked if my grandpa needed the wench, to which he got a negative reply…because of course he did.  We all got off our rides and flipped the machine back on its wheels…just another adventure when you were in the woods with Jim and French.

The very last time I went four wheeling with my grandpa and Jim was one of the best moments of my life, literally.  I had wanted to go again, afterward, but life got too busy and I didn’t make time for what mattered…cause everything else mattered over fourwheeling in the woods.

I loved being in the woods with my grandpa.  He would take us back into Brush Creek, point to a pile of bushes and tell us what used to be there.  He’d take us into hollers and ravines that were special to him, places where he grew up, where his dad grew up, where my grandma was raised, where my deceased Uncle Paul was born, to the place where the old school was, to the old tree his dad planted, to the site of the old church house and even to the hole he’d carved into a rock in order to take a nice cool sip of a West Virginia mountain stream.  He’d take us to the old cemeteries, many being slowly forgotten, and walk amongst the graves and tell us about these people…whom history was slowly swallowing.

My grandpa and Jim were walking dictionaries…something akin to what is today the “urban dictionary,” only they were the source of knowledge everything not urban.  If grandpa forgot a detail, to which he would never admit, Jim would promptly fill that space with content.

I loved spending time with these men.  They offered balance to one another.  They poked fun at one another.  They joked.  They derided.  They corrected.  They remembered…together…and for those of us who had the pleasure of being with them we were able to experience the priceless story of their world, as seen through their eyes, and listen to voices that would slowly be silenced but still desperately had things to be say.

They would re-member together, and in so doing, help us re-member too.

I knew I wanted to speak with Jim a final time.  I knew the news wasn’t good.  I called his room.  His wife, Willa Jean, answered the phone.  I asked if Jim was able to speak.  She gave him the phone.

He immediately said, “Hey son, how are you doing?” To which I replied, “Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?”

We spoke for a few moments.  I listened as Jim, with a steely resolve and confident demeanor, recapped how he’d ended up in the hospital and reaffirmed that regardless of what happened he wasn’t “worried.”

He said “Son, I’m not worried about me.  I just wish I could gather all of the family around me here and tell them how much I love them, how important they are, and how much they need to love one another.”  He said, “You tell all those boys, your dad and the rest of em, you tell em I love em and I’m thankful for em.”

That was his final request…when he was staring out his screened in front door and saw death coming for him…his final request was for family to love one another.  This was the same request as my grandpa

That was my moment…that’s why I called.

At that time when there is nothing to say because nothing matters when you are faced with what really matters, I told Jim that I appreciated him.  I thanked him for his support at both of my grandparents funerals.  I thanked him for his conversations and wisdom.  I thanked him for four-wheeler trips.  I told him he was loved and appreciated and that I would hold my memories of him and my grandpa dear to me.

And in his usual, affable manner, he said “Son, well I appreciate you telling me that…and you hold onto those memories as stories from two old men.”

I could tell he was getting tired in just the few minutes we spoke…his coughing getting the best of him despite what he willed.  I told him I was praying for him and that I was optimistic.

He didn’t correct me…but he knew my optimism was misplaced

He said, “well, son, thanks for calling me.  I’ll talk to you later…”  I replied, “Yes sir uncle Jim, we will.  I love you”…and He said, “I love you too honey. Bye Bye”

Saying goodbye is never easy.  Saying goodbye to people that are tangible connections to our past, to those who give us a sense of who we are…saying goodbye to them is even harder.

I got word of Uncle Jim’s passing from my Uncle Greg at 6:30pm, Ash Wednesday.  I was driving to church, where, ironically, I was about to receive the ashes of my own mortality on my head, a reminder that from ashes we have come, to ashes we shall return.

Uncle Jim had just made that return.

I can still hear his words echoing in my ears, “When this old body breathes its last…I’ll be at the right hand of the father…”

I’m not sure God is going to be able to handle the kind of conversations my granpda and Jim must be having right about now…

My Dead End on the Highway of Holiness

night_road higway

Seventeen years of commitment to the Nazarene tradition has now come to an end.  I have arrived at the end of that theological road, that ministerial road, that road that at times seemed like a Mobius Strip suspended in its own infinity.

Comprehending the ending is not near as hard as experiencing the ending.

This past week I was notified that my District License in the Church of Nazarene would not be renewed.

