TIPPING POINTS

Where are the tipping points?

I think the idea of “tipping points” is normally used in ways a bit different from how I am thinking today.  Oh, I am still thinking of tipping points, alright, but using the notion in ways I normally don’t see them used.  And, I expect to use the idea as it pertains to a number of hot issues.  Thus, when I say something that sticks in your craw (and in the post, there will be some of that for everyone, I think), I risk bogging down the discussion at any one of the illustrative points.

But this blog is branching out a bit.  I no longer blog strictly about Jesus vis-à-vis the homeless exactly.  While I try to stay with related topics, sometimes I get further astray than I am comfortable with doing, but race relations is another hot button, and as a conservative, white, male, I aim to graciously evaluate and reevaluate my place in those matters too.  And so, I will start by talking about race issues, but the idea of tipping points, as I will use it, covers a lot more than just that, and I will apply them to homeless ministry too.

White Police Officers and Black Lives Mattering

But most dramatically, I am looking at the trial of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd.  The video evidence against Chauvin is damning, but as we see in a court of law is not airtight.  There are arguments raised (whether they have merit or not is yet to be seen) which could explain away the incident.  We will know shortly, I trust, how a jury thinks about it.

Still, no matter which way the verdict goes, there will be at least some who see it differently.  The video evidence is very strong, but does it reach the tipping point where twelve jurors all agree on a verdict?

I remember how damning the Rodney King video seemed.  But I must confess that when I heard the officers were following their training, that did temper my judgment too.  I wasn’t ready to exonerate those cops, but I definitely could see a complication there which to my way of thinking mitigated culpability.  Question was: Did it move the tipping point?

It made me think that those cops should have had a moral fortitude to recognize that their training was not good on the one hand, and it made me think the person who authorized that training should be fired and maybe shot.  But, those ideas were not up for debate, on the one hand, and on the other, they complicate what appeared to be a straightforward abuse of power by police caught on a video.

The video a few years ago of Walter Scott, a black man running away from the cop, Michael Slager, seemed to finally pass the tipping point.  Slager got 20 years for what he did, and we know after the fact that he tried to cover it up.  A murder which might not have been premeditated in the fullest sense, but which the cop felt so licensed to commit that he casually committed it and tried to cover it up, and we have the clear video evidence which his best arguments could not overpower.

I am white enough, and I have worked in law enforcement enough, that even when I first saw the George Floyd video, I was hesitant to immediately find fault with the white cop.  However, I could plainly see he was very near the tipping point even for me.  I needed to know what was happening off camera.  It was my gut reaction.  I couldn’t believe this cop just woke up with such cold indifference for human life that he would just snuff a suspect like that in front of witnesses – witnesses obviously filming him!  All the more damning when no explanations materialize which could explain it away.

Amber Guyger supposedly thought she was defending her own home when she “mistakenly” shot and killed Botham Jean.  I had real sympathy with that one, and I don’t defend my home with a gun at all.  I think she was truly mistaken.  Shouldn’t she get a pass for making a simple mistake?  Well, a pass is asking a lot, but surely such a mistake could happen to nearly any of us who defend our homes with guns.  I recall a few years ago when my wife’s grandmother became deathly ill and no one could raise my mother-in-law on the phone late at night to inform her.  I dutifully was sent to her door to ask her to answer her phone.  But she didn’t answer the doorbell either, and I was tasked with punching in the security code on the garage door and entering her dark house to wake her up.  I knew as I did that I was a dark and strange figure moving around in her house late at night, and that she and her husband protect their home with firearms.  I was fortunate that she met me unarmed in the garage!  Guyger’s mistake was only slightly more complicated than my scenario!

I am pleased to see that Guyger was embraced by the victim’s brother.  That is a costly hug, but really the only peaceful way forward, I think.

Tipping points.

Here’s what I am thinking:  Derek Chauvin’s actions on that video really pushed the boundaries of policing.  Should he have restrained Floyd at all?  Well, I know from first hand experience that restraint is always a judgment call, and one that must be made quickly in most cases.  But once reviewed with hindsight, it is a necessary one more often than not.  I also know, from first hand experience, that once a person is restrained, their vital signs must be constantly monitored and restraint must be adjusted as needed to preserve life.  Restraint is not meant to be punishment nor deterrence for others. It is meant to preserve safety, actually.  I know these things both from repeated training and experience.  These are universal truths which the video of Chauvin and Floyd clearly demonstrate were lacking.

If you have a restrained detainee so overpowered that you can keep your hand in your pocket, then you need to loosen up a bit!

I am amazed that even the bystanders could plainly tell Chauvin he was killing Floyd.  Floyd’s opinion on the matter may have been accurate, but it was biased too.  But the bystanders, most (I presume) not having the training to restrain people that both Chauvin and I have had, clearly could see the need, and they spoke up, but Chauvin displayed indifference.

In my view (and I have not watched the trial with a close eye, so I am not trying to second guess the jury here), the video presents an extreme case.  We have reached the outer limits with this one.  If, and I am saying IF, if a jury determines Chauvin’s actions were legal and justifiable in some sense, there is certainly no way around the fact that he took his actions to the living end of legal limits.  (Personally, I think he passed the tipping point.)  In fact, if, and once again I am saying IF, his actions are determined justifiable, there will be policy reviews and changes after this to prevent this from happening again.

But this brings me to the other recent cop shooting of a black man (there are so many to choose from for examples that I cringe singling any one or two out) of Daunte Wright by Officer Kimberly Potter who, in my view, presents the other end of the spectrum in “mistaken” killings.  The video clearly shows an unintended action, poor split second decisions of life-or-death consequence, and her instant regret.  We ask this officer to protect us, to put herself in danger to do it, and to make life-or-death decisions on our behalf on a daily basis, and out of a reasonably good career, one where she is deemed capable of training others, she makes this fatal blunder.

Now she is charged, and perhaps rightly so, but this one seems to hug the other end of the culpability spectrum from Chauvin.  Chauvin’s cold indifference against Potter’s instant regret and honest mistake – these are what the videos tell us even before the lawyers pick them apart.

Here’s just one more bit of perspective you aren’t likely to find anywhere else: Way back in 1986, on a cold January morning, someone failed to properly assess the O-rings on the Challenger Space Shuttle, and that costly little mistake, which could have happened a hundred times on a hundred other launches without consequence, suddenly cost seven people their lives in one of the most spectacular events of the decade.  They should have known better too!

But this is race.  This is police.  And there are other layers and levels of pain vying for a place in this picture.  I have more sympathy for Potter than Guyger on this one and no sympathy for Chauvin.  I see the video, and even without a trial, I think she made an honest mistake.  I am betting there will be policy changes nationwide in the wake of that little mistake, but I think it was still an honest mistake.  I don’t want to see this woman crucified over it.

But one of those other layers vying for a place in this picture, the one that really resonates with me even as a conservative, white man with law enforcement sensitivities is this: It keeps happening to black men.

I still don’t want to see Potter crucified for it, but that observation really matters.

I think Wright should have submitted to the cops.  If he had, he would almost certainly be alive today.  I wonder why Adam Toledo, at only thirteen years old, is out on the streets with a gun in his hand at 2 am.  I am certain that if he had been home at that hour with no gun in his hand, he would be alive today.  I realize that at the split-second moment when he was shot, he no longer had the gun in his hand, but I still contend that if he had not been there at that hour, he would not have been killed.  And I think these observations have merit too.  I am a white man, but both my dad and my grandpa told me so many times the trouble they ever got into was merely because they were “in the wrong place at the wrong time” and thus it is important to learn to not do even that as best you can.  That proverb has probably saved my life many times over!

But even that is not a tipping point.  It is just a good proverb.  A rule of thumb.  It is not enough to justify killing Toledo at all, but it is good wisdom he should have observed. It would have saved his life.

Tipping points.

At what point is a police officer taking the life of a person justifiable?  We are now analyzing such questions down to the millisecond like armchair quarterbacks.  And perhaps we should.  But, for me the only reason we should is because black people have reached a tipping point where they now hold the police to account with video clips shared in the media.  This kind of thing, as the Slager video clearly demonstrates, could have been happening all too often with no accountability before video captured the injustice.  Even one Rodney King video wasn’t enough to cross the tipping point, but now that there are so many, and there is a BLM movement to deal with, we have passed some tipping points.

It happens to white men too, but not nearly as frequently.  There does seem to be aggregate racial element to it, and where to hold that to account is important to find out.  It needs to change.  Black lives do, in fact, matter.  Some of them are friends and family of mine!

Do You Give a Bum a Dollar?

Okay… But cop shootings are not the only place we find tipping points.  They just happen to be some of the more dramatic and contemporary.

What about serving the homeless?

You probably don’t see tipping points there, but I do.  We justify our concern (or lack of concern) for the homeless all the time with mythical language and categories.

Consider this: Would you give money to a beggar on the corner if he smelled bad, looked ragged and you could see a half empty booze bottle poking out of his coat pocket?

What if he was a veteran?

What if she appeared mentally ill?

What if he just got off work from your favorite restaurant and you noticed him through the kitchen door washing dishes?

