Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Wounded Leaders

A man named Jacob is one of the lead characters in the biblical book of Genesis, and he’s a fascinating one. 

He and his brother were twin sons born to a woman named Rebekah, who was married to Abraham’s son Isaac. While Rebekah was pregnant with the boys, she was having so much difficulty that she asked the Lord what was going on. The Lord told her that two nations were struggling within her, which explained a lot. 

The competition continued as they were being born—Esau was born first, but Jacob was holding onto his brother’s heel. Thus he received the name Jacob, which means “heel-grabber” or “supplanter.” 

This sibling rivalry continued as the brothers grew. Fueled by ambition and gifted with shrewdness, Jacob cheated his older brother out of the special benefits and blessings that in ancient cultures fell to the firstborn son. Esau responded by declaring that as soon as their father Isaac died, he was going to kill his brother. Jacob found it best to get out of Beer-sheba and head up to his mother’s home territory of Haran. 

On his way, Jacob stopped to spend the night. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway between earth and heaven with angels going up and down on it. God spoke to Jacob, promising to be with him and to bring back to the land he was leaving. So Jacob named the place Bethel, which means “House of God.” 
He then continued his trip, no doubt fortified and encouraged by the vision he’d seen and the words he’d heard. 

Believing they’ve heard God say that God is going to protect them and give them success puts a person in a challenging situation. How will they receive such a word? Will they receive it with arrogance, or will they accept it with humility? Will they strut forward proudly, feeling justified in crushing anything and anybody that stands in their way? Or will they proceed humbly, trusting God to show them how to approach obstacles and to deal with opponents? 

Jacob spent the next twenty years in Haran. A lot of things happened to him there, some of them positive, some of them negative, and many of them a combination of positive and negative. But after two decades, the bottom line was that Jacob had a large family and much wealth. God had indeed protected and blessed him. Now, he was ready return home. 

As the caravan neared Canaan, an advance team reported to Jacob that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men. Not knowing if his brother still had murderous intent after two decades, Jacob devised some strategies to try to appease his brother and, if necessary, to try to preserve at least some of his family and his holdings. 

On the night before he was to meet Esau, Jacob spent the night alone beside the Jabbok River. There someone wrestled with him all night. As the new day was breaking, Jacob’s opponent hit him on the hip and put it out of joint. Jacob believed that had been struggling with God; he named the place Peniel, which means “Face of God,” because, he said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “One who strives with God,” for, God said, “You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 

Again, how does someone receive such a pronouncement? Do they receive it with arrogance? Or do they incorporate it with humility? 

We see the answer, I think, in the way Jacob approached Esau the next day. Jacob didn’t boldly charge up to Esau. He rather bowed down seven times as he approached his brother. Jacob is now Israel. The one who seized Esau’s place is now the one who survived a wrestling match with God. 

But Jacob walks away from the encounter with God with a limp. I suspect this means that Jacob’s entire life experience had left him with a limp. Jacob’s life with God, his life with others, and his life with himself has left him wounded and humbled. 

Jacob was a great leader. His new name Israel would be the name of the nation that would descend from him. But he was a wounded leader. I suspect his best qualities developed from his wounds. 

I believe that men and women whose wounds have blessed them with humility make better leaders—make better people—than those whose privilege has saddled them with arrogance. 

(This article first appeared in the Barnesville Herald-Gazette and the Pike County Journal-Reporter.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

On the Front Lines

I’m sure you join me in appreciating those who are on the front lines of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.

When we think about the front line warriors fighting the pandemic, medical professionals probably come to mind first. We are grateful for the doctors, nurses, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and lab technicians who deal directly with sick people. We appreciate the support staff who help with the process. We are grateful for Emergency Medical Technicians who treat and transport people in medical crisis.

Whether they work in hospitals, doctors’ offices, walk-in clinics, or public health departments, medical professionals put their health and lives on the line to help us stay healthy or get well. They are doing valiant work to stem the tide of the pandemic. They are heroes.

We can now add teachers to those who are on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus. While this applies to all teachers, I especially have our public school teachers in mind (and on my heart).

Teachers in our area are in preplanning. In addition to their usual work of preparing their lesson plans and classrooms, they are also preparing to create and maintain an environment in which students and teachers will be as safe as possible from the spread of COVID-19. When students report for school soon (assuming plans don’t change), teachers will add pandemic curtailment to their already vital tasks of education and socialization.

