Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Birth and Death

Certain life events break through the mundane of the day-to-day to remind us we are eternal beings, created for eternity with a significance to match. When we experience them, we are reminded of both the fleeting nature of life as well as its weightiness - and if we're fortunate we learn from them and change. Two such events earlier this year, barely a month apart, did just that for me. 

The first was the birth of my second daughter on January 5th. After a busy couple of days she arrived in a whirlwind at Northside Atlanta at around 9:30 and it took my breath away just like the birth of my first daughter. It really is miraculous - hearing them cry for the first time, seeing them blink at their first view of light, locking eyes for the first time - and it is as if time stands still. You breathe in, breathe out and try to savor these first few moments of life. Something that had changed since the birth of our first daughter was that the hospital had implemented a new "golden hour" where you can bond with your child with no interruption for the first hour. We had tried to do this last time to no avail - so we were happy to get to read a book to her (Where the Wild Things Are) and cuddle some. In those moments we tried to take in the weight of bringing another precious life into the world -- the weight of showing them life, love, grace and the meaning of it all.

A little over a month later I was in another hospital room, this time visiting my wife's grandfather. After a couple of falls and a visit to rehab he was dealing with a myriad of infections and had ended up in a hospital close to our house. With family in town and a newborn at home, I had not had a chance to visit him yet - so I ventured over during nap time on Sunday, Feb 11th. When I arrived he was laying in bed, mouth agape looking towards the ceiling; his oldest daughter sat by the bed on the phone. After tapping his arm and speaking to him, I had a funny feeling. He had not been responsive the last few days, but... then his daughter hung up the phone and checked him. "I think we lost him, Scott" she said to me. Indeed, he had passed moments before I came in the room. We embraced and stood in shock - even though he was 92 and very sick, everything about death is unnatural to the human soul. We let the nurse know, called family, and tried to deal with the reality that he was gone now.

I don't recall ever being in the room when (or right after) someone had died. It shook me because, as I said, it's unnatural. We were made as eternal beings, created for life and we live most of our days under the delusion that we'll live forever. But death is a reality, we all will die one day - as hard to believe as it may be. 

I went on a retreat the month after Grandpa died with some good friends and the subject we studied was the value in contemplating our own deaths. My friend David had read a book recently that had helped him explore this. I actually helped him prepare some of the material that we studied, so I thought more on this in the days leading up to the retreat as well. He had us read an awesome article that summarized the book (The Denial of Death) the premise being that we are all driven by a fear of death, seeking immortality through living lives of impact, meaning or even showing our significance through what we can destroy. I recounted to my friends my experience the previous month, and how even literally staring death in the face, it was still hard to believe. It was a beneficial weekend to sit in nature, consider the finitude of life and be with friends. 

That would normally be enough examples for a tidy post, but this is my blog and I have more, so I'm going to keep writing.

In May I finally watched the movie Dr. Strange. It's a fascinating film with stunning visuals - its mind-bending production style reminded me of Inception. As with many super hero films, it was chock-full of life lessons and the ultimate meaning of it all. In one pivotal scene, a main character "The Ancient One" who up to this point (spoiler alert) has been immortal is now facing her death. She shares the following thoughts:

Couldn't have said it better myself. And this thought is echoed in Scripture:

                      Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of     wisdom. 

                                                                                         Psalm 90:12
The fact that we are not immortal makes us make the days count for something more- to invest in relationships, be kind to one another, focus on the intangibles of life that give it deeper meaning rather than building our own kingdoms and accumulating more stuff. 

Later in May I got the chance to meet one of my creative heroes, Damon Lindelof, one of the creators and producers of Lost. A bit of a story how I did - I was an extra on his latest creative endeavor which is being shot here in Georgia - and between takes I was near him and asked him a silly question about the famous polarizing finale of that show. He laughed it off which I expected him to do, and went on his way - but I was satisfied. Since then I've been reading more about him online - what inspires him, his creative process, and the back story to his projects. I've been listening to podcast interviews and even re-watching some of my favorite episodes of Lost (Season 3 Finale, The Constant, anyone?). In one of those interviews, he echoed this thought about the intensity of emotions in experiencing death and birth in life:

