Taking on the Sin of the World

A personal confession and lament

One of the things Christians learn growing up is that Jesus “took on the sin of the world.” It is a way we talk about what happened on the cross, a way the biblical writers chose to make sense of the violence that occurred to their Lord.

Christians have also been told that we should seek to imitate Christ.

I have wrestled with these twin ideas my entire life. In seeking to reconcile them, I have made many choices I otherwise would not have. I have been compelled to stand and speak and live with sisters and brothers I otherwise would not have. I have sought, and continue to seek, to disrupt whatever White Supremacy is operative in my life and work. I do what I can, when I can, as often as I can. I was privileged to be taught the lesson my friend Derrick writes about a long time ago. I work on this every day. I fail every day. I work on this every day.

I have to work on this every day because my personality type (INFJ) presents a challenge. I am an “empath.” This is not a made-up, superhero thing. It is a very real reality of my life that I “absorb” almost any emotion I come in contact with. If you and I meet up and you are in despair or angry, I “absorb” it and it wrecks me. It doesn’t have to be IRL, either. Scrolling Facebook and Twitter is enough.

More than simply being affecting, it is all too often a crippling phenomenon. If the emotions are strongly negative, I become despondent. I am incapable of thinking clearly or acting decisively. Introverted Feelers call this empathy overload.

Empathy overload is why I and others like me are so quick to establish strong personal boundaries. It’s why we are often maniacal about self-care. It’s also why we appear aloof or detached. What people interpret as cold and uncaring is actually the opposite: We care so deeply it is painful. Physically painful. This isn’t hyperbole or metaphor.

Yesterday, another unarmed Black man was shot. His name was Terence Crutcher. He was in distress, stalled on the side of a road, and he was shot because he looked like a scary “big bad dude.” I confess to quickly scrolling past the video on Facebook. I’ve seen that flick before. I can’t bring myself to see it again.

And yet: To be called as a disciple of Christ means imitating Christ. It means taking on the Sin of the World.

And then among all the links to the video and articles about it I see that my friend Denise is scared to ask her husband to run an errand.

To run an errand.

If you want to know what the Sin of the World is, that’s it. Right there. And now I am scared, too. Not in the same way, no. But I am scared for my friend. I feel it in my body, and I can’t stop crying.

Because of this and other hard and horrible things happening to people I love, I am on empathy overload. But I have got to find a way to take it all on. I have got to find a way to bear this Sin of the World in my body so that I can imitate Christ and participate in the healing of the world.

Oh Lord, hear my prayer.

 

I’m halfway dead

842809104When I turned 20, I had an existential crisis. I had been alive for two decades, and I couldn’t think of a single thing I’ve contributed to the world. I consoled myself that I was only 20 and had spent all of my self-aware years in school, so there was no reason I should have made a mark on the world yet. The pressure was off, then, but it’s back, now. I turn 40 tomorrow.

I spend every single day trying to figure out how I can (as Steve Jobs used to say) make a dent in the universe. If I’m going to take up space on this planet, I want to do something worthy of it. I want to affect masses of asses. I want people’s lives changed, and for the better. But I’d settle for amusing people, honestly.

I never thought I’d be the guy who turned 40 and freaked out, but here I am. Half my life is, statistically, gone. The average life expectancy for a male born in the United States in 1976 is 76.2. As it stands, I will live until just before Christmas 2052. That’s just not enough time.

What’s funny is I’ve been telling people how terribly excited I am about my 40s, and I’m not lying. I feel like I’m in that sweet spot where I know enough to do things I want to do and still have enough energy to do it. I really feel like I could take on the world. Except for selfishness or incompetence, there is nothing stopping me.

But then there is this gnawing feeling of dread. I feel so aware of time and it’s passing. I’ve never felt that before in my life. How many more opportunities do I have to strike out and be an artist, truly and purely an artist? I don’t know and it freaks me out. At the same time, I’ve got a job I love with people I love that allows me to grow and mature and learn and create, and (unless I really want to jump off the career cliff) it’s a place I can probably stay at for a very long time.

