On Leaving a Legacy

Last weekend, I lurked around the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, watching as hopeful attendees took classes and faced dreaded pitching appointments with editors and agents.

When you walk through those halls, you can almost feel the weight of all the ambitions and hopes, from the multi-published author struggling with doubt to the aspiring novelist who clings to a dream that seems impossible to the writer who’s facing rejection or anxiety or comparison.

And it reminded me of the tower of Babel and a hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton3

If the second half of that sentence sounds strange, then you’ve probably never heard of Broadway megahit Hamilton. I can’t universally endorse it if you’re bothered by strong language, but the story is compelling, the word play is ridiculously clever, and Washington’s cabinet meetings are rap battles.

Thematic Cliff Notes (no spoilers): Hamilton struggles throughout with a desperate need to leave a legacy, one that drives him to work harder than his peers…and neglect his family and make some incredibly stupid choices. “I am y throwing away my shot” and “Just you wait” are his constant, almost desperate-sounding refrains. He’s determined to make a name for himself, whatever the cost.

In contrast, I give you George Washington: “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory. You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

Hamilton1

Hamilton2

I’m seriously considering making business cards with these two quotes on them.

Of the two characters, guess who has the best perspective on this one? (more…)

How To Be Outraged at the Right Things

Confession: I saw exactly none of the Olympics, since we use our TV entirely for Netflix and watching movies.

Like those people who try to summarize plots of books without having read them, what I know of the Olympics is basically: Michael Phelps made a funny face, trampoline is an actual event, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team was awesome, and people are racist, sexist, or both because they condemned Gabby Douglas’s alleged bad attitude while shrugging off Ryan Lochte’s alleged vandalism and perjury.

DouglassLochte

My response to that last one was…maybe. Maybe not.

But I’m pretty sure it showed that we have a problem with our cultural expectations for others.

Think about it. The reason we are outraged by something is because it goes against what we think ought to happen.

When we are outraged and probably shouldn’t be, it’s often because we take something true (“Parents should watch their children carefully. Animals shouldn’t be treated with cruelty.”) and use those truths to completely overreact to a situation we think shouldn’t have happened (“The evil zookeepers who shot the poor, defenseless gorilla and the incompetent mother who let her kid wander into the cage are criminals and horrible people.”).

When we should be outraged about something and aren’t (say, abortion, or another politician is caught lying) it’s usually because it doesn’t affect us personally or we expect it to happen and go on happening. (more…)

When You Wish You Could Go Back

If you’re anything like me, at least once in your life, you’ve wished for time travel. Not in the wow-I-want-to-meet-Abraham-Lincoln sense or the woo-let’s-go-kill-Hitler sense, but the kind where you remember a great time in your life you’d like to relive…especially compared to where you are right now.

Not really for any of these reasons either.

Not really for any of these reasons either.

I was thinking about this phenomenon recently, and decided it’s not necessarily bad. But never underestimate the capacity of the human race in general and me in particular to take a neutral trait, attitude, or action and make it sinful.

For an example, let’s go back. Way, way back to the post-Exodus Israelites wandering in the wilderness. They’re having a nostalgic moment. Sort of. (Please read the following in the voice of a whiny middle schooler for proper effect.)

“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

This was a bit of a rosy-colored view of the land they’d left behind. Particularly since they were, you know, slaves. Under a Pharaoh who killed their newborn sons and considered them as disposable as the mud bricks he used to build his enormous pyramids and palaces.

Later, the Israelites, never short on drama, take up complaining again: “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”

Answer: No, no it would not be better.

Longing for Egypt is marked by dissatisfaction—comparing now to then and listing off all the things that were better, complaining about how we never should have left, questioning God’s goodness because he brought us where we are now.

It’s grumbling about all you’d do if the kids weren’t holding you back, peeling out of the church parking lot with resentment and comparison of the pastor to your perfect ideal, lingering on the Facebook profile of an old flame to imagine what ifs, numbly flipping through photos when you were younger, prettier, happier and trying to place yourself there, just for a moment. (more…)

Four Ways to Be Like Jesus During Election Season

Much like Christmas, election season shouldn’t really even be a thing. It can start to feel like a drawn-out commercialized greed-fest full of noisy ads and mailings and hype, and by the time the day arrives, you collapse in exhaustion and wonder what’s so great about it in the first place. (And with elections, you don’t even get cookies.)

We'll take an opinion poll on that.

We’ll take an opinion poll on that.

