Losing My Religion.

On Sunday my church began a new series on the book of James. Our pastor emphasized that the book of James is a message to church going folks and that the message would make us uncomfortable. In fact he advised us to pray that our faith would be challenged in the series. I’ve been around church all my life and if there is one thing I know. Never pray for tests or anything like patience, courage and strength – pray for those and you are just begging for an episode in life where you will need all kinds of patience, courage and strength. I would have to think about it before actually making that prayer.

On the same Sunday our church launched fall community groups. Community groups are little breakout groups where you can meet with other folks and discuss each weeks sermons. The hope is for gleaning deeper understanding of the weekly message. My wife and I hadn’t IMG_5548participated in a community group in quite some time so we decided to sign up for this fall session. In that first meeting there was a fired up Christian who admonished us to confront everyone we meet with the good news of Jesus, a woman who was certain God uses hurricanes to get our attention and another person who believes Christians are under attack in America. I wanted to attack her for that but my wife kept deliberately making eye contact with me as a way to plead with me to keep my cool. After 35 years she kinda knows me like that.

If my faith were to be tested it really couldn’t be tested much more than it has been lately. I recently prayed and told God I don’t want to be a Christian anymore. Nobody could be more surprised hearing those words come out of my mouth than I was. My mind instantly flashed to my youth and Sister Mary Monica, the convent mother at our local parish. I was in a religion education class for public school kids and the Pastor came by to check on us. While visiting he kindly showed us a card trick and for some reason I thought it would be cute to remind him that cards are the tool of the devil. He IMG_5549laughed. Not because he thought it was funny. He laughed, I imagine, because he could see Sister Mary Monica swooping down from her perch with an eagle eye on the back of my head.

I’m not sure what hurt the most. The smack on the back of the head, the simultaneous grabbing of my earlobe and pulling me to my feet in one motion, or the fact that I was helpless and I was drug out of the room into the hall by an angry little Irish Nun in front of all of my buddies. They could do stuff like that to kids back in the 60’s. Then we got beat when we got home. When I hear kids today cry they will call services if they have privileges restricted I have to laugh. But I digress. The point was I sometimes am rather clumsy with proper reverence. God knew I didn’t want to break up with Him. He’s cool. I just don’t know that I want to be associated with “Christians” anymore. I kind of think they do more harm to His message than good. That was my point. I just wasn’t very eloquent expressing that in my prayers.

As my wife and I left our small group the unspoken understanding between us was palatable. My wife is much more tolerant than I am and I imagine she was waiting to see if she’d ever get the opportunity to go back and be a part of this group. At least she maybe wondered if she’d get an opportunity to go back and be a part of that group with me. I could tell it was something she wanted us to do together. I’m not stupid… All of the time… Sometimes. Before I said too much it came over me that this group might in fact be my faith test. I’ve been pretty angry with conservative Christians since, well forever, but most acutely since this last presidential election. Maybe it’s time I sit down and listen to them for a little bit. That God of mine, He’s a funny guy.

Pray for me.

 

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Winter Riding in Iowa

Winters are long in Iowa. I mean lose your religion kinda long. That always bothered me when I lived there. Beginning in early November Harley riders soon realize that the more they tighten their throttle grip, the more riding days will slip through their fingers. I know, I know, the Star Wars analogy absolutely did not work there but when I write I like to remember that hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at my side. Deal with it.
Where I live now, by mid September, in northern Virginia, the hottest of hot days of summer are a memory. In Iowa such a turn of the weather would be cause for alarm. A few mornings in the upper 50’s and highs in the 70’s would only mean one thing. It would mean that it would be winter the following Thursday. It IMG_5537would mean that it would be winter the following Thursday and winter would not end until late the following April. The foreboding I would feel at such times were all “That’s no moon, it’s a space station.” kind of foreboding. Ok… I’m done. I promise. I want to share a memory from when I lived in Iowa.