We often speak of “the deserving poor” – those we deem honest, hardworking, but who through circumstances beyond their control find themselves down and out.  This category is in contrast to the undeserving, those who are lazy and wasteful, even ungrateful.  And we make judgments about homeless people we see on city sidewalks, often in split second decisions, and categorize them in these ways.

But each kind of person I listed above represents points along spectrums of culpability.  If a war vet returns home and cannot seem to adjust to civilian life, but for whatever reason has not committed suicide (as so very many do these days), what level of culpability do I need to demonstrate for you to turn your back on her?  She already put her life on the line for your freedom!  Even if she wastes your pocket change on drugs or booze, you owe her something.  Right?

Just how culpable is a mental patient in the throes of psychosis?  Can you turn your back on such a person in need?  What if he refuses your care?  Can you/should you turn your back then?  What if it’s going to freeze tonight, and you encounter this person whose mental state is so dangerous they wouldn’t be held to account for murder due to reason of insanity?  Aren’t you culpable if you turn your back then?

Do you know that many, many, many homeless people and beggars actually have jobs?  Yeah.  They might be mentally ill, down on their luck, vets, and even addicted, but a lot of them are not lazy at all.  Just mixed up… or maybe their job pays so little they can’t afford a home – or both.

Where is the tipping point on your care then?

What if that homeless person is your mother or brother?

If you knew your grown child was thrown out on the street with no money and no where to turn in a city many hours drive away from you tonight, would you hop in your car and go get them?  Would you bring them home to your home, feed, shelter, and love them?

What about a stranger?

Where is the tipping point in that?

No one ever analyzes those tipping points.  There are no Homeless Lives Matter movements.  The videos shared on YouTube of homeless people tend to either mock the poor and/or justify indifference or to tug at your heartstrings and get you to pay attention more, to care.  But they rarely compete for your attention with the level of interest as a police shooting.  (That seems like yet another tipping point inquiry.)

A Baptist/Hindu Tipping Point

Are you a Baptist?

Why?

Where was the tipping point in your becoming a Baptist?

Was it because you were raised in the church?  Were your parents Baptist?  Your best friends in school?  Was the Baptist youth group the one with the best ski trips?

Or was there a hellfire and brimstone sermon when you were nine years old that was so convicting you had to join the church?

Did you have a crisis of faith and “experience God” with Henry Blackaby?

Did you find a “purpose driven life” with Rick Warren?

Were you in prison when the Baptists brought you a Kairos service?

What was the tipping point?

Cuz, here’s the thing: If you had been born poor, and Hindu in India forty years ago, you would very likely NOT be Baptist today.  There were a number of circumstances and decisions on the parts of a number of people that led you to be Baptist.  And I just wonder where that tipping point was.

So many of the things we believe and the actions we do and the events we witness are so deeply affected by tipping points but without careful reflection and analysis they often seem immutable.

A Hate and Fear Tipping Point

How did so many white people LIKE ME come to view it as okay, acceptable, wise or even justifiable to storm the Capitol Building on January 6th and trample on the order of government under banners and flags suggesting they represent Jesus?  Did these “Christians” ever read Romans 13 and maybe tell others to obey the authorities and show respect?

Such was not the case with my grandpa’s generation.

What changed?  Where is the tipping point?

FUTURE HARVARD GRADS AND BELL TOWER SNIPERS

If there’s one thing Mother Mary and I both know, it’s that raising Jesus Christ is serious business.  The hopes and dreams for success, the college fund, and all the other sacrifices are worth it, but only in the most ironic way.  AND, that is all likely to be lost on God’s people, if we are not very, very careful.

Weird, I know.

Her name was Jesus Christ

A Christian brother, fellow minister, and good friend of mine from Arizona recently sent me a link to a blog featuring foster care.  The woman who writes that blog occasionally posts some very dramatic accounts of her work as a foster parent, and this one surely was one of those.  She tells of a child with autism who she takes to the store who then in a public setting announces to the clerk and fellow shoppers that she is Jesus Christ.  The autistic child claimed to be Jesus Christ amid mortifyingly bad behavior in public, and this woman humorously tells herself that she is raising Jesus Christ.

It’s tragic, funny, and prophetic – all three.

And true, for surely she is raising Jesus Christ in that child.

In the course of her analysis of the experience, this blog writer paints a picture of incredible love and sacrifice.  I find it helpful to read that stuff, because I feel a little less ALONE in this work.  Her post is heartbreaking and heart warming.  That too is a sign of Jesus Christ working in that blog.  But part of her analysis considers how so many of the kids are deeply traumatized by horrible physical abuse and drugs in their prenatal lives which leave lifelong scars that inhibit the likelihood of “success.”  In fact, she basically redefines success in the post.  This child with so many challenges may not be like your child scoring points on the field or making a high grade in school, but he showed kindness to his sister today, and we find that to be the fruit of a long and hard fought battle.

Yeah.

While you live vicariously through your child, pushing them to throw and kick a ball in hopes of righting some failure you had in school, some embarrassing moment from 20 years ago, raising these kids is something else.  It involves hoping they don’t drop an F-bomb in Bible class at church in the first grade class.  It means hoping they don’t touch themselves (or another kid) inappropriately while the teacher’s back is turned.  It means weighing the strategy of making excuses for a kid that isn’t really yours (easy to think that way) or providing cover claiming she is yours, and taking the heat for her as best you can.

Do you really want to come to our house for dinner and a game of cards Tuesday night?  Odds are good we will be interrupted by the obnoxious behavior of the children a dozen times during the meal.  Your kids will likely learn a couple bad behaviors from ours.  There might be property damage, or certainly you will see some.  But otherwise, we should have a really good time, I think.

My kids are all really good looking kids.  They don’t have my genes, they have someone else’s, and I start hoping they might make it as temperamental supermodels when they grow up, because I am too old to run interference for them all their lives, and like the lady blogger said in her post, they are not likely to ever be able to handle balancing a checkbook.

What is your hope for such a kid?

And yet, to know these precious people is to see value in them.  It’s not the kind of value you can put a dollar figure on, unless they become supermodels or rock stars, “successful” in fields where bad behavior is accepted and rewarded.  But, I can see where with uncommon support and patience, these little people actually have tremendous potential to grow up and offer important contributions to the world.  But without that uncommon support and patience, that potential, and all my sacrifice and work now, is at great risk of dying in a prison cell or a grave.

Mother Mary worked with something far greater, yet lived to see it all beaten down into a bloody pulp, then hoisted up in a shameful display of utter failure and death.

What am I working for here?

Well… I will tell you what.

It’s not a better social security system with the federal government.  It’s not a trust fund for my rich brats either.  And I am sure that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are either equipped or even desire to be the champions of the cause, so I won’t work to influence them either.

But…

I am working for a Jesus who loves these kids more than I do.  A Jesus who sees infinitely more value in them than you do.  A Jesus who brings his Kingdom Rule to this creation, and expresses it through his church.  And in that church, I hope to find uncommon support and patience for these children, especially after I am gone.  I hope to find Jesus in these kids and in the church and to bring them together with my life’s loving sacrifice.

I am calling for THAT, like a prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord.

I think that in Jesus’s hands (and feet), these little people can be special and actually have abundant life.

I sure hope my church sees it that way.

Who knows, my little future bell tower snipers just might graduate Harvard if they find the uncommon love and patience of Jesus in the Body of Christ for the rest of their lives.

Think about it.

I do.

THE CHASE

“Hide -n- Seek”

“Tag-your-it”

“Peek a boo”

All child’s play… Right?

But did you ever play: Seek and save the lost?

That might just qualify as Child-of-God’s play.

(But it might also sound just a bit nuts.)

I grew up in church.  I heard a lot of sermons.  I read a lot of books.  I saw some movies, watched some videos, attended some seminars.  I even went to Bible school for college degrees in Bible and religion.

But I never heard anyone talk about playing Peek a Boo with God.

And then Mrs. Agent X and I opened The Fat Beggars Home for Widows, Orphans, and Sojourners, and it was especially in tending to the orphans that I began to put these things together.  And the more I put them together with children, the more I see how meaningful these things are for the widows and sojourners, for the beggars, the bums, and the prophets too.  For all of us.

Did you ever play Peek a Boo with God?

Sounds almost ridiculous, I think, but give it a chance.  Think.  Really THINK about it.  Consider your own experiences and see for yourself some powerful ideas at work in the love we share which has impact for happiness, blessing, health and salvation.

Let’s talk:

The House of God where I live is full of babies. God invited every one of them to come live here, and he put me (and Mrs. Agent X) to work providing them love.  I am a diaper-changing professional!  And while all that care involves matters of doctor visits, meal preparations, buying toys and clothes, and school work and all that (thinks you can quantify on a foster agency’s care plan), it also involves a lot of play time.  Time spent playing. Just simple play.

When the infants arrive, that involves a lot of baby talk.  Making funny faces.  Funny sounds.  A lot of holding and soothing.  Dangling shiny toys and chew toys and soon it develops into playing peek a boo.

But peek a boo has developed with time.  The kids now want to play hide -n- seek.  Especially with me.  They like to wrestle around on the floor, for me to catch them and tickle and snuggle and giggle with them.  Their term for it is “get me.”  They say, “Pops, come get me!” They even get quite demanding about it.