I also have a very healthy, big family and good, good friends. I try to be kind and giving, as well as forgiving when required. I’m not lacking in the relationship department. I will not be that guy on his deathbed wishing he had spent more time with the ones he loved.

In truth probably what worries me the most is that I’m having such a reaction to it. I’m showing all the typical signs of a mid-life crisis. That’s ridiculous. I’m not really unsatisfied in life, yet I feel like it. What is that about?

So, I’m now more than halfway dead. I’ve done some good things, and learned a lot of lessons. But I’ve still got a ways to go, and I don’t want to waste it.

Taking up space

manspreading-2Lady and I took the boys to the Land of Goodness and Light (aka: IKEA) last weekend to get some housewares. Uno had gone off to college, and the three remaining kids underwent “The Great Move” into new rooms.

IKEA is a navigational gem. You walk one way through the entire store. No one is a salmon swimming upstream. But it is also a frustrating experience because, well, people walk at different speeds. They clog up the pathway when a bright shiny object catches their eye and they stop to gander at it.

So the boys and I had gotten ahead of Lady because she had stopped to gander, and we needed to wait for her. I pulled the cart into an aisle off the main path, but the boys were being boys and loafing in everyone else’s way. So we had to have a talk about “taking up space.”

“A lot of people, and especially men, take up a lot of space in the world,” I told them. “They are unaware of everyone else around them, and many of them don’t care. They just stand there, and almost dare people to get them to move. It’s ridiculous, so listen to me. This is important: We’re not going be the kinds of guys who take up a lot of space, okay? We’re gonna be the guys who make sure other people have the space to do what they need to do. Got it?”

“Got it.”

Hillary Clinton was recently featured on Humans of New York, and an article reflecting on the piece noted:

…to be an ambitious women is to be a threat. To be seen, by many men, as taking up space where a man should be. A man who is more deserving, merely by virtue of his manhood.

I want my boys to not be threatened by women who are deserving. I want them to do their best and offer their gifts to the world, but I also want them to learn to get out of the way. I hope my boys learn to transfer the lesson about taking up physical space to taking up metaphorical space.

Thank you, Ava and Donald.

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When I graduated Louisville Seminary in 2005, I had an opportunity to take a job in town with a non-profit doing interfaith work. It was a job I thought I’d be at for a long time (turns out, it wasn’t), so Lady and I made plans to settle into Louisville. To become Louisvillians.

It was an exciting prospect for me. I love Louisville a lot. I call it “my second hometown” every time I return for some function or other at Presbyterian Church headquarters. I like that I get to walk the streets there in a different way than my other out of town colleagues. Those are my streets. I’ve beat that pavement before.

Part of living in Louisville involved buying a home.

The semester before graduation, I got to take one final class with the man I call my “theological father,” Dr. Stephen Ray. I had taken at least one class with him every year I was there, and my final experience was “Black Theology.” During that semester I was introduced to Howard Thurman, James Cone, Katie Cannon, and others. It is not an understatement to say it permanently reconfigured my worldview, and informs my work, still, to this day (I pray, faithfully).

I learned two basic things in that class:

  1. God is chiefly concerned about the lives of people who have been historically oppressed and marginalized. In order to understand the work of God, one must center that work in the people who (in Howard Thurman’s words) have “their backs against the wall.”
  2. Theology concerns the answering of real questions, born of a real, lived life.

To that end, when I graduated and we had the opportunity to purchase a home, I asked Dr. Ray to help us think about how to make that decision. How did I bring to bear all I had learned in seminary to the simple question of: “Where should I live?” That is a theological question.

We ended up buying a home in the so-called “West End” of Louisville, and ours was the only Caucasian family for blocks. It was the same neighborhood in which our oldest attended elementary school (Louisville used to have a pretty extensive busing system) so we were already familiar with the area. But it was a learning challenge – I’ll not lie – in discovering what it meant to be a person of obvious privilege on that block. Eventually, however, we found ourselves at home. We were loved and included by our neighbors. If we had not moved back to Kansas City, I only imagine those relationships would have deepened.