The holidays were approaching and we were in a snap where it was so cold that the snow would crunch under your feet as you walked. Few sounds are as hopeless to a Harley rider as the sound of snow crunching under your feet when you walk. By this time, I’m guessing it was 1996 or seven, we were a full two months into winter and the prospects of trailering out to a warmer climate for some winter riding fun were looking unlikely. I needed a ride. I longed for blended sensations of torque evolving into acceleration and the pull of my seat and handlebars beneath me as the big twin motor propelled my bike forward. It was up to me to hold on and go along. I longed to hear the sound of harmonically balancing my ride with that of the rides my most reliable of riding buddies. There is nothing like that sound. Nothing else in the world. Non-Harley riders who say “I coulda bought a Harley but…” will never know that sound.

What’s a guy to do? I shuffled into the garage and figured I could just sit on the bike and maybe envision a ride. Our garage wasn’t heated but it didn’t take me long to warm to the idea that nobody understood me like my Harley understood me. She was perfectly responsive to my touch taking me where ever I told her to go. The Red Hog actually glinted at me as I opened the door and turned on the lights. The overhead lights twinkled from a thousand points of detailed chrome that accentuated all that American muscle. I could swear that I heard that angle choir sound that movies use to symbolize divine presence or intervention. LaaaaAAAAAAAHHHHHH! And that’s when I noticed.

I noticed a pile of scrap 2×4’s and some milk cartons in the corner of my garage. With a sudden laser like intensity and focus I conceived of a plan to make a stationary bike out of my trusted ride. As my plan came together I’d be lying if I didn’t say my creation looked precarious. It was with some trepidation I eased myself into the saddle and wriggled around a little bit. “Not bad” I thought. So I fired up my beast. The first revolution of the starter groaned as it forced the engine to awaken from its winter hibernation. Suddenly the big twin roared to life not unlike you would imagine an angry bear would roar from being woken from a winter nap.

Now was my moment of truth. With the rear tire propped perilously upon my makeshift pedestal I pressed my luck putting power to the real wheel. The gyroscopic forces were instantly tangible in my seat. The rear wheel spun freely and wobbled ever so slightly as it sought purchase where none was to be found. The cadence of the big V-Twin began to smooth out as I tentatively twisted the throttle. This was becoming like heaven on earth. I closed my eyes and went for second gear. All of the iconic sound minus the wind past my ears was helping me escape the monotony of an Iowa winter. Third gear. The bike had settled into an ever so subtle rhythmic sway like a top spinning at its apex disregarding laws of gravity while riding the wave of an object in motion. Fourth gear: I’m lost in the moment and the sounds in my garage are deafening. The big twin is fully woke ready and capable to eat asphalt and concrete over hills and over dales if only I would let her loose. Fifth gear. My Red Hog is screaming like a war horse charging into battle. I open my eyes and see the rear wheel is registering 80 mph and I imagine I can feel the wind in my hair.

And suddenly I can. The contraption I had built to fulfill a fantasy had not proven worthy to sustain a seven hundred pound machine displacing 100 horse power and 86 foot-pounds of torque with nowhere to go. The rear wheel dropped to the floor and bit into the concrete the best it could while spinning at a now near 90 miles per hour.

Meanwhile… as this was happening my wife is in the kitchen doing dishes. The family room TV was casting a warm glow across the face of our kids who were lost in a video fantasy of their own. To this day I am puzzled how and why no one had been curious enough to step into the garage to see what the hell was going on. You would think the roaring sounds of barely muffled 88 cubic inch internal combustion engine roaring inside your garage on a frigid December evening would peak ones curiosity. I’m assuming they just thought, “It’s just dad. Not my circus not my monkey.” and went about their evening.

The spinning back wheel finally caught traction and launched me forward into and through the framing and drywall that defined the space we called kitchen and garage. Knocking the cupboards free from their moorings and drywall dust billowing through the air like a bomb had gone off I made my unexpected entry into our kitchen. I burst into the house Harley and all. I’m not going to say my wife wasn’t startled but after taking in what had actually just happened and recognizing that most likely the only thing I had broken was my pride she actually returned to doing dishes. I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying as she resumed her task but maybe I’m better off not knowing.