There are other games and activities, of course, but this is one that seems illogical on almost every front except the part where we bond in love.

We have educational games, many of which are quite fun, and we watch TV shows.  We travel and see sights and do things (barring pandemic restrictions) like train rides, visit the zoo or the science center, museums, or even camping and hiking.  We go for bike rides or play at the playground, and taken all together, at any given moment many of these other activities might be favored over “get me,” but that “get me” game is just indispensable.  There are some deeply personal things shared which you just can’t quite quantify, but when click, which connect spirit to spirit, heart to heart, and life to life.

I recall one of my old friends from divorce care describing how that getting back into dating women again, after years of being married and thinking that part of his life was just settled for eternity, he came back to it much more mature and thoughtful.  It was his observation that the men and women want to be chased.  They want to be caught, of course, but they don’t want that to be the end of the chase.  He began to analyze the idea with some depth and said, “When you chase someone, you show with your heart and your whole life, that you value that person, and being shown that by another is powerful, even if short lived.”  It’s enough to make you wonder if so much divorce isn’t a result of stopping that chase once married.

Hmmm…

Even without the commitment, that chase is intoxicating, mesmerizing, powerful.

I saw a news report just yesterday of a man whose adult son is lost at sea in the Gulf of Mexico following the capsized lift boat making headlines this week.  This father, with tears in his eyes, vowed to seek after his son on a rescue boat until either he is found or determined dead.  I see in that a very heartbreaking version of the same chase.  That son is loved and wanted home.  This father can’t sit back and just wait for the professionals to rescue or recover his son, he must join the chase.  Love demands it.

I think I have said enough now, not to explore all the possibilities, but to show there are myriad dimensions to the chase which humanity needs.

And then I reflect on Jesus saying he came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19).

It turns out there are cosmic, metaphysical, theological dimensions to this chase.  It’s not all just fun and games, but even at the level of fun and games, it is deeply important stuff.

I have been thinking on these matters in various ways for a few years now.  And on this blog, I always link them to our care for the poor and homeless.

I sense strongly that the church is barking up the wrong tree with the whole worry about When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity.  The very little value those books and ideas offer, and I mean miniscule, ironically address the selfish ambitions of modern American Christians and distract us from the chase involved in seeking and saving the lost.

I remember when it was popular just in the last decade or two to claim that our faith was all about “relationship.”  Do you have a relationship with Jesus?  It’s not enough to know all kinds of “head knowledge” we used to say.  You need to know Jesus personally.  And that kind of emphasis seemed so important to the church that was focused on ourselves, but now that we talk about beggars and homeless people, we conveniently give them some socks and a number to the outreach service.  We give our money to the professionals to serve (seek and save) them on our behalf or we buy a latte from the homeless support coffee shop.  But we don’t chase them with the love of Jesus which we ourselves claim to enjoy.

I ask you to consider all of that when you look at your children.

I hope your children “turned out” well.  I hope they are well established and interconnected to the community in ways which mean they will likely never end up on the streets, where they will wind up well educated and employed.

But, I wonder how well any of that interconnection lasts the day they are no longer pursued by love which is manifest even in child’s play.

Links:

https://fatbeggars.wordpress.com/2020/07/30/holy-peek-a-boo-and-the-apocalypse/

https://fatbeggars.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/playing-peek-a-boo-with-god/

SOUND BUSINESS PRINCIPLES FROM A HOMELESS STREET MINISTER

IT’S THE ECONOMY, STUPID

I am a religious person.  A Christian minister, to be precise.  I was raised in a devout family and a church, which in times past, was also uncommonly devout.  And I find it kinda strange, actually, how much time and energy I spend discussing politics (especially on the blog).  Politics are not of great interest to me personally.  Some, to be sure, but not overly.  I consider myself conservative, and I am sure I would not feel at home amid a crowd of fervent liberals.  But there is more and more draw on me to attend to politics over the course of my life, and I am a bit surprised by that, personally speaking.

But then again, especially as I became Bible educated, I learned that politics and religion are not nearly so separate as the Founding Fathers of the United States claimed on the one hand, and on the other, the church has begun evermore to get sucked into party politics over the course of my life, making this a matter unavoidable.  But then also, politics have changed too.  Being “conservative” these days isn’t necessarily what it used to be at all.  Many contemporary conservatives don’t give a hoot for Christian faith, morality, and the like, but they are “fiscally conservative.”  When I was young, that just wasn’t a category I ever imagined.

I find now that the church in America has grown rich and comfortable, but increasingly irrelevant too.  Fewer and fewer people swing by to get saved, and when they do, their salvation sure looks and feels much more like a social club thingy.  There are still a number of old fashioned, old time religion trappings, but those things matter less and less, it seems to me (and a lot of that was actually just vain trappings anyway).  But that old vein from Calvinism which stressed hard work and fortune as signs of God’s blessing is one of the last remaining relevancies in today’s church, I think.  And ironically, that is the bit from Calvinism which I might most like to jettison.

But as those in the church have come to find secular politics and party politics to be indispensable to our “way of life,” we have sought out strange bedfellows among other “conservative” types making common ground on Mammon and loosening our stance against loose morals (which is easier and easier to do all the time since we too are divorced, hooked on internet porn, and all our kids are coming out LBGTQ and the like.  Best to not stand too firmly on those shaking foundations.  Right?

Hmmm…

It’s the economy stupid.

That might not be our spoken motto, but is surely is the unspoken one.

Mammon’s Tower of Babble

I never took a degree in finance or economics.  I can’t remember taking a real course in budgeting and checkbook balancing.  I am pretty sure that way back in high school there was a chapter on some of that in a math class, and certainly there was week or two devoted to that kind of thing in a home economics class.  I think there was a chapter on that in a basic math class in college.  But beyond those two or three brief experiences, I have had no formal training in money.  The little I know, I picked up on the margins of my education and a few life skills my parents taught me.  But I think they were counting on me learning more of that in the formal education.

When I was young and out of high school, I began “establishing credit” when I got my own apartment and bought a TV on store credit at the appliance place.  Most young people were getting a store card from like Sears or Target and the like and buying a car, perhaps with a cosigner.  I, on the other hand, was young and healthy, and I had a high quality bike that I could ride to work and home.  I looked at the expense of a car, and thought it was a headache I just didn’t need.

My grandpa called me up and offered to cosign for a car, but he wanted me to get something “sensible.”  I left his offer sitting there collecting dust for several months.  I could borrow a car for trips I needed, yet my bike was sufficient for my daily needs.  I just wasn’t persuaded.

And then my mother reached out to me and encouraged me to take my grandpa’s offer.  I resisted saying, “But there will be payments, and I just don’t want that hassle.”  She told me, “You need to get used to the idea of payments.  They are a fact of life.”

What can I say?

When my own mom put it like that, I just kinda got a category in my mind for this new “fact of life.”  I shopped around and got an old car.  It wasn’t very sensible and became a whole adventure of another kind.  But I started making payments on all kinds of stuff.  And I just had this down as a “fact of life.”  It wasn’t long before I had a couple of store cards.  Then a real credit card.  Then a monthly balance I could not pay down in one month.  All this in addition to my rent, groceries, gas, and the rest.  After a few years, I realized that I was AMERICAN.

I could no longer imagine my life without all this debt.  I started getting new cards to pay off old cards.  I went to Bible college and got a bunch of loans there too.  In fact, those are the stubborn loans I still hassle with today, and I no longer carry any credit cards or monthly debts of any other kind, but those school loans I took so I could learn about Jesus and live comfortably as I did it, are eating my lunch to this day.  But, I signed those dotted lines with my mom’s voice ringing in my ears on one shoulder, and the notion my high school English teacher had impressed upon me, which said that a college education is how you pay for things, resting on the other shoulder.

Business principles.  That was my education.  That was the formal part of it anyway.  All the enticements for the newest cool shoes or that trip to Vegas, or that fancy motorcycle I had at one point… well… those were the front door to the school of hard knocks.  It isn’t until you get inside the place that you start to wise up, and just because you wise up does not mean you have a real education in the finer points of money management or sound business principles.  Not at all.  In fact, you can graduate with a degree from Hard Knocks and still fall prey to tragic illness debt or somebody’s sucker investment debt and the like.

One bit of my informal education came when I was a teenager.  My dad, who was a preacher for many years after leaving the Navy, also was not educated in finance.  He decided to broaden his education, though, and became a family counselor.  Then he left preaching, and we moved back to his hometown where my other grandpa still lived.  There was a business opportunity there which my dad scrounged, scrimped and saved for and bought into which seemed to have all manner of potential and grace in it.  It was too good to be true, apparently.

Neither my dad nor mom were hair stylists, but there was a man from that hometown, a member of the church there – a Christian brother! – selling a high end salon that was well established with a strong local clientele and had proven itself as a success for many years.  This Christian brother was aware that my dad was a preacher leaving the ministry and might need some guidance in the transition, and so he would be a resource for dad and mom in this new endeavor.

Suddenly, my family was in business.