It wasn’t all roses. We had our garage broken into, and copper piping stolen. I almost got shot once. But it was a good home, in a good place, surrounded by good people. The corner of 23rd & Date took root in my heart so much that when we moved to our current home, I was physically uncomfortable for several years because there were so many white people.

And all of this is why I have been in tears the last two nights watching television. For the last two nights I sat and viewed Atlanta and Queen Sugar and felt, for the first time in a long time, like I was back home.

When I watched Auntie Vi and Hollywood, I was watching our neighbors Ann and Cavelle. They were the ones who had our extra house key, and I miss them. Watching little Blue reminded me of our friends D’nae and Toneisha, and how they would come to our house and play. I couldn’t stop the tears.

Seeing Earn and Paper Boi in the streets of Atlanta was everything. Donald Glover said he wanted the show to portray what it “feels like to be Black.” I won’t ever know what that feels like, but I do know he succeeded in transporting me to “my second hometown.” I know what that feels like. It was a rush of comfort born of familiarity. I felt a weight lift. I was glad my 15 year old was watching with me.

I’m sure I could wax for days about the artistic achievement of these two shows, and maybe I will. But I’ll save it for later. For now, I just want to sit in this feeling of gratefulness I feel for Ava DuVernay and Donald Glover.

Nope. You weren’t “just joking.”

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Lady and I watched the Comedy Central Roast of Rob Lowe the other evening, and it was as awful and beautiful as you imagine it was.

I say awful because the coin of the realm when it comes to a roast is “insult humor.” These jokes are brutal, and they’re not just directed at the so-called “Guest of Honor.” Everyone on the dais is fair game, and the jokes “go there.” Most of them are so brutal, I’m not even going to think about transcribing them here. Of the more tame ones, there were jokes about Peyton Manning being inferior to Eli, perennial roaster Jeff Ross’ weight, Ralph Macchio’s lack of fame, and my favorite:

I’m sorry. I don’t want to badmouth Jewel. God already did.

(In an entirely different category was the barrage of humor laden vitriol for Ann Coulter. Either she really is the Devil as most roasters suggested, or her publicist needs to be fired for booking her into that situation.)

But the Roast was also beautiful. It was beautiful because the point of a roast is to simultaneously honor someone while knocking them down a peg. If you are being roasted, it means you have lived an amazing and privileged life. Rob Lowe got that message in spades. It was clear these were people who enjoyed him, even though they were not above reminding him from whence he came. **COUGH COUGH SEX TAPE COUGH COUGH**

The same goes for anyone on the dais. If you show up there, you had better have a thick skin. And they did. To a one (well, except Ann Coulter, who clearly didn’t understand what was happening), they were able to laugh at themselves. You saw the recognition in their eyes. “Oh yes. I know this place. This is the place where I can’t pretend I’m something I’m not.”

I told Lady beforehand that her probable expressions of disgust would not be welcome. Roasts are exactly what they are. No one gets to insist on pity, nor does anyone get lambasted for their jokes. And no one was surprised by a single thing said, which is the point I keep coming back to: A roast only works because of the social compact surrounding it. Everyone involved has agreed to the rules. Everyone involved knows the score. And so, as odd as it might sound, amongst the brutal, disgusting, horrific name calling is safety and honesty.

And it’s the safety and honesty of the “comedy space” that makes it powerful. Comics are, in my opinion, the court jesters of our day. They get to say things to us that no one else can, because they are skilled at softening the blow. (OTOH, roasters are battle hardened; softening the blow would be an insult.) But us mere mortals need to remember a few rules:

  1. No one is ever “just joking.” There is no such thing as an “informal roast.” You’re just being mean.
  2. Don’t “joke the joke.”* Unless you’re playing the Dozens, you kinda look like a jerk by taking over your friend’s joke and “improving it.”
  3. Don’t “un-joke the joke.” Humor has its place because it often helps us deal with things we, otherwise, don’t know how to reflect on. Take your sour-puss seriousness elsewhere.
  4. Don’t explain your jokes. It’s not your fault they don’t get it.
  5. Puns and Dad Jokes are always in form. Always.