To this day I’ve held on to the idea that some fantasies are better off not acted out and I live my life accordingly. It’s good to have dreams in life. It’s also good to employ a little common sense.

Bless Your Heart

When I moved to Virginia, Northern Virginia, I always balked at the idea that I had moved to the South. Northern Virginia feels nothing like the South according to southern hospitality magazines and the memories I hold of living deep in Louisiana. I find refuge in that. Whenever the question comes up I prefer to say I live in DC. We all know the stereotypes: southern hospitality is particularly warm, sweet, and welcoming, Southerners are God-fearin’ church goin’ people. Manners are paramount and traditions are sacrosanct. These are the stereotypes Southerners like to employ. Oh, and football. Southerners like to claim their football fanaticism distinguishes them from all others as if that were some sort of relevant virtue. OK. Whatever.
I’m struggling to reconcile the “us verses them” animosity I feel for my American brethren who brandish southern pride as a badge of honor. It’s all a problem between my own ears. I just don’t buy into the idea that southern charm is uniquely southern. The southern accent maybe adds some warmth to uttered courtesies but I’ve never found a kind word or gesture less genuine because it originated from a Yankee. Rather I find the ways of the south hypocritical. Bless their heart.
In case you didn’t know, when a southerner says ”bless your heart” they are likely telling you they think you’re an idiot and they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Then, for all the God fearing and family values they espouse, southerners continually support the politics of white privilege and the symbolism of our sordid slavery history. They talk of states rights and economic realities of the time to justify the single most atrocious time in our history. As if everyone else participating in human bondage meant they had no choice but to enslave people to make their business plans viable.
I went to college in the early 1980’s in Louisiana. The anti-apartheid movement was a big thing in those days. I tried to lead a divestment of South African investments movement at my university. I found myself shunned by my white friends and my black friends would not meet my eye. They couldn’t afford to be associated with my effort. I held three information meetings in the student union to organize the movement. Not one soul ever showed up. One friend told me he appreciated what I was trying to do but urged me to be careful. A white friend, whom I’d always found charming and gracious pulled me aside and told me, “You know Chris, one thing we hate is when a Yankee comes along and tells us we have to love niggers.” That ended that friendship.
Perhaps that one period of my life hardened my heart to southern charm. I saw racial tolerance on campus analogous to the duck gliding across a pond while beneath the surface all sorts of struggle and exertion frantically fought to make everything look fine. So now, when I see rebel flags freely floating in the breeze, I recognize things aren’t fine. When all of the southern states voted for Muslim bans, border walls and the rolling back of civil rights I see nothing charming. There is nothing warm, sweet or welcoming about any of that. Seeing that sort of ideology openly supported is like forcing our head under water where we must confront the struggle and exertion of racial tension and hatred. Maybe that’s a good thing. I just hope we can hold our breath for long enough.

A Toothpaste Metaphor

I remember my dad telling me a story about some people he knew getting a divorce over how to squeeze a tooth paste tube. That just seemed like the craziest thing to me. The man liked to squeeze the tube in the middle and the woman liked to squeeze her tube from the end. It didn’t make any sense! I must have been ten or eleven years old the time I heard the story. At that age it seemed so obvious that if this issue truly was irreconcilable the solution was simple. His and hers tubes of tooth paste could have saved that marriage. Nobody listens to kids. IMG_0161
It’s funny how stories like that stick with you. My wife is one of those evil middle of the tube squeezers. It never occurred to me to get angry about it. I simply squeeze the tube from the end like I would anyway and I eliminate all signs of her past transgression. I’m fairly certain that she doesn’t begin each day looking at the tube of toothpaste and screaming to the ceiling, “Damn you Chris! You’ve erased all of the evidence that I stand against conformity and civility by squeezing the tube from the end!” At least I’ve never heard her say such a thing. I suppose I should ask if it bothers her. I suppose it’s no more impossible that she has lived in anguish with that annoying habit of mine, squeezing the toothpaste from the end, for thirty five years, than someone would actually divorce over it. Things could be boiling to a head and I don’t even know it. (My wife would like me to point out that she understands I am somewhat OCD. I’m not sure why she insisted I add this point while editing.)
I suppose that particular divorce was more about spite than anything else. If it were anything else my solution as a boy or the one I employ as a devoted husband would have been enough. I don’t know if that particular couple had children or not. If they did, I would imagine that has more to do with our current state of affairs than anything. We seem to find more satisfaction in political victories than solutions these days. I hope that couple went on to find happiness in their lives. I’m the sort who needs a partner to share my life with. “Live and let live” is an idiom that originated in the trenches during WWI. It was a coping mechanism to facilitate conflict avoidance. It was born of the ideal that while facing arduous circumstance unity was required to succeed against a greater evil. We need more of that. It doesn’t really matter where we squeeze the toothpaste.