And we had a very popular business in that town.  For a while there, it seemed we had hit the cash cow!  Except that the cash never really rolled in like we thought.  But all the other indicators were good.  So, of course, the whole family, especially Mom, rolled up our sleeves and worked a little harder, a little longer, and really gave it our best attitude and effort.  But, like anything else, as you get into a new endeavor, you begin to learn things.  And one of the things my family learned pretty quickly is that unless Mom (or one of the rest of us) were hairstylists too, we would only be siphoning off the overhead from this business and not actually raking in all that much money.  Not even if everything else was going well.

And not everything else went all that well.

Pretty soon, one of the veteran hair stylists decided she wanted to open her own shop.  She enlisted all but one of the other hair stylists, including the most popular one, to go with her.  This absolutely gutted the business plan.  We were in trouble.

I wasn’t privy to the conversations Mom and Dad had with the employees, with the bank, or with the Christian brother who sold this business to us, but I know that Dad wound up pretty much throwing himself on his sword.  This business venture was not working, and in our hands it was gonna tank.

I know in the broad outlines, that the bank and the seller (the Christian brother) allowed Mom and Dad to dangle on tenterhooks for a while before finally, and “graciously” the good Christian brother intervened and took the business back from Mom and Dad, who by this time were just thrilled to give it back.

But over the course of nine months that Mom and Dad were purchasing this business, this Christian brother had been accepting payments.  Payment which later my mom would tell me are a “fact of life.”  He had not lost a dime in this venture.  In fact, he owned the building where the hair salon was located, and he had been getting rent from us too.  But then the real insult to the injury was when Dad found out that we had been paying the electric bills for three of the other shops in that little shopping center, since they had all been hooked up through our shop!  That was dishonest, and actually criminal!  Yet, this Christian brother had done us such a favor in taking the business back, that we dared not complain.  This was his grace.

It became apparent that he would sell this salon again and again, and each time he did pretty much the same thing.  This Christian brother’s business model, the unspoken one, was to sell this salon to suckers, make money off it’s failures, and take it back graciously and do it again.

Wow!

My mom all but broke her back in that place.  It wasn’t my family’s lack of hard work that failed.  It wasn’t our lack of money management either.  There was perhaps a bit of bad luck with the hair stylists revolt, but there was dishonesty in trusted partners which put my family on a painful treadmill for most of a year and then graciously let us off… all while keeping the money and reaping the benefits of our hard work.

I am finding THAT is where the sound business principles REALLY are.

Several years ago, I moved my ministry from the prisons to the projects.  I found a couple of welfare grannies, poor and black, who wanted to join me in Bible study and the like.  One of them began attending church with me.  She was old enough to be my mom, and she had kids and grandkids coming out her ears.

She never made a smart financial choice that I could see.  In fact, she had no credit, or what credit she had was completely shot. After having rented furniture and so forth for years, she was living on payday loans, loans which are legal, but should not be.  I have no idea how she and her daughter raised the money, but there was this one time when they went together and bought a car at one of those “no-credit/bad credit” dealers.  He sold her a nice looking Buick, about ten years old, and she had managed to fork up a $1000 down payment.  Her monthly payments would be $400.  But when she drove it off the lot, if failed inspection.  She had to put a couple used tires on it and new brakes.  It sat in her driveway for two weeks while she figured out how to get those jobs done, and then when the first monthly payment was due, she was in trouble.

To my knowledge, she managed to keep that car for about three months before it got repossessed, just like my mom and dad’s hair salon.  She had lost over $2000 in payments and had given the car back to the dealer in better shape than she had taken it.  He turned around and sold it again, raising the question: How many times has this dealer sold this car???  The $2000 my friend had put into it had more than paid for its value!  I wondered if this guy hadn’t make 5, 6 or even 10 times its value in sales and repossessions.

That kind of crook is easy to spot for a white, middle-class consumer such as myself, but it is still legal in this state.  The one my mom and dad fell for is a little harder to spot, but I have come to see that pretty much all business deals in 50 shades of this grey.  You are always getting at least a little screwed.  No merchants are being completely honest, and they are all being at least a little manipulative.  EVERY LAST ONE OF THEM.

Even my Bible college.

I remember being young and dumb, and just a little too dense to quite catch the meaning, but one of my favorite professors would, every now and then, go off even on our school for selling education the way they did.  Suckers coming in, sitting down and signing papers and absorbing promises faster than a brain can account for, and most of them not business students or business graduates.  A crap ton of us had mothers who said that “payments are a fact of life” and that settled it.

I wish now that professor had the spine to quit and or quit in protest or to protest in such a way as to get his point across.  As it was, I think he just soothed his conscience by griping every now ant then.  But he could plainly see that many of us students in his class were enjoying ourselves getting screwed for a chance to learn about Jesus, oblivious all the while.

But that was the larger culture of that school… of all of them nearly in my estimation.  My Bible classes were taught in the Bible department which was housed in the (then) new Bible building.  I do not know the actual price tag on that building, but I am sure it was multiple millions of dollars.  I heard someone claim once that it cost almost $2 million annually just to operate that building.  Right next door was an equally impressive, and also new, Business building housing the business school department.  The two buildings together were magnificent and gave an overwhelmingly dignified character to the university at large.  Their mere presence sold educations since they just appeared so scholarly and important, and successful.

But you know what?

Jesus would sit in a boat and teach people sitting on the shore.  And I learned about those teachings in a $20 million building.

How is it possible that I was learning the actual LOVE of CHRIST in such a manipulative environment?

Kingdom Economic Principles

You have heard it said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  But I tell you, The economy doesn’t necessarily mean money at all.  The word economy – eco – nomy – really means “house rules.”  Wanna talk about God’s economy?  We are talking about how to be in God’s house.

Now… if you want to talk about money with Jesus… well, there is a fine discussion some religio/political opponents sought out with him once regarding whether it is right to pay taxes or not.  I think you know that story.  He asks them to bring him a coin.

Think about that.  Jesus doesn’t have any of this money on him when they ask.  There are probably multiple reasons for that.  One being that Judas carried the money bag.  (Let that bounce around some echo chambers!)  Another reason is that he was probably poor himself.  The Son of God running around with next to no money to his name!  What does that say?  It surely says something about something.  This is the man who preached about not worrying about what you will eat or wear and the like, to trust in God for these things like the birds and the flowers.  When his own disciples needed to pay a tax, he sent them fishing, and they found a coin in the fishes mouth.  Wow!  What is that about?  And to top it all off, Jesus seems to have lived off the support of a few humble women!

I guarantee you they weren’t teaching those sound business principles in the school of business located in the Business building next to the Bible building at the Christian university where I am still paying to learn about Jesus in a $20 million environment.  Hell no!

But there was a sound business principle that Jesus did actually preach about in his hometown, one by which he characterized his whole life, mission, and ministry: Jubilee.

Jesus preached, not that you “live within your means” like a hardworking conservative, but that you forgive the debt of those who owe you.  He proclaims a kingdom characterized by forgiveness of debt like the Jubilee the old prophets dreamed of in ancient times.  The land had been a gift to the people of God, and as they bargained their way into debts with one another, every 50 years, there would be a Jubilee which would step in and erase all the debts.  That was how you abided by the rules in God’s house.

(Does Dave Ramsey teach THAT?)

(What about Corbett and Fikkert or Lupton?)

(Is there a single Christian college or preacher in any church anywhere that teaches any of these sound business principles that Jesus teaches?)

Hmmm…

A NEW IDEA FOR AN OLD WHITE CHURCH TRYING TO BE RELEVANT IN TODAY’S WORLD

I am looking at yet another headline (did I just use the singular?) of yet another black man suffering unjustly at the hands of white cops this morning, and like so many times before, I see protests, unrest, grieving family, lawyers, riots and standoffs…  All horrible stuff that should not be, yet like school shootings is becoming almost usual and mundane.  Normal.

Is it normal for humanity to live in such pain?

(Don’t ask historians.  I am afraid the answer they give in a fallen world is YES.)

This stuff is right up in our grill.  Right up in our hostile, little, inbred face!  Ignore this stuff at your peril.

The politicians don’t ignore it.  But my church, the church which is about as relevant as “tits on a boar” anymore, worships in a bubble of white, middle-class safety and piety over on the white-flight side of town, and we employ armed security officers now since that church in Ft. Worth shot up an active shooter right during the communion service when they were meditating on laying down their lives, taking up crosses, and following Jesus as he died on a cross for the sins of the world.

When I was a Bible student, a semi-regular refrain vocalized in the academy said: Hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

That’s not actually a Bible verse, but it is a good seedbed for a prophetic imagination.

The Bible calls the church to lay down our lives, to sacrifice in love for our neighbor and the world.  It does not call us to join an evangelical voting bloc and pressure politicians.  There is a power of God to be found in a Towel-n-Basin approach to the world around us, but a power of Mars or Mammon is found in the way we have been doing lately.  God isn’t interested in deploying the power of giants, of strength in numbers, or even in being overtly reasonable and arguing our way into salvation.  Instead, he deploys a young shepherd boy to kill a giant, a fearful Gideon and his whittled down army to defeat the enemy, and a really smart Apostle Paul talking nonsense about resurrection with Athenians to accomplish his will and in which the world finds his glory.