 

*h/t to Josh Molina, from episode 1.19 of The West Wing Weekly.

I triple dog dare you.

painting-459861_960_720A friend recently posted a photo on Facebook of a piece of art. It was a square canvas painted red, subtly shifting between a few different hues. His comment accompanying was:

I look at art like this and think: I could be an artist.

He’s not the first to make the comment. Buckets of ink and acres of digital real estate have been devoted to the question of what Art truly is. Heck, there was an entire play written about it.

But could we really be artists?

Art often looks easier than it is. To the untrained eye, it’s just brush strokes and words and steps. You take a few pieces and parts, throw ’em together, and  – viola! – art. Child’s play. Literally.

But Art is crafty. It’s more than we think, and the reason we’re not artists (most of us) is because we got into it and discovered there’s more under the hood than we thought.

My friend isn’t alone. We’ve all claimed that we could do something better, if not at least as good. And, the thing is: We’re probably right. But we’re just chicken.

So consider this your triple dog dare. Go make something. Put it out in the world. Be bold enough and subtle enough and refined enough that someone else is convinced they could do it, too. Because, hopefully, they will.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

One time I decided that writing a book wasn’t that hard, and that I could do it, too. So I did.

Take a knee

injured_bystrovColin Kaepernick’s silent protest continues. This time he has decided to take a knee. I resonate with Kaepernick’s actions and reasons strongly, but my compulsion is rooted in a different place than his own. Even as I affirm and agree with his reasons for protest, I have to acknowledge that my actions are born of theological education. My convictions are about the relationship between Church and State, about the Kingdom and the Empire.

I happen to stand during the singing of the national anthem, but do not remove my hat unless requested by the public address announcer. In no case, do I place my hand over my heart. I feel cowardish, but I paid to watch a ball game not a political rally. I’m a fan in the stands, and I don’t want to endure the anger of drunkards around me. I get nasty looks as it is. I like to think I’d act differently if I were in a position such as Kaepernick.

But what comes to mind as I read about Kaepernick’s recent action is how many times I’ve heard, from the sideline of one of my boys’ soccer games, to “take a knee.” Whenever a player is hurt, both coaches scream to their players to “Take a Knee!” It is a way of showing concern for an injury. It is a simple way to say what is happening to that player is important, and the game should not go on until they are shown to be okay.

I don’t think this is what was in Kaepernick’s mind as he took a knee last night (although it could have been), but I want to suggest that we would do well to view his kneeling as calling attention to the fact that our Body Politic is hurt and that we should actually all stop and attend to it until it shows us it’s okay.

And, in this case, it will only be okay when (in Kaepernick’s own words) the oppression of black people and people of color is a thing of the past.

I can do anything with nothing

My friend Rocky always writes the titles of his blog posts last.

First, make the thing. Then decide what to call it. If you start with the title first, how will you avoid making design choices to fulfill the expectations of some random name?…What you call something matters. What that thing actually is, though, matters more.

I’m the opposite. I have an entire list of blog post ideas in my journal. Whenever I think of something I’d like to flesh out, I jot it in my book. As I sit down to write, I pick one and go with it. And every single one of them is basically a blog post title.

Rocky’s caution is well founded. Don’t hem yourself in. Give yourself freedom to move. Avoid confirmation bias. It’s really the reason that I never titled sermons when I was a pastor (The bulletin was submitted on Tuesday. That’s a long way away from Sunday).

But…

Restrictions are good. Parameters are good. In fact, appropriately narrow specificity is the first best thing you can do to spur and ensure the creative process. Knowing what your resource limitations are is vital to even knowing what you can accomplish.