 

The Dignity Of Labor Through A Son’s Eyes

As I mowed my lawn in the ninety degree heat Saturday I watched the lawn service trucks moving through my neighborhood. With sweat getting in my eyes I fantasized about the luxury of allowing a crew to do my work. There are three reasons I dismissed the notion. First, I actually like mowing my lawn. Second, I was raised to do the work in capable of doing and finally I find great comfort in the reminder that I come from working class roots.
I do love to mow. The combination of the smell of fresh cut grass, the sun shining on my shoulders and the instant gratification of seeing my lawn transform with each pass is, in its own way, intoxicating. There is an almost spiritual element IMG_0152associated with tending God’s green earth, the proverbial hands in the earth thing. I grew up in Iowa and there is a great respect for farmers born in the gratitude of their hard work and bountiful harvests. In some small way the attention I show my landscaping brings me closer to my agrarian heritage.
My parents were raised feeling the economic hardships of the depression. They never stated as such but I sense they thought it foolish to pay someone else to do what one was capable of doing themselves. There’s nothing wrong with providing opportunities for others as a means to defer tasks one might not enjoy. My opinion is that a man’s character can in part be measured by his willingness to do what needs to be done. As much as I love to mow; would I prefer to be out on my Harley or purusing the local farmers market? Yes. Yet somehow those activities are a little sweeter after I’ve completed my chores. A side benefit is that mowing my lawn racks up over 7,000 of the standard 10,000 steps fitness standard.
The final reason I may never pay anyone to mow my lawn comes from respect for my father. My dad was the CEO of IMG_0153Clayton’s DX, a two bay neighborhood gas station where my grandpa and I, after my older brother, served as his only employees once I was old enough and outside of school hours. Anyone who has spent time around an auto shop knows there are few professions more physically challenging. It’s heavy dirty work that is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. My dad did that ten hours a day, six days a week and then would come home, do his books and attend anything and everything that was required to maintain our home. He never complained. He never required down time or alone time. For him, life’s value was found in being with those he loved and attending to their wants and needs.
I think in my dad’s best year he cleared $18,000 and yet somehow I don’t recall ever wanting for anything. I have the luxury of a job I love and the freedom from any real money concerns. I think my dad never questioned his state in life AD02B0D8-179D-4900-97D7-A0A53AC9003Bbecause he was driven by duty and found honor in providing a safe, joyful and loving home. I think of him often when I mow. I remember the silly straw hat with the red bandana he wore when he worked in the yard. I still have that hat. I don’t wear it because if I breath deeply enough I imagine I can still smell the sweet aroma of his hard work.

Do Black Lives Matter?

 Dontre Hamilton
 Eric Garner
 John Crawford III
 Michael Brown Jr.
 Ezell Ford
 Dante Parker
 Akai Gurley
 Tamir Rice
 Rumain Brisbon
 Jerame Reid
 Samuel DuBose
 Brendon Glenn
 Freddie Gray
 Natasha McKenna
 Walter Scott
 Christian Taylor
 Akiel Denkins
 Gregory Gunn
 Alton Sterling
 Laquan McDonald
 Jamar Clark
 Philando Castile

This is just a partial list of unarmed blacks killed by police over the last few years. If the list had one name it would be too many. Enough! How do we have a reasonable discussion about something so unreasonable? How do I teach my youngest son to respect the police when these actions are so un-respectable? IMG_0144How do I look my black friends in the eye and not feel shame? I didn’t ask to be born white anymore than they asked to be born black. I have no words to explain to them how painful this is. I have no perspective to understand how they must feel. I have no comprehension of what they might think every day when they get in their car to go to work or the grocery store or to pick up their kids from school when a patrol car appears in their rear view mirror.