“I’m 43 years old now, and that’s right at the point in life you start attending just as many christenings as funerals,” he says. “I’ve now seen the grand layout of life. I lost my own father; I am a father … I’m really curious about what I’m supposed to do while I’m here on the planet, and I’m really curious about whether or not this is it. I want to explore that curiosity in the stories that I tell, and I want those stories to be populated by characters who are preoccupied by those ideas. 
“Because it’s very profound, death: It’s the most emotionally intense experience. I had the occasion to be present when my son was born, and I was also in the room when my father died. Those events were equally profound and stunning and amazing. I don’t know how I write about anything other than these two things ever again.”
I don't know if I'd say that's where I am - that everything I create will be in this vein - but I can relate to the profundity of these experiences. They impacted me and for the better. In all of these experiences this year, I've learned that left to ourselves we cannot handle the weight of life and death by themselves - we need God to help us appropriate the lessons and truly "teach us to number our days." Our feeble hearts' natural bent is to make it about ourselves and continue to live the lie that we're immortal. But God meets our hearts with what we need -- meaning through being about Him and His glory, making sense of our story in light of His. 
I'll leave you with this final thought from Thomas Merton shared with me again from my friend, David:

“If, at the moment of our death, death comes to us as an unwelcome stranger, it will be because Christ also has been to us an unwelcome stranger. For when death comes, Christ comes also, bringing us the everlasting life which He has bought for us by His own death. Those who love true life, therefore, frequently think about their death. Their life is full of a silence that is an anticipated victory over death. Silence, indeed, makes death our servant and even our friend. Thoughts and prayers that grow up out of the silent thought of death are like trees growing where there is no water. They are strong thoughts, that overcome passion and desire. They turn the face of our soul, in constant desire, toward the face of Christ.”

Thursday, May 24, 2018

More thoughts on race

As I've thought on my previous post, I realized I left some things out in this journey over the last few years. One significant occasions was getting to visit the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture last summer in Washington DC. In a 3 hour visit (and I could've probably spent 3 more) to the beautiful building, I walked through the history of blacks in our country. I ventured through the hull of a slave ship, and sat in a train car. I walked through a slave cabin and parked it at a lunch counter. It's a fully immersive experience that does an excellent job of capturing the emotion and impact that racial tension and injustice have had on our country since before its' founding. Each exhibit by itself is striking, but taken together it definitely elicits a response.
     (A lot of moving quotes are displayed throughout the museum, so I took a lot of pictures with my new camera)

One portion that was especially moving was the section on Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi by white men in 1955. In the museum, they have a casket viewing set up with music playing from his funeral - and visitors from the museum can shuffle through as if they are at his funeral that hot August day. Like I said, it's moving and it's easy to see through this experience how this event - and the decision by his mother to print his battered picture in the newspaper - was one of the key catalysts for the Civil Rights Movement.

While a good portion of the museum is history- the 4 floors underground - it's not all history per se. There are several floors above ground, each dedicated to a different significant part of American culture which blacks have contributed to - like music, spots and so on. As I ventured through the whole museum and got overwhelmed by all the content (I'm the kind of museum visitor that likes to read every plague! luckily I was by myself, not dragging my family through) I was struck by how few of these people I had never even heard of. Granted, I'm a white guy that grew up in the South, but there were so many names! I started to make a list in my phone so that I could go later and read about each of them. Dudley Randall. Dick Rowland. Ottobah Cugoano. I left the museum that day with a list of about 30 names and events to look up later and learn more.

Another moving portion of the museum for me was on the bottom floor. This was in the section that talked about the early roots of slavery in our country, the slave trade and our founding. One of the glaring problems with our history is that one of our Founding Documents - the Declaration of Independence - states all men are "created equal" but this was written by a slave holder, Thomas Jefferson. How would the museum deal with this reality? I wondered - turns out in a very compelling way. When you leave the section about the slave trade and turn the corner, you see a statue of Jefferson and up on the wall behind him the words he penned in the DoI. But between those words and his statue are 600 bricks stacked around him, each one representing a slave that he owned. The image is stark, and in a glance you get the paradox, the juxtaposition of this freedom-loving Founding Father who also owned slaves.
This is the history we as a country must reckon with. We cannot deny this paradox as we have been inclined to do. As the Baldwin quote above says, we carry our understanding of history with us - it's always present in all we do. So we must reckon with it; it's controlling us whether we understand it or not. This museum helps us do this.

The final section of the museum is moving as well - a picture is below. This is a reflective fountain and pool with MLK quotes along the wall. It's a perfect place to think on all you've experienced and how it will change how you live from this point on. I recommend visiting this museum if you get a chance!
I'll end with a few additional resources that I did not include in the previous post.