And when someone succeeds under these conditions, the payoff is huge. They start to believe they can do work in a variety of situations. It’s like what what we used to say in the college theatre with little to no budget:

We’ve done so much for so long with so little, that now: We can do anything with nothing.

Full disclosure: I wrote the title of this post last.

Being a “Single Point of Failure” is a problem, but not for the reason you think

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I had my annual performance review a couple days ago, so let me start by telling you that this is the day of my year I stress over more than any other. I’m not alone in this. You do, too. But this year’s review was – and I say this with no amount of hyperbole – pretty fantastic. Not only did I receive positive marks, but my reviewing committee helped me identify places to grow and conversed with me about possible avenues to attain it.

But what sticks with me from that couple-hour conversation was a phrase used by a committee member: “Single Point of Failure.” As in: “We’re glad to see you’ve delegated well this year, so as to eliminate yourself as a single point of failure.”

I’m shocked I’d never heard this term before. Wikipedia defines it as:

A single point of failure (SPOF) is a part of a system that, if it fails, will stop the entire system from working. SPOFs are undesirable in any system with a goal of high availability or reliability, be it a business practice, software application, or other industrial system.

I’ve always used the term “bottleneck” to describe the tendency for one person to slow down or stop work from happening effectively. But an SPOF is different. The key word is: failure. If one person goes down, it all goes down. Not cool, bro.

In my office, I manage four staff. Three of them are full time. So one might think that eliminating myself as the SPOF is good because it allows the other staff members to be able to do their jobs without worrying that my failure will derail their work. That is true, but I don’t think it’s the most important reason I, as a boss, should do it. Again, the key word is: failure.

I have a rock solid belief that failure is a positive thing. I quote the Silicon Valley startup mantra ad nauseam: “Fail Fast. Fail Often. Fail Forward.” I have literally told my staff that if they are not failing, it is evidence to me that they are not doing anything. It means they’re not, you know, actually working. And that’s cause for dismissal. Failure is the only way we learn. I want them learning lessons quickly and often, and not making the same mistakes repeatedly.

So here’s the deal: If I am the Single Point of Failure, I am being incredibly selfish because I am not making space for my staff to learn and grow. And, in my opinion, that means I’m not, you know, actually doing my job. And that, too, is cause for dismissal.

Dignity and Washing Machines

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To know me is to know a few things:

  1. I am a recovering BBQ fundamentalist, working on being a BBQ Pluralist.
  2. I like to give Texans a hard time (especially about BBQ).
  3. I think Corndogs, hotdogs, and McRibs are some of God’s most precious gifts to humanity (Before you start: McRibs are not about BBQ. They are about Love and Passion and Jesus). Fish tacos, on the other hand? No.
  4. I  believe design matters, particularly font and typeface choices (Yes, those are different, Silly).
  5. I am convinced socks and sandals are the height of good fashion sense.
  6. I am an introvert advocate.
  7. I have a self-understanding as a unique snowflake who has a special destiny to change the world.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, if I’m honest: It’s really that last one that rules my life. I am special. I am unique. There is no one like me. That said: I think school uniforms are a great idea.

I know it sounds weird, but school uniforms are one of the best things we can do for school age children. They offer a way for (especially) young kids to have a barrier to community removed. At least in this one way, we are all the same. When my oldest went to Kindergarten, he went to a school that required uniforms. It was a school that served a large number of kids from the low end of the socio-economic scale, and I witnessed first hand how everyone wearing the same clothes made a huge difference.

Which is why this article about a washing machine in a St. Louis school caught my eye, and made me very glad. Attendance and academic performance went up when it was discovered that kids weren’t coming to school because they were embarrassed by their dirty clothes. Makes total sense now that you think of it, doesn’t it?

A washing machine is not the end-all-be-all, but I am struck how I consistently hear stories that point out an increase in dignity leads to an increase in contribution and success.