He sends his Son to take a crown OF THORNS and to be raised up in coronation on an old rugged cross and become King of kings and Lord of lords.

Why is my church, then, in a bubble? And how might we address the headlines of today with the Towel-n-Basin approach?

A towel and basin is available to the lowliest servant in the house.  It also is available to the Master (as Jesus plainly demonstrates (John 13)).  However, big bank accounts and politicians on speed dial are not available to the lowliest servants.  They are not available to every master of every house either.

So, we really need to think small and humble here.

A literal towel and basin might be highly symbolic in Jesus’s day and rather weird in ours, so we might be justified in employing our prophetic imagination a bit here to expand on that idea.

The literal towel and basin which were so symbolic in Jesus’s day depicted uncommon humility on the part of the one taking them up.  It also said to those who received their service that they were especially welcome into the Master’s home.

How might we symbolically and humbly express special welcome inside our church bubble to those who normally don’t receive this welcome?

In Luke 14, Jesus says, when you host a banquet, don’t invite all your rich friends and family who you then expect to return the favor, but invite the poor, the lame, the blind, and sick. Invite those who cannot repay.  (This is a passage about making people welcome.)

I am thinking our pastor needs to reach out to the poorest church in town.  Call the pastor at the poorest church in the poorest area, and probably that area and many (if not practically all) of the parishioners there will be of minority race.  Reach out and connect with that pastor and invite his whole church to come to ours in the white flight side of town.  Even send our church vans, our joy bus, and a fleet of Ubers and limos to pick people up.  Tell the pastor from that poor church to shine his shoes and polish up his best sermon and bring it with him because we want to hear him speak.  Then let him speak.

Then share the communion.  This is the ultimate banquet Jesus ever had in mind when he said to invite the poor who cannot repay!

If my rich church did this just one Sunday in our whole life, we would send shockwaves through the new normal. We would be the talk of the town.  We might very well make the six o’clock news with the Gospel.  And I think, I might be wrong about this, but I think we would be hooked and want to do it again – maybe annually.

I also think it would send a message to the larger community that God is redeeming us.  He is not putting us in our little enclaves and bubbles all insulated and fearful of one another, but drawing us all to His Table in fellowship.

Just imagine the law enforcement officers who attend my church breaking the bread, the body of Christ, quite literally with some of the black people they pull over for what appears to be no license plate or air fresheners dangling in the window!  Just imagine the JUSTICE that might happen after that meeting which would never make it into a courtroom or a headline since brotherhood would be found on the roadside instead.

As it is, a few years ago, my church with all it’s outreach and care for the poor from one of the most crime ridden neighborhoods in Lubbock hosted a Law Enforcement Appreciation banquet instead.  This was not some great evil thing to do by any stretch.  I have worked in law enforcement myself, and I deeply appreciate most cops and most of what they mostly do.  But it certainly ignored the words of Jesus in Luke 14, and I can only imagine what it said about our church and Jesus to black people who fear the cops and who are currently filled with a spirit of protest at the way they so often are mistreated by our brothers in blue.  I think we were counterproductive for the Kingdom cause on that one.

But if we humble ourselves and take up the towel and basin, open our prophetic imagination, we can make a profound difference quite easily.

But that will require humility and trust in God.

Does my church have either of those?

Hmmm…

HOMELESS IN AMERICA!

Billionaires and Bums. Jesus in the middle. And the church chasing Billionaires…. A post I need to share here at Fat Beggars I think.

Has the American Dream failed?

A search of The American Dream would come up with something like this – “A national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals in which freedom includes opportunity for prosperity and success…..”. It was James Truslow Adams in 1931 who penned the following, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity, for each according to ability and achievement”. The American Dream is rooted in the Declaration of Independence which proclaims that “all men ( I assume women too!) are created equal”.

Here is my recent story! My wife and I took a walk through the downtown West Palm Beach green market last weekend. Every Saturday, vendors of all sorts of edibles including baked goods, honey, cider donuts, cheese etc. take up space on the waterway in this Southern Florida city. It’s always worth it to cross the street and…

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“F*CK BIDEN” (MAKE AMERICA CHRISTIAN AGAIN) (please)

(Warning: Foul language actually printed out in this post.  Not something I usually do with this blog.  Read at your own risk.  Sorry, and thanx.)

I posted last week about our recent COVID camping trip out of town and painted a lovely little picture of our family’s little victories amid growing pains.  Every bit of that post was honest, but they certainly were not the whole story.  That post was more introspective, and looked inward at our family’s spiritual life.  However, I felt like a foreigner in a foreign land too.  I felt like aliens had abducted me, zapped me to an earth in a parallel universe where everything was recognizable, but where everyone was just off a cog.  My country is sick and went out and got seven demons worse than the first.  We need Jesus desperately.

We took our family on a little trip to the mountains in eastern New Mexico, a part of the state I personally call New Texico, since in my estimation for the last 3 decades, despite the fact that the majority of New Mexico repeatedly votes Democrat, the people of eastern New Mexico always seem to me to envy Texas and Texas conservatism.  In fact, they seem to me to out Texan the real Texas.  The fervent, gritty, rugged individualism, independence, and pride of these people are so thick you can smell it in the air.  And this has been my personal assessment for the last thirty years.

I never lived and kept an address in the state of New Mexico, but over the course of my life, I have lived multiple times in Arizona, Colorado, and Texas (in addition to California and Missouri).  I have kin folx who live in New Mexico as well.  So even though I never lived there, I have crisscrossed that state more than even the ones I lived in and more times than I can count.  However, I have not visited the state in the last two years (thanx largely to COVID).  So, the level of fervent conservatism I found last week at every stop and every bend in the road along the way was just more than I ever dreamed.

Especially the cult of Trump.

We have that cult here in Texas too, but eastern New Mexico is plastered with it.  “Trump 2020” flags blowing in the wind on nearly every fence post, it seemed.  Many of them old and tattered and blown to mere ribbons.  Many of them joined by new ones, by Old Glory, and by “Don’t Tread On Me” and other patriotic flags.  

(Now… Let me pause my thrust right here a moment and discuss a side note.  I want to make sure and stop short of arguing against Donald Trump or against Second Amendment Rights – per se.  I will come clean and say that I am not FOR either one of these things, but I fully recognize that according to the laws of our land, both are completely legal and culturally acceptable.  Either one or both are completely appropriate for the wider culture, in a secular cultural sense, and I have no desire to pressure a congressperson or a judge to limit either one.  However, their appropriateness for Christians is another thing, and I am interested in preaching the limits of both among disciples, and I am interested in praying for Jesus’s lordship to extend over both.  (Ask questions if I need to clear that up more.))

So, I am driving up the twisty mountain roads chugging a camper along behind us and seeing all these flags flowing in the wind, when suddenly near the gate at one ranch we observe a line of flagpoles with their flags unfurled, as they are apt to be in the breeze, and the first one, in bold colors and letters reminiscent of a Trump 2020 flag, says, “FUCK BIDEN.”  

That’s about as contemptuous as you can get.

I complained a couple of years ago about a Trump supporter posting a “No More Bullshit” Trump flag in the yard around the corner from my home.  Gotta love a message like that right out the car window for my kids to see, right?  The “FUCK BIDEN” flag wasn’t in my neighborhood, but right there in the mountains of God’s country. 

Not exactly the spiritual vibe I was looking for with my family.

That one flag, of course, was the single worst sign I found on our little trip, but there were others, others that when taken all together conveyed an unmistakable message about the anger and bitterness palpable in the wider community.  We are not done with this pandemic yet, and I personally have suffered bitter feuds with family members and friends who want to come to my home and visit me and my kids without wearing a mask.  My house, not theirs, mine!  They just aren’t satisfied coming to visit without a mask and putting our home at risk of infection. 

When it gets to that point, there just is no reasoning with people.

And it seems that there are plenty of people who don’t want to reason or be reasonable about much.  Again, seven demons worse than the first!  How it is that we haven’t killed more of each other, is hard to explain at this point.

So, when I found a small mom -n- pop shop at one village with a sign saying they had “new owners” and “now all are welcome,” I sensed some bitter developments that little town had only recently resolved – if in fact they actually have.  I am betting it was a dispute about wearing masks there which led to new ownership. 

That’s gotta be a painful story.

I was able to take snapshots of a handful of other signs which added to this story in vague ways, but again emphasized for me the politics of rugged individualism which has become a rather hostile form of freedom.  I am sure if it was me expressing sentiments of this nature, people would say I have a bad attitude.

Ever so often, amid the towns and countryside (as I have seen in this country ALL MY LIFE), I would find more traditional signs announcing “The Church of Christ Welcomes You” or “First Baptist Church two blocks ->” or just “Church.”  These kinds of signs still look the same as they always did, but under the shadows of all those steeples, amid all the people those churches minister among, are all these other signs – newer, more caustic, gritty and hostile and pissed off.

I can’t help but think: What is the message of Jesus in these churches for this community?  

Does the pastor ever preach about how to forgive a liberal?  Does the church seek to beat weapons into plowshares?  Do the good Christian neighbors ever approach their neighbor with the “FUCK BIDEN” flag out at the edge of the highway and say, “That’s not language that reflects our meek, Christian community”???