OJ Made in America  - This came out a couple of years ago, and my wife and I were riveted by it. Partly because we remember the trial happening in the 90s (I used to watch some of the coverage after school each day), and partly because of how this documentary tells this story of how the trial unfolded in the context of race in America at the time. Fascinating to see how OJ Simpson, a man proud of his connection to and admiration by white America became a symbol for Black America because of the Rodney King riots, police brutality, his history and more. Check it out if you haven't already.

74 seconds - I listened to this podcast recently about the Philando Castille police shooting in Minnesota. Well done and enlightening, I recommend this Pulitzer Prize winning podcast.

The Rachel Divide - A Netflix documentary on the former head of NAACP in Washington state, Rachel Dolezal, who was white but posed at black. Interesting look into the why of her story - and discussion on whether "transracial" is a thing. Worth a watch.

Finally, haven't experienced these yet, but while I'm talking about museums, I'm hoping to visit a few news ones soon. A couple in Montgomery, AL - the Legacy Museum and Memorial which seeks to tell the story of the history of injustice in American from slavery, lynchings and racial segregation. And then a new one in Jackson, MS - the Mississippi Civil Right Museum where Mississippi confronts its tattered history on race. Now if I could only find someone to go with me - don't think I can take a toddler and 5 month old!

Happy to hear your own experiences with race - just comment here!

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

My Personal Journey with Race

I've been on my own personal journey with racial issues the last 5-7 years and have learned quite a bit. Not sure I can say I'm "woke" persay, but definitely more aware than I used to be. Growing up as a southern white male I was pretty unaware of my biases and racial prejudices; or if I was aware I didn't necessarily think they were wrong. But I've recently discovered even if I wasn't southern, or white, or male, or had ANY racial biases, just living in America with the systems we have and our collective history then racism would be a part of my everyday life. It's like the air we breath - and I'm just realizing that.

Again, as a white guy, part of the privileged race in America, I've had the luxury of not even thinking about race most of my life. American society is set up to reward me for all that effort I put in to being born white. Education (from preschool to postgrad), the judicial system, prisons, government "handouts" (Housing initiatives during the New Deal, GI Bill, etc.), media, entertainment, career, and more all work to my advantage. So I'm only aware of race when someone "not white" enters into my frame of reference, and I've been conditioned to think they are "less than" because they are not white. This isn't necessarily the product of my family, or any one thing, but rather society in general and the thrust of (mostly American) history that has moved in this direction.

That is part of what I've learned on this journey, but I should go back to what led to this journey in the first place. You may think it's all of the racial conversations we've been having as a country - what with Ferguson, and Charleston, and Charlottesville, and....Trump. And while each of those and more have been a contributing factor to continuing the journey, it's not why it started. It started in a very personal way. In August of 2011 (I think?) my mother mentioned that she had recently discovered that we have a black relative. My widowed great-grandfather had had a relationship with one of his married farm hands in south Georgia and had two children - a daughter and son 8 years apart. The son had died, but the daughter was still living - now almost 80 - about 5 minutes from our family land. The realization that my grandmother, who passed away in 2001, had a half sister about 20 years younger than her and she was black - and we were just discovering it - to say it shook me to my core would be an understatement.

Beyond asking the natural questions like who is she, what was the nature of her relationship with my family, this is what I asked: Why did it shake me so? For one, my grandmother was probably the person I was closest to in my life growing up. So the fact that she had a half-sister and I didn't know it was both thrilling and disturbing. Thrilling because this is a connection to someone who meant so much to me that died a decade previously - but disturbing because had she known yet kept it from us?  The other glaring reality of why it had shaken me was the fact that this person was the result of infidelity (the mother was married) and she was African-American. I felt shame about this - although I was not aware of the nature of this relationship it didn't seem to be on the up-and-up. But I had to face this hard reality: Was I ashamed to be related to a black person? When it came down to it, yes I was.

Coming to grips with this was tough - not just this discovery of this person, but the latent racism that abided in my heart. Why was it there? Sure I could blame it on a Southern upbringing, the culture that comes with that, relatives that used the n-word, and the like. But plain and simple it was (and is) sin. My heart is always looking for ways to prop myself up, build my kingdom, and feeling superior over other people because of race, abilities, or other reasons is a common way my pride manifests itself.
It took months to come to grips with this, through many conversations and some prayer - but once I had, I was ready to meet this "new" relative. Meeting her and getting to know her is a post for another day. But suffice it to that this journey has been so impactful and changed me because it became personal for me. God is always after our hearts; once He got mine involved by introducing me to a new relative, the journey to change could begin.