In Nazarene polity, the District License is the affirmation of your District group of Churches that you are fit for ministry and it is the next to last step before a person is ordained.  Typically, this License is held for only a few years and our Manual states that this licensure is not to exceed a 10 year period on the way toward ordination, extenuating circumstances withstanding.

In short, the process works as such.

A person is affirmed by their local church.  The said local church then grants them a Local Ministers License.  A year later this same person applies for a District License.  This process includes a questioning, answering and discernment process that includes a ministerial advisory board and an education board comprised of various pastors on the District.  If a person passes the discernment process at the District Level, they are then guided into the proper education to fulfill their ministerial obligations.  This whole process can take as little as 5 years or as long as the District allows a person to travel this road.

This process is not set in stone, however.  A person can have 0 education, feel a calling to ministry, be assigned a Church and then work on education WHILE pastoring a church.  A person can choose to pursue their education absent a university and their education for ministry counts as much as a person with a university degree.  A person can attain a District License and choose to be a student, such as pursuing a Bachelor Arts in Religion or a Master of Divinity, the only caveat being that ANY ministry done during these student years doesn’t count toward ordination because this person is not directly employed by a church…so employed experience means more than real experience.

As you can see, there is some diversity to the iron clad process of ordination and discernment of ministers.  It is guided by the Manual but it is regulated by the subjective reality of human beings.

Enter my story.

I was called to preach (since that’s what we called it back in the day) in 1998.  I was granted a local license that same year at my local Nazarene Church.  I was then granted a District License the following year in 1999.  Since then I have had a District License every year, for 16 years, except 1.  I have been in the ministerial process of the Nazarene Church since I was 17.

Why you ask?  Certainly it is easy to become a pastor then become a brain surgeon?!  Well, one would think…but I have become the victim of red tape and circumstance.

From 1999-2003 I was as student at Trevecca Nazarene University.  I graduated with a 3.6 gpa as a Religion Major.  I did a lot of ministry in college…BUT I was a student so none of that counts toward ordination.  Only my education counted toward ordination but education doesn’t shave any time off your process to be ordained if aren’t on a church payroll.

After the University but before Seminary, 2003-2004, I did youth ministry at my local Nazarene Church and taught the adult Sunday School class with my father, who deferred to me and my newly minted education.  But my youth ministry and teaching (and I think I did some preaching that year also) did not count toward ordination because…you guessed it, I was not on a church payroll.

I had excelled enough at Trevecca that I knew I really wanted to go to Seminary and earn my Master of Divinity Degree.  I actually ended up taking that year off of school because after first telling Vanderbilt I would accept their 70% scholarship, and enter fall of 2003,’ I had to rescind that acceptance for familial reasons.  I then pursued Masters work at the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, in Atlanta.  I was offered a full ride scholarship.  I accepted and studied theology there from 2004-2008.  I graduated with honors, 3.95 gpa, and was granted the Outstanding Scholars Award for my class…an award that had not before, nor since, been granted.  While in Atlanta I did some very good ministry at Harvest Community Church of the Nazarene…BUT NONE of that counted because I was a student.

So 6 years into the process and I am still not ordained but I have a lot of experience and have been doing ministry.

In 2005 my wife was pregnant with Twins.  I needed work.  I was willing to pastor a Nazarene Church and forgo my full ride at Mercer if some churchwould hire me.  My education would not have ended; I was just planning on doing distance learning through Nazarene Theological Seminary and pay for my education.  I wanted to pastor a church.  I wanted to fulfill my calling.  I was willing to sacrifice scholarship money to serve my people, the Nazarenes.  Well, you might be surprised that the prospects of a pastor finding a church at 24 years old is not good.  The Letter to Timothy encourages the church to not despise the youth of the church or its up and coming talent…In my case, the church never gave me a shot…I was despised and the Letter to Timothy sat in silence.

I called the Georgia District Superintendent.

There were four, 4!, churches within a 45 minute drive of seminary that were open.  The DS did not go to bat for me.  He hung me out to dry and could care less I was on his district.  I called my DS in East TN, asked him about work, he said he had nothing (75 churches at the time but nothing for me) and he wasn’t helpful when I asked him to please give a call on my behalf to Georgia or surrounding districts.  He didn’t do that for me.  I needed work, I contacted my leaders and they were not helpful.