There are those who read these stories who figure the victim did something wrong, anything wrong, or they wouldn’t have been killed. There are others who are just happy there is one less black life on the planet. Some find these stories sad but then move on. Some are outraged but figure there is nothing to be done about it. And then there are those who have lost all trust and respect for the police and hatred is boiling up inside. How do we reconcile any of this?

I am a proud supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. I don’t approve of all that has been done by a few individuals in its name but the legitimate basis of the movement and its tenets are held close to my heart. I bristle and feel embarrassment for those who would retort “all lives matter” in response to hearing Black Lives Matter. That has nothing to do with the ideals behind Black Lives Matter. Of course all lives matter but you can not tell me all lives matter if you can not say black lives matter. Can we agree on that?

There are two things I believe need to happen. First, we need accountability for any officer who would kill any unarmed person. Period. I don’t even care if they are resisting. Something short of lethal force is demanded. Second, I want to see law enforcement take the stand that the killing of unarmed people is unacceptable. I want to hear them condemn the actions of those who act as judge, jury and executioner.

The victims, families and communities affected by police violence have lost the foundational right to feel safe in our society. Imagine you were in those shoes. How might you react? What irreparable harm might scar your heart and psyche if you could not trust those entrusted to protect you? Do you think that is hyperbole? I think the victims families might disagree. We should feel fortunate we do not know that feeling and afford our deepest compassion for those who do. So I’m asking that the next time this happens, and it will, consider the whole story. And when a community takes to the streets to demand justice, have empathy instead of contempt. You would appreciate the same if our place was reversed.

Reaping What We Sow

In the movie Citizen Kane, the protagonist was born of austere means and rises to achieve world class wealth and power. At the end of his life, Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane, realized that he got everything wrong. In a flash of deathbed clarity, he recognized what symbolized the only true happiness he had ever known. The story unfolds as a reporter tries to find the IMG_0143meaning of his enigmatic last word: “Rosebud.” It’s a story of lost youthful idealism. Rosebud was the simple wooden sled Charles would ride as a care-free boy, perhaps too busy having fun to realize he was poor.
Nobody would ever know the secret of Rosebud. Even when they had Rosebud in their hands. They couldn’t see it and tossed it into an inferno. They couldn’t see it because they didn’t know what they were looking for. It was a shame that Charles needed to be on his deathbed to finally recognize a truth that could have been his most significant contribution of value to the world. It was a bigger shame that he had lead his life in a way that nobody could have ever imagined his secret could be so profound. And the biggest shame of all is, what likely blinded everyone to the secret of Rosebud was, the same thing that kept the truth from Charles Foster Kane. We value the wrong things.
By all accounts Charles personified the American dream. And yet at that most lonely hour, where he contemplated his life achievements for meaning, his life came up short. Brooks Brothers wrapping might cover a man’s character to the outside world but a cover can work both ways. Blind ambition kept Charles from finding fulfillment in the moment it mattered most. It should be our greatest fear that we would take our last breath with regrets. I don’t want to live anything like Charles. And I certainly don’t want to die like him. I contemplate what drives happiness in my own life. It always comes back to times when I’m more focused outward than inward. Those times when I can afford peace, love and light.
We need more peace, love and light these days. Maybe it would be good for all of us to examine what it might look like if we purposefully pursued satisfying and well lived lives. We all do that to some extent, unconsciously. We intuitively try to be good people. But how often do we actually contemplate and plan to lead richer and more meaningful lives? Think how impactful it might be if we devoted time and energy to making the world a better place for the people around us. Or Rosebud.

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