I'd like to end with some resources that have helped me in this journey over the last few years.

My Church - They hosted some lunch and learns a year ago on racial reconciliation where we watched videos by Tony Evans and discussed implications for our lives. What I learned from this time was that it's not enough to just have a few black (or Asian or Indian) friends - that's not going to change the systems that cause most of the problems. But those relationships are a start - they get your heart involved and as you engage help you understand non-white perspectives. The next step though is leveraging your influence and privilege to change the systems (justice, policing, educations, and more) that are adversely impacting minorities. The church also recently did a sermon series on this topic and hosted an awesome panel on the issue - you can view it here and it's worth the 2 hours.

Podcasts - Several have been very helpful, but a couple to highlight are The Liturgists Racism episode - and then Scene On Radio's "Seeing White" series. Both were profound in shaping my understanding of how pervasive racism within our systems really is.

Books - There are several that have helped, and more I plan to read. But I'm working my way through    Under Our Skin by Benjamin Watson and have Stamped from the Beginning on it's way from Amazon.

Stay tuned to the blog for more on this journey.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Daddy to Girls

What does it mean to be a Daddy to girls?
Lots of pink and purple and tying pig tails with curls.

Coordinating bows with outfits is a must,
And when they look cute, making a fuss.

You baby the stuffed animals and put them to bed,
Take care when they're sick and make sure they are fed.

You kiss every boo-boo with gentleness and care
Make sure they feel comforted that Daddy is there.

Tea parties and doll time are definitely the norm,
But so are sand castles and fishing with worms.

There are lots of feelings and a fair share of tears
But you get to be their protector against all sorts of fears.

Is raising girls that much different than boys?
Both have their challenges and own set of joys.

From my vantage point, the greatest difference I suppose
As a Father to daughters there's the love that you know

The tight hugs that you get and sweet kisses, too;
The soft voice saying, "Daddy, I love you."

With 2 girls two and under, it maybe too early to say
But my hunch is this affection will only grow with each day.

One thing's for sure, they are gifts from above
And I cherish the chance to raise them in love.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Detours Are By Design

This morning the sermon was on Matthew 2 and the wise men that came from the East years after his birth following a star to see Jesus. I've heard this story hundreds of time, but learned several new things this morning. One was the name given to them - the Magi - denotes those who study stars among other things and it survives in todays words "magic" and "magician" - I never knew that! Also, something I had known but not considered was that these men came a great distance by foot to see Jesus and worship him - over 1,000 miles. That's why they didn't come right at Jesus' birth, but likely 1-2 years later.

As we read the scripture, I noticed something else. The star originally leads them to Jerusalem. Then they let Herod know why they are there; and ask around to find out where Jesus is and the scribes let them know the prophets foretold Bethlehem. They head out to Bethlehem and THEN the star reappears - Behold! - and leads them the rest of the way. As I noticed this, I started to think - why didn't star lead them to Bethlehem right away? Wasn't that the point of their journey, to find Jesus? So why the "detour" to Jerusalem first? Was the star mistaken at first and then remembered once the scribes shared the prophecy of old with the wise men? If I were one of the wise men, these were questions I would have been asking...

It was good to remember the reason for the visit to Jerusalem - that this was not a mistake, but rather part of God's Sovereign plan. Maybe it was to include Herod and his wicked ways in the story, or highlight how the Scribes knew where Jesus was to be born, but weren't looking for him despite the wise men's insights. We don't know. But we do know this is how God intended it and that the star was not lost.

I found this comforting this morning, because I often struggle with whether I have missed God's "Plan A" for my life. My soul aches with past regrets of missed opportunities, while I look at the life (read-mostly career) I have and feel that I've settled. But as this story reminds us and many more passages call out, the detours are by design. He had written every day of our life in His book before we were born. Perhaps now I'm in Jerusalem, asking around to involve other necessary characters - and the star will reappear soon. And it's good to remember that God's more interested in my growth in Him wherever I am in my journey than in the fulfillment of my ambitions and dreams. The Magi prove instructive in this regard as well, motivated by worship of the King. May I worship and grow in Love of God as I walk on my designed journey every day.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Gospel

I listened to an excellent sermon this morning that was preached at my church last weekend. We were out of town so I was catching up on what I missed. In it the guest preacher, Julius Kim continues in our current series, The Upside Down Kingdom, explaining how what Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount is only possible by believing in who He is and His Gospel. I wanted to recount a few points here because, if you're like me, it's always good to be reminded of the Gospel.