Where’s the salt and light?

Or does the church of eastern New Mexico pretty much hitch their wagon to this culture of hostility and hope in one politician while hating another?

(I hate to point this out, but that sounds like Pharisees from Jesus’ day.)

I am dreadfully sad to see such sentiment overwhelm the lovely mountain forests.  But I am far more alarmed at the impotence of the Body of Christ in this community to have the sway it once did to temper this kind of stuff.  Love for enemy certainly is not the overriding message I get from these mountain villages, and I wonder if we don’t have yet another new mission field right here in America.

Who wants to Make America Christian Again?

Anyone? 

MY LIFE WITH “FAKE NEWS”

Today’s post goes waaaaaaay off the beaten path for this blog. Not talking about Jesus vis-à-vis the homeless, and it only relates in the most complex and tangential ways.  But I have some thoughts about “fake news” which I don’t see anyone else talking about.  So, here goes…

When I Was a Child

I never have been a newspaper guy.  Not really.  I started “watching” the news when I was a kid.  I was a small kid when the Vietnam War was broadcast on home television screens nightly, and that was a new thing.  I was too young to understand what I saw there, and in those earliest days, I had no real interest – but surely the timing of my childhood plays a role in my experience.  Thus, I developed a category in my young mind for news programs on TV.  Why would I go to the trouble of READING in print, searching through pages, for what I could WATCH a TV newscaster spoon feed me?

Soon I was familiar with Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, by name and face, by the end of the 1970s.  I wasn’t even 10 years old when I began taking seriously some of the reports I was watching.  And while I don’t think I purposely sought out the nightly news for my own interest, I was keenly aware that my dad and grandparents took this programming seriously, and so some of it was gravitating me too.

I definitely remember the “mysterious illness” which had “struck gay men” and the deep concern that developing story stirred over time.  I don’t recall it being nearly as important a story to my folx, since none of us were gay and we had no close family or friends who were either.  Thus, my memory of that is something of a benchmark in my mind for how my childhood began developing an interest in social concerns and news.  And, of course, that story grew up with me becoming a decade’s long, ongoing public health issue we eventually called AIDS and then  HIV infection.

I also recall a night when Peter Jennings noted that the price of gas in California had risen over a dollar a gallon for the first time.

Hmmm…

I was too young to really know Walter Cronkite and the immense trust he had built with his television journalism in the larger society.  Looking back, I can plainly see where he expressed opinion, helped to drive at least a few segments of the news cycle, and where he even challenged “the government” with regard to the Vietnam War.  His news did not come to the public in some filter-free and completely unbiased way.  But he managed to develop trust.

All of that, though, was in the backdrop for me.  I, in fact, knew nothing of that stuff when I was young.  I was just too young to see into nuances like that, and for that matter, even today, I am not well educated in journalism or news media.  Just a lifelong consumer.  I have some insights, but not that much.

As a Bible student, I have come to study a lot of history and to see that all telling of history comes from some viewpoint and passes through some kind of filter.  God just did not make us to tell unbiased reports of anything.  The idea of “absolute truth” itself is mythical since it too is put through filters and biases – even as a category of ideas.  (This point is not the point of my post, and so I will not develop it further, but I will suggest that God does offer us trust – faith, fidelity, integrity, and honesty – through which to share and communicate.  To the extent we do that, we can know the truth!)

Of course, NO ONE talks about that kind of thing when it comes to the news.

I am learning from more recent American history, that newspapers have long warred with each other, slanting stories along decidedly political lines.  I am also learning how profoundly this kind of thing impacted presidents and elections on the past.  It’s not really a new thing.  In fact, the trust that Walter Cronkite (and thus the next generation following him to some degree) enjoyed was probably the new thing as far as news media is concerned.

But, none of that is my story.  Most of my life I have been oblivious to all of this.  Especially as a kid, I just assumed that the news was basically a matter of historical fact presented in current times.  I trusted Brokaw and Jennings (and others), and in the decade following the Vietnam War, I was unaware (and still am) of any major breaches of trust by those professional journalists and their organizations (the one possible/major exception being Brian Williams who actually promoted himself as trustworthy before being proven a liar).

Now, I was just a kid and could not articulate some of the nuances I was seeing, but they were nuances and not major impactful differences.  I never actually sat and listened to William F. Buckley as he droned on about his take on things.  I would sooner read the phone book.  But he certainly provided a foundation in my mind and a model for conservative ideals and how they are expressed.  I recognized that my dad and grandparents seemed to respect him.  But, I personally, saw him as dull and boring… just a talking head, and not a terribly interesting one at that.  A child’s point of view, surely.

I didn’t know of any liberal commentators.  No doubt there were some, but they didn’t seem to find their way into the channels I knew.  I would see stories about radicals from time to time, but the 1960s were more and more a distant memory by the time I came along.  Jimmy Carter, a devout Christian man, was our liberal by then, and he lost his second election in such a grand and humiliating way.  Reagan, the new conservative, was flashy.  But, even then I could not have articulated their differences in categories like liberal or conservative as a child.  I just didn’t know the difference.

Then came CNN.

As I Became a Young Man

As I understood it at the time, CNN’s niche was their 24/7 broadcasting coverage.  If it was happening and noteworthy at all, CNN was there and so were you, if you had access.  The network news organizations had to break in on Little House On The Prairie or Chips and Happy Days if you were going to be informed like that.  And suddenly news became a junkie thing.

I was too young to be such a junkie, but I recognized in a handful of family members that they were glued to their CNN every boring day, but were ready to consume the first minute anything happened.

This really came home to roost when it became known that President Bush and his top military commanders were getting their intel faster through CNN than through military channels during the first Gulf War.  That CNN niche had ramifications that went into new categories.

But, I would be naïve not to give token mention to Rush Limbaugh at this point.  I never heard of him until he got his TV program, and even then I didn’t watch him a lot.  But I could plainly see this was not my grandpa’s conservative news commentator.  This opinionater took a page from the 1960s radicals and added insult and injury, even making it entertaining, to his conservative idealist audience.  There was a pendulum swing beneath the surface there, and no longer was it liberals and radicals who burned bras and draft cards showing disrespect for their political opposition, it was the cutting wit of the talking head.

Move over Buckley, your stuffy style is so… so… yesterday.

I should say that around this time, I watched the old Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman movie (it was old by that time too) All The President’s Men.  The Watergate story had all unfolded when I was very young and had no understanding.  I do recall that word “Watergate” being bounced around from my earliest memories, but watching this movie gave me a context – AND opened up a category in my mind for how the media impacts politics.  Of course, in that movie, the reporters are heroes uncovering the lies of big government and exposing crooked politicians to the light of day.  (Ironic how the reporters, being liberal in that instance, exposed lying big government, but hey, that goes more to MY WAY of thinking than any talking points published anywhere I know of today.)

Limbaugh did not remain on TV for long.  But in another ten or fifteen years, we would have Fox News to shore up his absence.  I didn’t follow Limbaugh that closely, but I am sure that within a year or two, he was not there.  However, I moved to Arizona in my mid twenties and began listing to talk radio where I found, not only Rush but, a whole lot of conservative political talk.  I became profoundly influenced.  Even now, I appreciate the sense of personal responsibility I learned from those conservatives, but I also learned that being mean, irreverent, proud, and loud were the new conservatism.  One of my favorite commentators was Ken Hamblin, the Black Avenger, and every day that some death row criminal was executed anywhere in America, Hamblin would play a round of Happy Trails on his radio show as a contemptuous send off.  As a Jesus guy, that just didn’t quite sit well with me. That, and a number of other things which eventually I worked my way through over the course of about five years.

When I Became a Real Grown Up

It was during the 1990s that I began to see the overt political slant in the news.  The conservative radio people especially wanted to call it out in the mainstream media (network TV news among these).  I didn’t see the overt egregiousness in the NBC, ABC, and CBS news programs that these talkers were worried about, but I could see what appeared to me to be a  left-of-center commitment there – sorta.  Certainly, it was clear to me that the conservatives were hell bent on setting themselves apart as conservative and seemed a bit over eager to proclaim that the mainstream was liberal.  To hear the conservatives to then claim their own news presentations and opinionating as “fair and balanced” seemed farcical.  They were being BOTH “fair and balanced” AND conservative, and their brand of conservative was hostile and not really mine.

I could plainly see journalists like Geraldo Rivera had their agendas to promote.  I could even sense, sorta, that programs like 20/20 tended to look and feel like in-depth news reporting, but so often the content was more sensational than meaningfully substantive.  But I never sensed that the mainstream news outlets were so egregiously liberal or corrupt as to give a pass to liberal crimes.  Perhaps a bit slow to shine the light in a few dark corners, but not outright dishonest.

A Crotchety Old Man Watching The News

But then in the last two decades, I began to sense all but the anchor programs in nightly world news among the networks were becoming eroded with “infotainment.”  I always liked getting up in the morning to catch either The Today Show or Good Morning America.  The first fifteen minutes offered the headlines of the day, and at least that seemed pretty straightforward. But here that was changing, and in my estimation, NBC was the worst of it.  I tuned in at Halloween time to see Matt Lauer and friends dressed up in holiday costumes, playing practical jokes and gags, and wasting more and more news time on their chit chat and banter.