Granted. I’m with you 100%. But since we’re stuck with another three months of this, we might as well give a little thought to how we should live in the middle of it.

I am not God, so I can’t say for sure, but I think it is very, very likely that God cares more about how you talk about politics in the months leading up to this election than who you actually vote for. Why do I say this?

Because A. God cares about your heart, and what you say comes out of your heart B. the one standout characteristic of Jesus’ followers is supposed to be our love for each other and C. the object of our lives is to bring glory to Christ, and how we behave in front of a watching world says more about who God is than a hole we punch in a voting booth.

Here are some thoughts on applying “What Would Jesus Do?” not to your vote, but to your life in the meantime.

Show grace.

Even if someone else does not. You can’t control their words or reactions, only yours.

I sometimes think of myself as a hostage negotiator when entering controversial real-life or online exchanges. Civility is being held captive, and I have to talk the hostiles down by convincing them to free common decency. For truth, justice, and a more gracious society! [Theme music here.]

This is not normal and may not work for you if you don’t subscribe to my particular brand of melodrama. But the point is, showing grace is hard. I fail at it all the time, because the way I act doesn’t line up with the things I say I love.

In theory, I love truth. In reality, I love being right. (more…)

Why Being Tired Is Not Enough

It’s still four months until the presidential election, and I’m ready to start a political party called “Sanity” and hold rallies for it. By myself. With no slogans or controversies in sight.

Every day seems to bring a new headline of something horrific happening in the world, followed by discussions of why this is worse than that, how X led to Y which will eventually lead to really awful Z, and who, today, we should be yelling at.

I am tired of the petty meanness of the world.

I’ve heard the term “empathy fatigue,” and I wonder—is that what happens when you fall into a routine of graceless social media, endless politics, relentless suffering? When you look at a calendar booked solid with red Xs marking out bad news and realize you won’t have a vacation from it until Jesus comes back? When there are bruised and beaten people on the side of every road, and you are one Samaritan with a cart and a donkey…and you’d rather pass along on the other side and forget by immersing yourself in a smaller world—your family, career, social media, Pokémon Go—anything you feel you can control?

There is so much noise, and all I want is quiet, just for a little while.

But when I pull away from the chatter and clamor to listen, I realize: I am tired of the petty meanness of myself. That’s why I hate it so much outside of me, because I see it and it is familiar. And that startles me. I don’t like admitting it.

Sometimes I walk around like a mass of prickling jealousies and resentments, easily offended and often offensive because I care about myself more than you. Even when I keep it hidden, I can feel it under the surface. I am prideful and judgmental and vain. I want what I can’t have and take for granted what I do have. I don’t care where I should and care too much where I need to just let it go.

That’s important to admit, I think, instead of pointing to all of that awfulness out there—those other people who make bad decisions and come to stupid conclusions and lack compassion—and pretending you’re not part of it.

But even that is not enough, being tired with the world and yourself. (more…)

Should Christians Play Pokémon Go?

Confession: I feel extravagant when I buy a box of brand-name Cheez-Its.

Blame it on genetics. I come from a long line of thrifty (not cheap) ancestors. This means that when I’m thinking about making a purchase, I have a hard time spending money unless I absolutely need it. (“New shoes? These are fine. I can color over the scuff marks with a Sharpie and make them last another year.”)

Which is why I had a hard time deciding to buy this awesome-but-overpriced-and-completely-impractical pin that references my favorite Pixar character.

GrapeSoda

I eventually did because my twin sister Erika, also a recipient of these thrifty genes, said something interesting: “I figure, if something brings me tiny bits of joy and happiness whenever I see it, it was worth the cost even if it serves no practical purpose whatsoever.”

For context: we are not talking about anything extravagant here, people, nor anything super-spiritual. When she made this statement, my sister was referring to her Batman-themed dress and Darth Vader antennae topper. (I am not joking.)

So what does that have to do with Pokémon Go? (more…)

Of Course All Lives Matter. But…

This is a story about racial discrimination and a white policeman. Also a gold pocket watch.

(If you’re breathing a sigh of relief that this isn’t about the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile shootings, sorry. We’re getting to that later.)

Alton

Back up a century and a half. Welcome to Boston, 1854. The Fugitive Slave Law has been passed, making every black person in America a potential target. So long as a white man attests that you’re his slave in front of a judge, he can haul you to the South as his property.

Boston’s abolitionist community immediately forms a group called the Boston Vigilance Committee, with black and white members. They create diagrams of maneuvers to fight off slave catches, hold secret meetings, put up melodramatic posters warning Boston’s black citizens of the danger, and so on.