I sent out 20 resumes to specific churches and to every Nazarene District in the Southeast, I even sent a resume to a church in Phoenix and Philadelphia!  I was willing to move.  I wanted to pastor.  I was Nazarene…but nothing.  I did not get ANY response from ANY Nazarene Church or District.  The only response I received was from a non-denominational church in South Carolina wanting to pursue my resume.  They sent me an initial candidates questionnaire.  I did not pursue it because a few weeks earlier I had accepted work at a local Papa John’s Pizza and a promotion with it.  I needed to work.  I had twins on the way.  The church didn’t step up, but I needed to work so I made a decision for my family.

You may be saying “well, you didn’t have a lot of experience, so maybe that’s why no one called you.”

That would be a false assumption.

By this time in my life, I had preached a lot.  I had been a supply pastor many times, I had done youth revivals, I had organized entire worship sequences, I had filled in countless of times for pastors.  I had done internships and taught/organized classes for the church.  The Easter before I applied for a church I had planned the entire Easter liturgy at my church in Atlanta, preached the sermon, broke bread and done it all in front of 272 people that Easter morning.  My resume was strong for a young pastor…and I had references to reinforce it.  Yet, I could get no help.  No one in my corner.  No leader to lend me a hand.

So I moved back to TN in 2006 and began work at my family’s business.  The good people at Mercer helped me with my education; I kept my scholarship and commuted for 2 years to Atlanta to finish.  I was determined; I was going to finish this degree.  I did not know how I would use it but I was going to be faithful.

Everything I did from 2005-2009, however, did not count.  I was a “student” and as such my ministry was education not experience, at least according to the Nazarene Manual.  Still not ordained…we are now in year 10.

I had plans of pursing Phd right after seminary, but by then I had 3 kids and it wasn’t in the books to move.  So I entered the family business (an opportunity that even 2 years prior was not a possibility due to finances…so this was not a failsafe I had in my back pocket while I pursued ministry opportunities), grew the business and did part time ministry during that time.  I would preach, teach district classes, teach Sunday school, etc.

2009-2014 I saw some of my most productive ministerial years.  Since I did not go straight into Phd I wrote papers for conferences, such as the Wesleyan Theological Society.  I published multiple academic book reviews for Review and Expositor.  I published 2 papers in theological journals, legitimate journals, with a solid reputation.  I contributed to online articles at ethicsdaily.  I taught more district classes for pastors in training.  I performed 5 marriages and a few funerals.  And, to attempt to finally meet ordination requirements, I got on staff at my local Nazarene church in 2010.  So from 09-14’ I did all that and was actively in ministry teaching weekly, and preaching monthly…not to mention I helped grow my family business from 1 store to 7 stores, while chasing 3 little boys (and a little girl that is now 4 months old) around my house.

In 2013 I thought I had finally gotten my Phd break.  I was a final candidate for Phd in historical theology at Emory.  I had my advisor chosen.  We had discussed how my work would begin and where it would go.  I had been faithful and now, finally, I was going to get a good break.  It didn’t happen.  I had done all I could to prepare for this opportunity.  I had been published and presented more papers and research than most folks IN a Phd program, let alone people just trying to get in one.  My efforts were not enough.  I was not extended an invitation.  With that declination, a little part of me died.  I’m still working on how to move past it.  Accept it.  And deal.  I maintained my relationship to the local church and was on staff but Emory had effectively taken the wind out of my sails…

I had no idea where my life was going.

I have been successful in business and have created many lasting friendships in business and in theological circles.  I knew I didn’t want to give up on theology or ministry so in 2014 I went to interview for my District License again…after much honest conversation and personal admittance of my own inner ambiguity, the District granted my license.  I had not done enough to be ordained but because of my disenfranchisement with the process I did not push for it either.  Back in 2010 the district told me to keep a log of my ministry work to earn credit for ordination.  I mean seriously?  That was not going to happen.  I had done a crap ton for the church and I wasn’t about to write done every minute of everything I had done toward ministry.  I didn’t know anyone that had done that, let alone do that for 8 years of part time ministry to get ordained as per the Manual.

I think this year, 2014-2015, was the year the district was looking for to finally ordain me…a process that was taking far too long and, for me personally, beginning to strain under its own incredulity…making it basically undesirable.  I mean, if there are people who know less, don’t have the experience, and yet still get through the process quicker because they weren’t a “student” or they didn’t participate in a demanding business…then it seemed to me the church was willing to take mediocrity, so long as it was mediocrity that they were managing.