The first time I ever heard the term “fake news,” that is what I thought it was referring to.

But it wasn’t long after that when I discovered Jon Stewart and The Daily Show on Comedy Central.  I couldn’t believe my ears!  This man was definitely giving us his liberal persuasion, but he was a comedian doing his funny act.  Problem was… his act was to bring us the news with insightful analysis, and he, for whatever reasons, decided to hold himself to industry standards.

Sure his act was irreverent and designed to impact the news with humor, but he was providing very powerful insights and digging into stories with professional skill.  I found a number of “issues” Stewart champions are not mine.  I see (and saw then) myself as a conservative and could plainly see where he was not.  He in no way hid this stuff.  But, he was helping me to see and understand the complexities of a number of stories like I never had before.  And he did so with honesty and integrity – even retracting stories when he was proven wrong!

All that from a comedy act!

Wow!!!

Suddenly, I thought I had a new definition of “fake news,” and an admiration for it too.

Fact of the matter is: I didn’t really know what “fake news” referred to in reality.  I was hearing the term kicked around, and I was having sympathy with it, but after President Trump was elected, I finally decided I was using it differently and thinking about it differently.  I have come to realize that the internet is one of (if not the) major source(s) of “fake news.”  You really cannot trust blogs and such as news sources.  I don’t pretend to be a news source, and in completely invite all readers to challenge me and my opinions.  I invite you to verify any and everything I offer here.   Yet, I in no way pretend to bring you the news either  – except maybe The Good News.

Trust me or not, that is MY life with “fake news.”

N-BOMB

The N-word.

We all know it.

But I ain’t typing it.  Not on this blog.  It’s just too explosive.  Too dangerous.

Or maybe I will.

Are you just itching to see me do it?

I mean, we are all white people here, right?  And this is MY post not yours, so you won’t be blamed if I do it.  Don’t you think I should be FREE in America to exercise my free speech? The N-word is… just a word… right?  How is it so dangerous?  Because “the media” says so???

Maybe I just don’t have the nerve.  Maybe, just maybe, my Mama never told me what the N-word actually is.  Maybe I am just that naïve and pretending that I know.  You probably oughta read this post all the way through to see.  Kinda like rubbernecking a train wreck.  You might have a chance to see the disaster while it unfolds.

But then reading on to find out probably says something about you too.

What follows is my personal experience with the dreaded N-word.  Part confessional, part educational, part cathartic, and laid bare in hopes of dealing with it meaningfully.

My avoidance of the N-word doesn’t mean I don’t know it.  It doesn’t mean I never used it.  It doesn’t even mean I am a averse to it.  It doesn’t mean a lot of things.  But it is a word I want to talk ABOUT, and do so respectfully for the pain and carnage wrapped up in it.

Handle explosives with care!

“The N-word” will be my substitute because it is the mainstream substitute.  And substitute it I will.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste, and a white man using that word puts his mind at great risk.

I have never used the N-word habitually or as an insult… at least not to a person’s face.  For that matter, I have never used it of a person behind their back either.  In fact, out of all the words I ever used or use, whether considered dirty or otherwise, the N-word has had very little mileage in my mouth over half a century.  No where near the mileage of the F-Bomb.

And yet, I find I have a strange relationship with it.

Strange.

Did I say, “Strange”?

Relationship.

With a word?

Yeah.

We aren’t married, and we never actually dated, but we did fool around with each other behind the barn a time or two, and I may as well come clean about that.

I am willing to explore this relationship.  I expect it reveals a sense of white supremacy within me.  Maybe not, but maybe so.  Not some conscious or malicious thing.  Not a hater.  But still, a life comfortable in white supremacy – especially if it is not smoked out into the light of day.

What will happen to me if I use that word?

Not much – most likely.

In fact, the biggest sanction I am likely to undergo is embarrassment for having stooped so low as to use it.  After all, it is such a dreaded word.  It is so foul, so scorned, so mean, hateful, ugly, and damaging.  It takes some sensitivity on the part of a white person to appreciate all of that, but even so, a white person might sometimes use it.

Other Dirty Words I Have Used

I will never forget in the fifth grade when a group of boys and I determined that saying the phrase “God Damn” was taking the Lord’s Name in vain.  At first, I had great respect for that idea.  Then a few weeks later, we were joined by a young man old enough to drive who for whatever reason was spending an hour with us youngsters telling jokes.  After a while, he noticed that I did not cuss.  He singled me out for an ironic ridicule over it.

Looking back, I don’t think my peers were all that concerned, though I think they did give his comment a chuckle.  But that chuckle stabbed me in the heart.  I felt I was an outsider.  I knew all the standard bad words, but I just chose not to use them.  But when our little pow wow broke up, I walked home along the path alone practicing dirty words and phrases.  I wanted to demonstrate that I was not afraid to use them.  I needed to practice my use of them so that they would emerge as though completely natural from my mouth.

A couple of weeks after that, this son of a preacher dropped a “God Damn” on his friends, and you would have thought I tested a hydrogen bomb on the playground.  It got everyone’s attention.  It felt powerful!

I was hooked.

“God Damn” was the A-bomb – especially for me – in those days.  It was a taboo, and I was free of it.  Everyone else was afraid of this word, but not me.

Looking back, I don’t think that earned me the respect I was hoping for, actually, but it was powerful.  I had a power in my mouth to make people shutter.  So, this fifth grader kept it handy.

Over the course of my childhood, I did not know very many black people.  A few passed through my life, and a couple even seemed to be special friends.  But I was in my mid twenties before I had a relationship with a black person that had much depth.

Offensive Jokes

I have said this elsewhere on the blog before, but I mention it now mainly so that I can say I had precious little need or chance to see and contemplate the carnage of the N-word.  It was there.  I tried it on for size a time or two, but even then mostly as it pertained to N-word jokes. However, due largely to my isolation from blacks, I really didn’t know (or understand) very many such jokes.

Surprisingly, I did know a lot of Polack jokes.  I didn’t really understand why they were funny either, but I had cousins and friends who would tell these jokes, and so I learned to laugh at them too.  To my knowledge, I never knew a Polish person, and so I never worried that I might offend.  But by the time I was in junior high (and living in Texas), I had learned a number of Okie jokes and Aggie jokes too.  I found that with rare exception, you could trade “Aggie” for “Polack” and suddenly the joke made better sense!  And I also had the wits to consider how that every single “Aggie” who might ever be offended (and there were some!) chose that Aggie status and not one of them was born into it!  Thus, I really didn’t care if that offended.

I do not mean to excuse any of my behaviors with this analysis, but I hope to demonstrate how innocent it all seemed.

As I look back on it now, I sense that my heart had actually crossed over to the dark side… just a toe hold.  I was not malicious and did not want to hurt people, but I did kinda want to command humor just a little more than I wanted to care about someone’s feelings.  And anyway, any person whose feelings might have been hurt was rather hypothetical to me.  I was in a white bubble where this pain would not touch any black people or Polish or otherwise.  And anyway, that Okie who threw that stick of dynamite at the Texan across the Red River only to have the Texan light it and throw it back kinda had it coming!  It was just good natured fun.  Right?

The Token Black Friend

When  I was in high school, I lived in a different state.  In fact, I lived in a rather multicultural part of the world, but blacks were among the least represented there.  It was obvious that us whites were the majority, but there were two “Indian” reservations nearby and plenty of brown people too.  In fact, there were so many that I estimated we whites made up about half – still the single largest group – but we also were more of a financial dominance too.  Whites were the top of the social food chain, even if we were only about half the over all cultural landscape.  But I had lots of friends who were red or brown.

Our little town had no Asians that I knew of, but we had one black family, and there was a boy in that family I went to school with.  He was a big kid.  He was an asset to the football team, which made him rather popular among peers, as I saw it.  I, on the other hand, was not one of the popular kids and was not a jock type.  A few years after I was out of high school, and half way across the state, there was a school clique that made news in the national media as “The Trench Coat Mafia.”  You might recall that label which became infamous after the Columbine High School shooting.  Certainly, my friends never used that name, and none of us wore trench coats, but when Eric and Dylan were described in that way, I felt a kindred spirit there.  I think my crew of friends were something of a precursor for that type of clique.

I say all that so that hopefully this will make sense of my view of the one black kid in my high school.  He was bigger than me, seemed to run with the popular kids, and so I didn’t give too much thought to him generally.  When I did, any negativity of attitude I held for him would have been based on his jock status, not his skin color.  Yet, I think there was a sliver of negative feelings about him based on his supposed popularity.

However, my senior year, believe it or not, I became popular and ran around with jocks and popular kids.  This was not because of my athletic prowess, but, surprise, surprise, surprise!!!, due to my writing.  (A story for another day, but I became legendary (not hyperbole to say that) as a writer for our school paper.)  And as one of the kids smoking dope with jocks in hot tubs after Christmas that year, I suddenly had a chance to be friendly with the token black kid in our school.  And as we all discussed the upcoming prom, I suddenly felt a twinge of curiosity and sympathy for the kid because I wondered which girl from school he would attend with – if any!

I didn’t worry enough about it to discuss it with him, but I did take mental note and sat back to watch and see how this would go.