One of the white men, Joseph Hayes, a prosperous Boston citizen, gets this idea: wouldn’t it be handy if the Vigilance Committee had a spy inside Boston’s police force? Everyone thinks this is very clever, so Hayes switches careers and becomes an officer.

Only a few months later, a young Boston runaway named Anthony Burns is arrested, given a hearing, and ordered to be taken back to slavery in Virginia. Because the 2,000 federal troops the president ordered to Boston to escort one black guy to the docks wasn’t nearly enough, Boston’s police officers are mobilized to keep order in the streets, including Joseph Hayes.

Obviously, he refuses, and rather than obey the order, he resigns his position. He gets his old job back, and life moves on…but Anthony Burns is hauled away in chains while basically the whole city of Boston watches in varying degrees of outrage, curiosity, or apathy.

Probably looking for a headline to make this whole drama less depressing, a newspaper picks up on the Joseph Hayes story. “Policeman of Integrity Resigns Rather Than Commit Atrocity,” and so on. Then another writes a story. Then another. Soon, Joseph becomes a bit of a five-minutes-of-fame hero. Fan mail pours in, everything from a gushing letter signed by seventy-one ladies from Maine to a commendation from Charles Sumner himself, the most famous anti-slavery senator at the time. Gifts arrive, including money, an engraved silver tray, and a gold pocket watch, to reward a brave man for his “magnanimous example.”

Meanwhile, Anthony Burns’s pastor spends the next eight months trying to track Anthony down (he was sold away in secret) and scrape together the money to buy him back and bring him home. Everyone else has forgotten him. They love to throw his name around in rhetoric, but they have no idea what actually happened to him, nor do they care.

This made me mad.

For context, this little incident is set during a time when beating, raping, and killing black people was common (and in slave states, totally legal).

And here I am, talking about a pocket watch.

The (mostly undeserved) celebration of Joseph Hayes while Anthony Burns was ignored is a tiny little injustice that hardly deserves a footnote compared to the evil of slavery and racism at the time.

But it made me think: what if we can tell the depth of a cultural problem by how the “good guys” react to it?

Joseph Hayes made the right choice. The groups who celebrated that choice were mostly white Christians who appreciated his story. Everything they said was true, and nothing they did was wrong.

But did it really help the problem?

Which brings us to today.

I am grateful for the police officers who protect our country, who have to make hard choices, who risk their lives to keep us safe. I know that not all policemen are corrupt or racist. In fact, the number of those who are is likely very small. I’m aware that not all of the details about these particular incidents have come out yet and they are still under investigation.

However, after the recent shooting of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I’ve seen lots of white, Christian people like me saying things that I don’t think are especially helpful. And I’m wondering…

Is now really good time for white Christians to talk about the heroism and incorruptibility of most white cops, even if that’s true?

What does a counter of “All lives matter” actually contribute to the discussion when it seems like black lives are the ones at risk?

It's kind of like this.

It’s kind of like this.

Are we going to consider the possibility that there might be injustice happening, or will we shut down that conversation before it has a chance to start?

Today, I am Joseph Hayes, a white outsider with deep convictions about injustice. Maybe you are Joseph Hayes too. Or maybe we’re both just one of the seventy-one ladies in Maine reading about this in the newspaper and reacting to it. Regardless, this is the history we’re living. These are the issues we’re facing right now. Not all evil and discrimination is in the past.

Yes, we need to be careful not to generalize and make assumptions about anyone, white or black. We need to hear the stories, look at the statistics, and examine them carefully to come to conclusions.

But I also think we need to be careful about how we talk about tragedies like this. If we praise genuinely good policemen while black people are suffering and afraid, we risk minimizing injustice. In some ways…we contribute to it.

So what do we do?

Practically…I have no idea, although I’m starting to think about this and do research. (Feel free to recommend articles or resources in the comments if you have them.)

But one thing I do know is that ideas have consequences, and the way we talk about things matter. So if you’re looking for a place to start, care about violence and discrimination against people of color. And be careful how you talk about it in the public square, on Facebook, in your churches, in comments on blog posts and news articles.

It’s not a matter of pinning blame or parsing statistics. It’s realizing that power can corrupt, injustice breaks God’s heart, and our black brothers and sisters live with fears and struggles we’ll never have to deal with.

We affirm that all lives matter when we take the time to defend the lives of others and hear their stories.

Listen. Learn. And then speak, but speak with grace. That’s what we’re called to do as Christians.