It’s more than they signed up for, but they will face it head-on. Their courage is but one element of their dedication. We need to appreciate, encourage, and support our teachers as well other school personnel, including paraprofessionals, administrators, school nurses, librarians, lunchroom workers, custodians, and bus drivers (and anyone else I didn’t mention).

What can we do for our teachers as they begin this more challenging than usual school year?

First, we can pray for them. We can ask God to help and protect them.

Second, we can support adequate funding for our schools. We can advocate for prioritizing public education in the budgets adopted by our national, state, and local representatives. We can resist efforts to redirect funding from public to private schools. We can insist on the importance of public education in moving us toward more equality and toward greater security and insist that it be funded at levels commensurate with its contributions to our society.

Third, we parents, grandparents, and other family members can guide the students in our families to follow the guidelines laid down by their schools that their teachers must enforce. We can respect science. We can learn how to differentiate between information and misinformation and teach our children how to do the same. If we espouse conspiracy theories, dismiss the pandemic as a hoax, downplay the seriousness of the situation, and refuse to follow reasonable guidelines of social distancing, mask wearing, and handwashing, our children will pick up on it and will likely follow our lead, which will make the teachers’ jobs that much harder. It will also increase the chances of our children getting sick.

Our teachers and all others who contribute to our children’s education are on the front lines in the battle against COVID-19. They are heroes. Let’s give them our full support.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

What Makes You Cry

It was summertime, sometime in the late 1960s. I was, as many children did (and I hope still do), participating in the public library’s summer reading program. I was reading Fred Gipson’s 1942 novel Old Yeller.

I knew the book was about a boy and his dog. I didn’t know much else about it. I’d never seen the 1957 Walt Disney film based on the book. It might have aired on the Wonderful World of Disney by the time I read the book, but I wouldn’t have seen it because I never saw the Disney program because it came on during Sunday night church time and my parents thought we had to be there every time the church doors were opened and that was that.

(I also never saw the Ed Sullivan Show for the same reason. I mean, who needed to be introduced to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones when you could sing the same old hymns and hear another sermon instead? But I’m not bitter. Nope, not at all.)

Anyway, I didn’t know that Travis (the boy in the book) has to shoot Old Yeller because the dog contracts rabies. It broke my heart. I went crying to my mother.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“The boy had to shoot Old Yeller,” I sobbed.

“You shouldn’t read things that are going to make you cry,” she said.

I stopped crying and looked at her. “Well, I couldn’t know it was going to make me cry until I read it, could I?”

My mother gave me a lot of good advice during my growing-up years. The advice she gave me that day wasn’t good. In fact, it was downright bad.

We shouldn’t avoid the things that will make us cry. Besides, we couldn’t if we tried. Why do I say that? Because the only way to avoid the things that make us cry is to avoid life. If we live, we’re going to experience hurt, loss, grief, sadness, and sorrow. If we live, we’re going to cry.

There’s been a lot to cry about lately. There is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cost us life, health, in-person interaction, and prosperity. There is the systemic and institutional racism that has long afflicted our nation, but which some people are just now waking up to (victims of it and their advocates have long been aware of it). There is the political polarization that has divided us since the 2016 presidential campaign and that may get worse (I hope not) during this 2020 campaign.

We can try to ignore it all. We can try to wish it all away. We can pretend the crises don’t exist. We can justify such approaches by telling ourselves that it’s all too painful to deal with. We can tell ourselves, to paraphrase my mother, “We shouldn’t look at things that are going to make us cry.”

But I say that we should look at these and the other crises facing us. I say we should let the horror of it all sweep over us. I say we should acknowledge the problems with their accompanying pain and let the tears flow.

We should then wipe our eyes, stiffen our spines, examine our hearts, and join with those who are trying to do something to make things better.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Column

Writing is what I do. I try to observe life—both the life I live, insofar as I can see it, and the lives that others live, insofar as they allow me to see them—and then write about what I see. I am a Christian writer, by which I mean I am a Christian who writes.