That was the thing about me…I was unmanageable.  And through the years, while I had earned my supporters I had also earned few detractors.   I had become a little angry and silently frustrated that the District would affirm via ordination every Tom, Dick and Harry that said they loved Jesus…but for me I couldn’t catch a break.

Then 2014 happened.  That summer I had contributed to a book, Renovating Holiness, edited by two friends, Tom Oord and Joshua Broward.  They asked me to contribute a few months earlier and I sent them my final essay last summer.  It was a reminder that I was not done as a Nazarene.  There were people here that still valued me, even as I valued them, and we all sought to contribute to making our church better as we rethink old forms of faith.  The book was published and released Feb 2015.

Also that summer I had started a unique ministry at a local Nazarene Church.  I eventually ended up preaching at this church in June, a few times in October and November, and then most Sundays December to March.  When I first went to fill in for a pastoral colleague of mine, who was also moving on to another ministry in a few months, I had no intention of even seeking out this pastorate.  I was just trying to come good on my promise to the District that I would serve…and subsequently I love preaching.  By my second Sunday there in October I felt my heart changing…I felt like this may be the opportunity, the reason I have stayed Nazarene and continued on this process despite the discouragement along the way.  Myself, and the people, clicked, or so I thought.  My family liked the church.  We felt loved and we loved those folks in return.  It was one of the best ministry experiences I have had in my life.  It wasn’t a university job…but maybe this is what God had for me.  The church needs thoughtful people too and I thought this situation held a lot of promise.

This situation, however, never materialized.  I was willing to bend a lot to make this happen.  I was willing to reorganize work, family and my entire schedule to meet the needs of this church.  But I was never given that opportunity.  In my opinion, the District failed me.  The leadership failed me.  Here, once again, when I needed honesty, transparency and a good shake…it didn’t happen.  Thus, through the years when I most needed the church…the church let me down.  There is a lot to this situation and why it didn’t materialize, but I know that none of that was my doing.  It was totally out of my hands.

SOOOOO Enter the present.  After struggling with my calling and my place in this world (if I can quote Michael W. Smith) for nearly a year and a half, then seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, a real opportunity, only to have it snuffed out…and on the heels of Emory being snuffed out, I was spiritually and intellectually exhausted.  My creativity was zapped.

The hard thing about being one of the clergy in the “know” and seeing how everything works is that when you need a break, or you feel burned, or you’re just pissed off and asking God “what Next?” the last place a pastor, struggling or otherwise, wants to be  is church.  In all other professions you can leave that place and never see it again.  You can quit your job, tell them to shove it, and disappear…BUT when your job is church, you can’t do that without people being suspicious of your intentions and questioning your piety.  I have been working toward a common ambiguous goal since I was 17, a path that has taken many twists and turns.  But turn after turn I see what I once loved and what inspired me continually get stripped away…that place, the place that represents all that I am not at the moment or unrealized gifts that will never be, that place…that place is a place I don’t want to be around.  I needed  break, a rest.

So I took it and that was a mistake.

After Emory declined to offer me an invitation to study, I slowly began to shirk from the work I thought I was doing in preparation to be a liaison between church and academy.  A Liaison is what I had thought my call, my vocation, would become.  A scholar pastor or a pastor scholar, someone that bridges the gap between these seemingly two juxtaposed realities in current culture.   My dream job was to be the dean of a chapel, while also teaching classes at a university, and in the summers travel and preach at conferences or camp meetings.  I loved teaching, I loved preaching…I loved academics yet I loved the local church.

Then the invitation to contribute to Renovating Holiness happened.  The connection with a local Nazarene church happened.  Things were looking up…then they turned south again.  After I finished my interim work at this church I attended church much less frequently.   In 12 weeks I was probably at a half dozen services.  I came a few Sunday mornings, a couple Sunday nights and had stopped coming to Wednesday night’s altogether.  The Wednesday night fell by the way side due to work…I just couldn’t operate 7 stores, take care of my health, be a family man and be all things to all people at church at the same time, especially since it seemed lots of those doors were being shut in my face (past and present).

After careful consideration and counsel with some good friends, I decided to give ministry another year.