I learned that black boys have a way of dating white girls.  They figure it out.  Perhaps I should have asked his advice!

I don’t believe his date was a romantic relationship (I never asked, but I never saw signs of it either), but he took a very pretty, and popular, white girl to the prom!

Did I care?

Yeah.  I kinda did.  But care limited just to my own inner feelings about him.  Not with any kind of tangible actions.  So, pretty limited, but yeah.  I felt good seeing him work that out in our community.  I felt better knowing he was welcome as a full participant at our prom.

I can tell you with a clear conscience that I never used the N-word around this kid, not to his face and not behind his back and never in reference to him.  The N-word just was not a habitual part of my vocabulary.  I understood it to be derogatory, and it made no sense to use it anywhere near a young man I respected.  I wasn’t telling racial jokes in those days anymore anyway (or if I did, I used careful discretion who I shared them with).  I had too many friends from too many races, and I had too many scruples and social graces.

My Grandparents, Though… and their lack of PC

Well, I would need to write a whole other post about them.

I will say that my grandparents lacked the sensitivity I have.  I don’t view any of them as outright haters, but I think they did have a visceral need to keep black people “in their place” so to speak.  While none of my grandparents habitually used the N-word around me during the course of my childhood, they did all find occasions to use it infrequently, and I normally sensed fear when they did.

I recall when Ross Perot ran for president and spoke of “those people” and “your people” and how just hearing him talk that way seemed to encapsulate the vibe of my grandparents.  He was not even using the N-word, but I could feel offense in his language.  I couldn’t understand why, even.  But I automatically sensed it  And then I suddenly feared insensitivity.

Of course it wasn’t long until we starting calling such matters “politically correct.” PC for short.  And there was a scorn for that too.  I suddenly began to yearn for the good old days when we were told to be “polite” and mind our manners.  It seemed there was always some older woman around to keep us in line – maybe a good first grade teacherly type.  We could always stray off the path just a bit, but with this elderly voice there to correct us, we could get back in line and it all just seemed so right.

Now, that was gone.  Perot had crossed some line that even I felt.  I couldn’t find it when I looked for it, but I knew it when I felt it.  But I could plainly see that Perot couldn’t see it and had not noticed when he crossed it.  This worried me.  I might be so insensitive!  I knew well enough to leave the N-word alone, but there seemed to be more demanded of my sensitivity and no map to navigate it with, and yet a backlash to all the PC too.

Look, man.  I don’t wanna hurt anyone!  But I don’t wanna be jammed up feeling too much either… right?  (White supremacy just has no patience for this, and I really wanted to appeal to that too, but certainly not by that name.)

The Tarantino/Jackson Impact

However, I hit a whole new snag with all this when Quentin Tarantino put out Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown.  As a young person of the day, I went to see these flicks, and in them I heard the N-word in a new echo chamber.  This white man was making movies with black people and throwing the N-word around with some ironic respect.

WTF?

Yeah.  And my best college buddy, a foreigner of Jewish descent from Ukraine, and I both traded Clint Eastwood in for Samuel L. Jackson as our new cinematic hero, and he was dropping the N-word bombs like candy, like terms of endearment, like signs of respect.  We found the next off ramp from the PC Freeway, and indulged our new found freedom from restraint.

My college buddy and I started referring to each other with the N-word.

I was scratching an old itch.  I broke a taboo.  But this was a new day.  The old word had a new life.  Or so it seemed… briefly.  Why should black people have all this fun with it and white people denied it?

But then…

By this time I had black friends.  I was not super close with them, but a couple of them I had some deep admiration for, and eventually I was faced with using the N-word with them or not, and as I bit my tongue one day, I went home reflecting on it alone (much like the day I learned to cuss in the fifth grade), I began to dial back my usage.  I finally decided the license I had thought Tarantino had given with the N-word was not actually extended to me.

Randall Kennedy’s Book

Funny thing, it was shortly after that when I saw Randall Kennedy’s book N[-word]: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word featured on the nightly news.  I figure that was the last time in American history that a newscaster actually used the N-word rather than its substitute.  I new immediately that I needed to obtain a copy.  And so, as early as 2002, I ventured into the biggest bookstore in town browsing the aisles hoping to find a copy, yet nary a one in sight.  This required me to ask the clerk to order it, and that required that I utter the N-word out loud in front of other customers in a busy store, and required the poor clerk (a young white boy of high school or early college age) to repeat it back to me so I could confirm that I was looking for THAT ONE, yes.

I read Kennedy’s short book cover to cover with great anticipation when it arrived a week later, after the clerk called me on the phone to inform me of it’s arrival.  (The clerk had stumbled over the word of the title and had to clear her throat.  Yes, I know. That is the book I want, yes.  Thanx, I will be there in an hour to pick it up.)  It was a tough read.  Kennedy does not hold back.  He shocked me on page after page, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence.  He recites the jokes, he tells agonizing stories of pain inflicted by the word, and the dangerous world that word lurks in devouring people.  He even described people like me, people who avoid it.  People who think it’s cool because of people like Tarantino and Jackson.  And he explored every possible meaning and use of it.

I got educated.  I got suspicions confirmed.  I got a compass too, and I decided that this white boy has no need to use that word in almost any situation where it can be heard by human ears.  Only the most sensitive and careful situations require it, and then use of it like handling packages of high explosives.  The odds of it hurting someone are just too high, and the chance that I would be able to fully appreciate the damage is pretty slim.  I might have any manner of insensitivity on almost any given day, but I should put that word back into the taboo box, close the lid, lock it up, and throw away the key.  If I ever need to use that word again in my life, I will need to hunt the key, unlock the box, open it carefully, and put the word back immediately.

All that for a word which at its most basic level simply means “black.”

That chafes a little.

As a white man, I don’t like being told something is off limits to me – especially something that Samuel L. Jackson makes so cool.

But, even Clint Eastwood said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”  I have decided this one is mine.

All this newfound conviction faced a test a few years ago when I found myself neck deep in street ministry.  At that point, I did develop some deep and trusting friendships across racial lines with a handful of black people.  Three women in particular.  Two were best friends with each other, and old enough to be my mom.  In fact, the one eventually adopted me as one of her kids (unofficially of course), and when I came to visit her husband as he was ill in the hospital, she put me on the approved visitor list claiming I was her son, which made for some confusion when I showed up.

But the third lady was a hooker, crack addicted, HIV positive, and suffering psychotic episodes with schizophrenia.  She also was much closer to me in age, and like Samuel L. Jackson in the movies, she and so many of her black friends referred to and greeted one another with affection and/or respect using the N-word.  I spent so much time with her, that this almost became the oxygen I breathed.

I never was actually tempted to use the word, but there came one evening when she addressed me with it.  I took the opportunity then to tell her that is a word I do not use.  She, though, encouraged me to use it, but to use it in a specific way.  She informed me that she and her friends find no insult in the word as long as you don’t pronounce the “r” at the end, but rather replace the final syllable with “a.”

I still declined.

I have, however, found the word to be explosive in power and unparalleled in the universe of bad words.  If you need a bomb, it is there to be had. But when do you really need a bomb?

I find that behind closed doors among other whites, there are times, not always, but there are times, when someone will feel comfortable trotting out the term.  If it floats in that setting with some sort of humor, it teases the other white people to try it too.  It becomes an itch that needs scratched, a taboo that white people want to indulge.  Not every white person and not all the time, but I have seen the phenom before.  I have felt that itch myself; I recognize it when I see it in others.  It’s right about there that I am apt to butt in to the communal conversation and announce that my Mama was black, and I don’t appreciate my white friends using that language.

Just one last thought on this ugly word comes to mind as of this draft.

When I was born, and even as a very young child, you would hear the N-word on TV from time to time.  Even newscasters used it.  These same professionals would avoid use of “God Damn,” but the N-word was fair game.  I remember seeing Richard Prior and Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live using it.  Of course, in their case, they were making a humorous effort to highlight it’s damage – something which seemed acceptable at the time (at least in some quarters).

I mention this only to say that the world has changed over the course of my life. The world I was born into, the one my parents and family worked to fit me into, was different.  There was a lot of investment of blood, time, and energy making me feel at home in THAT world.  I live in a world now where I NEVER hear the N-word on TV, but if you listen careful enough, long enough, you will hear the Lord’s Name taken in vain, and I personally find that to be a more serious offense.  (Of course, I find that not to be so much the use of the phrase “God Damn” now as I did when I was in the fifth grade, but that is complicating my point.)  Thus, even though I strive for sensitivity, I am venturing out from my home base, from what feels natural.  I never meant any real harm, and it is hard to accept that I might have caused it.  This means there are two levels to the struggle for change, even within me.  1) The struggle just to see my complicity, and 2) the struggle to admit it.

No doubt there is more I could say, but this is long now and adequately covers all the important parts of my experience with the N-Bomb.  There may be other tidbits arise in future conversations, but my offerings here at this point say a lot, I think.

I invite readers here to respond.  Share your own experiences.  Explore deeper and yet useful sensitivities with me.  Teach me.  (At least try.)  And let’s see if we can help each other navigate our world and the N-word and healing for the damage done.