My writings don’t always live up to some folks’ standards and expectations of Christian writing, by which I mean I don’t always quote the Bible, mention God, or refer to Jesus. But I can no more separate my identity as a Christian from my writing than I can separate my breathing from my existing. I write everything I write from the worldview I’ve been given over half a century of doing my best to accept and offer God’s grace, love, and mercy as I have experienced them in Jesus Christ.

The heart of this Christian writer is breaking over what I see happening in and to our nation. And I want to write about it, not just because writing is what I do, but because a writer is who I am. Writing is how I react. It is how I respond. It is how I try to contribute to a solution.

I suspect that some of you think I write what I write because I want to be contrarian or because I enjoy stirring up controversy. Some of you may also think that I write just to insist that I’m right and others are wrong or just to prove how smart I think I am. I can’t claim that my motives for writing what I write are always pure; in fact, I’m sure they aren’t.

But I’ll tell you one thing: I try my best to have love be my main motive. I look at the world, I look at the nation, I look at the local community, I look at the lives of my family members and my friends, and I try to address situations with love that shows itself in compassion and empathy. Whether I’m writing about religion, politics, or anything else, I’m trying to present ways of thinking that might lead us toward a better world, nation, and community.

I’m also an American. I love this country. I want us to always be moving toward living up to our ideals. As a Christian writer who is also an American writer, I want to write about what’s going on right now.

Out of love, I want to write about the many instances of excessive force used by law enforcement officers against young black men. I want to write about the anger, the fear, and the discrimination that fuels much of the upheaval we are experiencing in these days. I want to write about how hard it is for black parents to have to teach their children how to respond to authorities in a way that won’t get them killed.

Out of love, I want to write about our society’s deeply ingrained economic inequities. I want to write about how the ever-increasing hording of wealth by a few people and the doling out of barely subsistence wages to millions of people (many of them minimum wage-earning workers deemed “essential” during the pandemic) is an unsustainable economic model. I want to write about how frustrations over social and economic disparities can be tamped down only so long before some act of injustice causes them to erupt. I want to write about how some of the worst looting that goes on in our country is done by some of our richest people, our largest corporations, and our most powerful politicians.

Out of love, I want to write about how worried I am that we are moving toward authoritarian rule that tramples all over the Constitution and that cares nothing for anything except attaining and preserving wealth and power.

Out of love, I want to implore us to wake up, to realize how wrong and harmful the direction we’re headed in is, and to do all we can to turn things around. I want us to commit to doing the long and hard work of addressing the systemic problems in our nation that contribute to racial division and economic disparity.

Out of love, I want to pour my heart out in this column so you will know how troubled I am about where we are and where we’re headed, and so you’ll think about why you should join me in being troubled.

I believe that it is God’s love working in me that compels me to write the things I write. As best I can tell, I write what I write out of my love for you, for our nation, and for our world. You may not think that I write what I write out of love. Even some of my fellow Christians may not think so. If you’re one of them, please allow me to ask you a question: what is God’s love working in you compelling you to do?

I hope and pray that God’s love will compel us all to do what we can to overcome our divisions and to heal our brokenness.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Time, Standing Still and Marching On (A Poem)

The Black Lives Matter march
in my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia,
on Saturday, June 6, 2020, began
at the courthouse, went through
downtown, crossed the railroad tracks
where Main Street becomes Mill Street,
turned left at the E. P. Roberts Community
Center (named for the long-time educator who
was the principal at Booker T. Washington
School before the long-awaited, way late, and
poorly executed desegregation of Lamar
County’s schools in 1970, when he became
principal of Forsyth Road School, which was,
physically speaking, the same school, but which
was in every other way much different than
Booker, and so was the first African American
principal I ever had), and ended at Myles-Wimberly
Park (named for two more prominent African
American educators: Robert Myles, my seventh
grade homeroom and math teacher in that first
year of desegregation, and thus my first African
American teacher, and Coach Oscar Wimberly,
for whom I wish to this day I’d kept playing, rather
than giving up on basketball to take an after-school
job, because even though I would have warmed the
bench, I would have learned so much about life from him).

We stood in the park for ninety minutes, steadily
warming up in the late spring Georgia heat and
humidity, listening to several excellent speakers
offer inspiring and challenging words.