Here I was, a 34 year old man going through a process that is supposed to take 4-6 years and I am on year 17.  I was getting tired.  I was feeling a bit ridiculous.  It was obvious that the church had no desire to seriously engage with someone on a true bivocational level, as univocational pastors that were equivalent to the village idiot were making more headway than myself with degrees, tons o f experience, good homilies and academic standing.  BUT despite all this, I was going to be faithful and see what this year held.  Like 2014, I had no idea the opportunities or ways the Spirit would work; I was willing to do it again.

This year, however, I wanted a sabbatical.  I wanted the District to renew my license but I wanted to step back and evaluate.  I resigned at my local church as pastor of Christian Education.  I was not opposed to doing ministry, even teaching and preaching a little, but it’s very difficult to give an honest evaluation of something when you are still close to it.  I needed to step away and just be still.  Shut my mouth and listen.

The District did not grant me that.

I was notified this past week that my license was not renewed and on a board with at least half a dozen men who know me personally, and have known me since I was a teenager, none of them even motioned for my renewal.  Not ONE.  It was brought to the table and my name and license sat in the center…no one picked it up.  They said that my commitment to the local church was illustrated in my attendance, and of late, my attendance was not on point.  My work the past year, especially the work I did as an interim fill in, was not enough for the district.  Apparently I still had more to prove, since that is the basic point of the licensure process: to prove yourself.  But, really, there is nothing I else I have or can prove to anyone that doesn’t see.

I have many issues with how this was handled.  I wrote the District Superintendent, I made my complaints, but this entire situation stands as is.  After 17 years of ministry and being a Nazarene minister…that road has come to an end.

I will never again enter the Nazarene process of ordination.  That road has about as much promise as Secessionary Way in South Carolina.  I am done.

The most frustrating part of this entire process is the pretentious piety and sanctimonious posturing that took place all for the sake of a righteous roll calling.  It’s difficult to have the majority of a life’s work stand before people ( they can plainly see it and know that I have the abilities to do ministry and pedagogy) and yet they act hubristically and pass judgment on my abilities, or even worse, by not renewing my license tell me to “get lost…your services are no longer needed.”

I just hope that the folks that did not renew my license say a prayer of thanksgiving.

They should thank God they’ve never studied what I have studied, learned what I have learned , know what I know, or wrestled with career and calling as I have…living in ambiguity and ambivalence, traversing the reality of doubt and faith as those two remain interconnected.  They should say thanks they have never done so and rejoice in their spiritual uprigthness and theological absolutes…because if they had been me, not only would they have been out of the game years ago, they might have had some fine men on a board tell them what they told me, “No.”  No grace for you.  No time.

There is nothing new under the Sun here folks…carry on.

So where do I go from here?  What shape does my life take?

Well, immediately I will continue to run my business as best I know how.  I will continue to work hard to balance work, family, my vocation and perhaps in the future do some more ministry when the season arrives.  There are many places I could fit in and I have already begun to explore other traditions.  But for the time being, and probably over the next several months, I will be pondering what it means to move past my Nazareneness.  I cannot change my roots.  I cannot take back all that I have given to the church.  I can’t undo any of it, nor would I want to.   As Derrida reminds us all, our traditions can never be fully evacuated even if we evacuate them; they continue to structure our discourse.

I suppose I could stay and worship, but the sign out front will be a constant reminder that when I needed thoughtful people to give me grace and space, I was denied both…and I can’t support that sort of Institution.

So if you are Nazarene, reading this, and have been part of my ministry:  Thank you for allowing me to serve.  Thank you for the experience and for what you have taught me about ministry.  Thank you for being a blessing and encouragement to me when I needed it most.  I am who I am because of people in the local church.  This event, and my personal feelings, have never been the result of anyone in the local church.  My local Nazarene pastor is both my pastor, and my friend, and he has never done anything to make this happen.  He has always supported me, even when I gave him reason not to.  He knows who is he is and if you do, please support him, because he an outstanding minister who loves God and his people, the church.

This final releasing of me by my Church is the result of a journey that has taken years to mature.  So while my path with Nazarene ministry has come to an end, my path is not at an end.  This recent turn of events has inspired me.  It has reminded me who I am even as people have told me who I am not.  It has lit a fire under me and makes me want to be better, not bitter, as the cliché goes.

I do not know what the future holds…but I do know, thanks to folks like Ted Peters, that “God is the worlds future” and it is into that future where I will find myself and hopefully find some of you there with me.