He focused on the popular and often misunderstood text of Matthew 5:38-48 - featuring such hallmarks of Christian thinking like "Turn the Other Cheek" and "Love your Enemies." He explained how those listening at that time would hear this teaching much differently that our modern American ears do. When they heard about a slap on the right cheek, they pictured a back-handed slap from an enemy, the height of dishonor. And going an extra mile referred to the most hated Roman law by the Jews in which any Roman could order them to carry a burden a mile on a whim. The cloak reference also carried much more weight than a shirt for covering - including familial and inheritance implications.

So what does all this mean? That Jesus is saying a lot more than "Grin and bear it" like I was often taught growing up. It's radical what He's saying - double what's expected of you, don't react like the world, love and pray for those who hate you, give up your inheritance for your enemies and don't defend yourself. Be perfect. Yes, He's getting at breaking the cycle of the world's way - but it's more than that. If we really understand what He's saying, it's impossible. (Dwight is right, but in a different way...) We cannot truly love our enemies from the heart, praying for them, walking that extra mile and giving them our cloak unless...

Unless, we understand and believe that that's what Jesus has done for us. That changes us. Julius brought it back beautifully in the sermon to the Gospel, jumping ahead to Matthew 27 showing how Jesus turned the other cheek as the soldiers beat His innocent flesh. He gave up His cloak and shirt as they stripped Him bear, casting lots for His clothes. He walked an extra mile carrying the cross, and finally prayed for His enemies while they nailed Him to that same Cross. This is the Gospel, and it's worth remembering today.

Jesus calls us to a higher, impossible standard of unconditional love and forgiveness in a world of hate and retribution. He calls us to perfect love. But how do we attain that? By understanding how he perfectly loved us, His enemies, and now indwells us empowering us to love in the same way. To read the Sermon on the Mount and interpret it as "Man up - grab your bootstraps, and do this!" is to believe a flawed American gospel which relies on self rather than Christ. But the True Gospel is good news - that we can't do it, He did it all, and we can trust Him to do the impossible through us.

Those that truly get this ancient sermon understand that Christ in the only one that fulfills the new law, too. Seeing how perfectly He has loved us and abiding in this Truth transforms us and empowers us to love in the same impossible way.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Tale as Old as Time...

Dear Internet,

It's been a little while, but I felt inspired to write tonight because I went with my bride to see the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. We had grandparent babysitters, a 9-year-anniversary of our first date to celebrate, so it was the perfect night to go. I was not disappointed. I grew up with the animated Disney films, and although The Lion King was my favorite, I remember really enjoying the story of two unlikely lovers. Why did I like this remake?

The Script - They kept the main story in tact, but enhanced it with some emotional backstory, pithy one-liners, and a few new characters. It's rare when this many changes are made and it still works - but it did in this case.

The Design - from the set, to the costumes, to the entire mis-en-scene it all contributes to a breathtaking spectacle. The Beast's castle was awesome - and so was Belle's village. I did find the Be Our Guest scene a bit too overwhelming with too much color. It struck me how much they sought to capture the beauty of the animated film even though it was live-action. With the color, and the vibrant scenery, and flowers, the hair and make-up even -- all the details were in place to give the feel and flare of the original animated feature. This helped the believability of the computer-animated parts--which is quite a few since many of the characters are entirely CGI; as opposed to the distraction they were in the little bit of The Jungle Book that I could stand to watch. The entire effect made me wonder quite a few times "How did they even film this?" It was movie magic - and it worked.

New songs - I'm a sucker for a good musical, being a singer and actor myself - but the only thing I enjoy more than a musical I know, is one I know with new songs that fit right in with the original. The movie had only a few new songs - but they were great new melodies that drove the plot and shared crucial character points. The one that I enjoyed most was a simple melody that Belle's father sings, "How Does a Moment Last Forever." It has great lyrics and rifts on the theme of the original story of the timelessness of true love.

Lastly, the Casting I thought was spot on. Josh Gad was awesome and perfect for that role. Emma Watson looked the part and acted it excellently. Even the bit parts were well-played. I appreciate the diversity of the cast as well. I didn't know Audra McDonald was in it until she arrived on screen - so it was treat to hear her voice.

That's all - aside from some over-the-topness in Be Our Guest (which the original was too come to think of it) I really enjoyed it and recommend it.