To me, the most moving part of the ceremony
occurred at the beginning when event organizer
Krystal Banks (to whom much gratitude is due)
asked us to be silent for eight minutes, forty-
six seconds, the amount of time that police
officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee onto
George Floyd’s neck in Minneapolis on May 25.

It felt like a long time to stand there, being
quiet, listening to the birds' continual singing
and the neighborhood dogs’ occasional barking,
our breathing stifled just a little bit by the masks
we wore because of the ongoing COVID-19 threat.

Breathing was very, very slightly difficult in
those conditions, but it was nothing like trying
to breathe with someone’s knee on your neck,
making breathing more and more difficult
until it finally becomes impossible.

I thought about how the experience of time
passing is relative, depending on the extent to which
you are able to exercise your inalienable rights of
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I thought about how much things have changed
since 1970, and yet here we are, fifty years later,
marching to insist that Black Lives Matter.

I thought about how the Barnesville march
occurred on the anniversary of D-Day, when
American troops, along with British and Canadian
forces, landed at Normandy to drive racist
totalitarianism from Europe, and yet here we are,
seventy-six years later, having to drive it
from the United States of America.

I thought about how we’ve been singing
Mr. Dylan’s song “The Times They Are
a-Changin’” since 1962, and yet here we
are, fifty-eight years later, hoping,
praying, marching, voting, and working,
so that this time, they really will.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Expertise

One piece of the COVID-19 situation that has concerned and confused me is the disdain some people have exhibited toward experts.

I was in Baltimore, Maryland a few years ago working at a conference. (Remember the old days when people traveled to conferences?) I was sitting at my table in the Exhibit Hall when I realized that the vision in my right eye had become very blurry. This would have seemed like something I should get checked on anyway, but I had recently had laser treatment to repair two retinal tears in that eye, so I was certain I should.

But my retina specialists were in Macon, and I was in Baltimore, not scheduled to return home for two more days. So I called my doctors’ office to see if they could get me in to see someone in Baltimore. They could and they did. Later that day, a friendly Lyft driver deposited me at a retina specialist’s office somewhere in some suburb of Baltimore. As I waited in the exam room, I used my functioning eye to read the diplomas on the wall. The doctor who was about to examine me had earned his medical degree at Johns Hopkins.

Friends, I did not say to myself, “This doctor’s training is too good for me. Why, he probably thinks he knows more about retinas than I do. I’m going to find someone who has less expertise.” No, I said to myself, “I have hit the jackpot. I am grateful to have been sent to a doctor with such good training and so much expertise.”

(By the way, as it turned out, the Johns Hopkins-trained doctor discovered that a blood vessel had burst in my eye. It healed and my vision cleared up in a few days. I trusted the doctor’s expert diagnose. And had I needed laser or other treatment, I’d have been grateful for his expertise.)

I see a lot of posts on Facebook (usually memes, which I swore off sharing a long time ago, but I wouldn’t share one like this anyway) that say something like “Someone can have a college degree and still be dumb.” There’s a variant of it that says something like, “Someone can have a college degree and still lack common sense.” In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I have three degrees, and I had to marry someone with common sense before I acquired any.

While I’m on the subject, I’ve also noticed that often people sharing such a meme tie it to remarks about how vocational and technical education is a better route for some than going to college. I’d like to say four things about that. (1) Vocational and technical education is valuable and the careers to which it can lead are indispensable. (2) One can champion such education without denigrating those who pursue a college or university degree and/or graduate degrees. (3) Classism is classism, regardless of the perspective from which it comes, so looking down on those with university degrees is no better than looking down on those without them. (4) I find it really silly and sad that I need to say anything about this.

Let me tell you: I admire experts. I admire experts in auto mechanics, in plumbing, in electricity, in heating and cooling, in dental hygiene, in hair cutting and styling, in construction, in carpentry, and in many other fields. I appreciate and accept the expertise of people who know more than I do about important necessary things (and in many of these cases, if they know anything at all, they know more than I do).

Can I insist on living my life without taking the expertise of such professionals into account? Sure I can. But I’d be foolish to do so. Someone who has been trained to fix that thingamajig under my car’s hood knows more about it than I do. If our house’s air conditioning system goes out this summer, I’m calling the experts at Rooks Brothers Heating & Cooling (full disclosure: we’re kin, but they’re good). The fact is that my ignorance is not as legitimate as their expertise.

My point is that disdain for expertise is misplaced, and disregarding expertise is dangerous. We should take medical professionals and other scientists seriously, because the fact is that they know more than non-professionals and non-scientists know.

I don’t know where the willingness of some people to think they know more than the experts do about science and medicine in general, and about viruses and pandemics in particular, comes from. Maybe they’re influenced by the eagerness of some in high office—included the one in the highest office in the land—to dismiss and ignore the advice of experts, and even to attack the experts themselves. They do so for political reasons. Maybe some of us do too.

If you ignore and denigrate science, whatever reasons you have for doing so aren’t good enough to put yourself and others at risk.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Fifty > Forty


I’m a words guy. Math isn’t my strong suit, despite the best efforts of Mrs. Pitts, Mrs. Fambro, Mrs. Heinz, Mr. Myles, Mrs. Easton, and Mrs. Byars. Lord knows they tried.

(Full disclosure: my math grades were fine. Math just didn’t become part of the fabric of my being as reading and writing did.)

But even with my limited mathematical prowess, I know that fifty is greater than forty. (Feel free to check my math, but I’m pretty confident about this.)

I bring this up because we have just exited the season of Lent, which lasts forty days, and have entered the season of Easter, which lasts fifty days. The Easter season begins on Easter Sunday and ends fifty days later on Pentecost (which means “Fiftieth”) Sunday. So after mourning our mortality and repenting of our sins for forty days, we celebrate resurrection and new life for fifty days.

Fifty is greater than forty.

This simple math speaks great truth.

We have much to mourn. We always do, but these days, we have the additional losses of life due to COVID-19. It is particularly sad to me that so many people are dying without the presence of loved ones, who must stay away because of the virus. If we weren’t already aware of our mortality, surely we are now (despite the fact that some people seem to think they’re immune to the risk and live in arrogant ways that put themselves and others in danger).

We have much to repent of. Some folks are quick to say that the pandemic is God’s judgment on a world that rejects God. I’m not willing to jump on that bandwagon. But I do think we should be learning some lessons and repenting of our sins. We should repent of the ways we treat and mistreat one another. We should repent of the precarious position we are too willing to let the most vulnerable among us occupy. For example: people that some of us don’t think deserve $15 an hour are risking their lives to do their essential minimum wage jobs. We also should repent of our unfortunate practices of prioritizing political loyalty over embracing the truth and of cheering falsehood while ignoring facts.

We need to keep thinking about and working on our mourning and repenting, even though this year’s Lent observance is over.

But now it’s the Easter season. We are in the season of resurrection, of life, and of hope. Fifty is greater than forty. Easter is greater than Lent.

Jesus’ resurrection means that none of the realities that threaten and frighten us—sickness, pain, sorrow, suffering, and death—have the last word. It means that other, greater realities—wholeness, joy, and life—do have the last word.

I have little patience with pious platitudes, trite tropes, and clever clich├ęs (and also with abounding alliteration). I’m talking about sayings such as, “I fear no virus, because I trust in the Lord.” The problem with such sayings is that they don’t tell enough truth (at least they don’t in my case, and if you’re honest with yourself, they probably don’t in yours). Yes, I trust in the Lord. But this virus still scares me, not so much because of what it can do to me, but rather because of what it can do to my loved ones and to the most vulnerable in society.

When I hear someone speak a pious platitude, I tend to hear them saying, “Everything’s going to be all right someday, so I don’t really need to do anything about what’s happening today.” Now, I affirm and proclaim that, because of Jesus’ resurrection, everything is indeed going to be all right someday.

But resurrection also affects the ways we live today. Living in light of Jesus’ resurrection should mean that we will do everything we can to bring about life in the midst of death and hope in the midst of despair.

The New Testament teaches that when Jesus returns, those who have died in him will be raised to new life in him. It also teaches that the power of Jesus’ resurrection brings new life to us here and now.

When Jesus returns, everything will be one hundred percent good. Life will be everlasting. Death will be no more.

We can’t make the complete victory of life over death happen before its time. But I believe that if Christians will live in light of Jesus’ resurrection, life can eke out a slim victory over death even here, even now.

But it won’t if we don’t try.