Reflections on Fear, Hatred, and Division in Our Time

I have been struggling with what to say and how to respond to this week’s release of the Ahmaud Arbery video. The video is truly gut wrenching. This incident has stoked the flames of an ever-smoldering fire. A fire that has been burning since before our country ever was. I am writing this mere miles away from a civil war skirmish location. A war that, according to the history books, created a country where everyone was equal, where everyone had the same chance of life as anyone else.
What makes me qualified to speak on the topic of racism, hatred, and injustice in America? I am a white-male, living a comfortable and safe life, seemingly far removed from the notions of racism and intolerance. What give me the right to rant about this? In many ways, nothing. I have never been openly discriminated against in any meaningful way. Nor have I have never openly been treated different because of my skin, race, or gender. I go running through my neighborhood several times a week, never once has it ever crossed my mind that it might be a death sentence. My biggest worry when I run, is a driver taking their eyes of off the road to answer a text message. Never have I thought of this as a privilege. Until now. Now, groups of people are scared to go out into their own neighborhoods, fearing becoming targets of hatred.
As sad as it is, Ahmaud’s case is not unique or even that uncommon. For instance, since the start of our present Corona pandemic, the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans has risen sharply. The perpetrators of these acts are afraid of what is going on and are looking for a scapegoat. I think you could argue that fear is the underlying cause of a majority of hatred. When events like this come into our public ethos, we rally and cry for justice…for a while. Then we move on to the next thing. Whether we realize it or not, that is a privilege. We have the option to move on to the next thing.  We have the option to not think about it. This is not an option for many in our country. For many, this is an everyday reality that constantly beats on their door.
Wherever you stand on the political spectrum or on this topic as a whole or even on this particular incident, the fact is that everything is not OK. We have groups of people fearing each other. This fear is festering and boiling over into rage. So what do we do? How do we address this root fear? These are divides that have been ebbing and flowing for decades even centuries, so I think it would be foolhearted to think that we can completely fix them in a month, a year, or a decade. But that should not prevent us from taking a step forward.
So back to my earlier question: what makes me qualified to speak on this topic? I believe the answer is simply mere willingness—willingness to admit my privilege, willingness to take a step, willingness to learn, willingness to try and move forward. So today (May 8) the day that should have been Ahmaud Arbery’s 26th birthday, take a small step forward. Reach out and listen to someone with a different story than you. It does not matter your location, race, gender, faith, or economic situation, take this as an opportunity to be willing to listen to someone else’s story. If the root of this situation we find ourselves in today, is fear. Let’s take one step to address that fear. Most often we fear what we do not know or understand. Celebrate Ahmaud and the 100s of other Ahmaud’s today, by doing something tangible to move us forward. Simply be willing to reach out and listen, learn, and understand those that are different than yourself.


A Light in the Darkness

The current social distancing and isolation as a result of the current pandemic has certainly has a drastic impact on people’s every day lives. From minor annoyances, like March Madness not happening, to real life altering problems, like job loss or sickness. However, something else has drastically changed (or was renewed); and that is the amazing power of a rallying community seeking to do good. Now, I am in no way seeking to minimize or ignore the real and genuine hardships that are going on right now. That is the last thing I want to do. There are many articles, reports, blogs, and social media reflecting on the earnestness of this situation. These issues should not be hidden, and those articles should be written. We need to continue to see how this is negativity impacting those around us. But that is not what I am thinking about right now. Today, my heart is warmed and my soul is refreshed by all the amazing acts of generosity, selflessness, and honest heroism I am seeing happening every day.
The first people that need to be highlighted are medical personal. I am amazed by the near universal call to arms that has been upheld by our medical professionals. Hearing the personal stories of friends and colleagues who are at the forefront of this outbreak has been touching and powerful. People have told me they have not seen their significant others in days (one person weeks) because they felt an obligation to stay and help as much as possible. Another person sent me a picture of the back of her ears. They are bruised, scabbed, and raw from the constant, persistent rub from the nylon face-mask attachments. Everyone I talked to is beyond tired and desperately wanting this to all be over. But every single one of them seemed determined to not give up and to dig as deep as needed to win the day.
Individual people are stepping up to help in any way I can. There is an app called ‘Nextdoor’ that acts as a kind of digital bulletin board for local communities and neighborhoods. I have been blown away by the number of people posting asking if anyone needs help. People are offering to go grocery shopping for high risk people who should not leave the house. Some are offering free services, like digital tutoring for kids transitioning to distance learning (while we are on the subject of school, teachers have on the whole been amazing coming up with a whole new way of teaching and in some cases an entire new syllabus basically on the fly). Still others are voluntarily offering to give away perhaps the most valuable of commodities right now—toilet paper.
Businesses are doing what they can to help in this time of crisis. Grocery stores allocated specific hours for elderly and immunodeficient people. Breweries switching space, money, and person power to making hand sanitizer instead of beer. Even cable companies (normally the bane of most people’s existence) are trying to help by offering free movie channels during this time of isolation. These are just a few examples of people that are stepping outside of their normal pattern and extending themselves for the betterment of those around them.
So, while there is no denying or minimizing all the negative impacts the Coronavirus is having, it has also brought us together as humans. It has, for a brief moment, put our everyday problems, disagreements, and barriers into perspective. It has highlighted the best parts of humanity—the willingness to join hand-in-hand (metaphorically of course—6 feet apart!)  and declare that we will protect those who can’t protect themselves and we will care for anyone who need it. I can’t tell you how much all of this has lifted by often overly pessimistic and skeptical heart.


Am I Doing Lent Wrong?

I, personally, have had an interesting relationship with the Lent season. Lent is a 40-day period leading up to Easter (I know different traditions count the days and duration of Lent slightly differently, don’t @ me). Growing up, Lent was never really talked about or observed in my church, it was simply categorized as something that only Catholics did. As a result, I knew very little about it. When I was in college, a Christian group I was a part of made a big push during the Lent season. It was during these years that I fell in love with the idea of Lent. I am sure lots of factors went into my growing love of Lent. I am a person who loves creating artificial challenges for myself. I absolutely love those ‘can you survive for a week with only 2 dollars to feed yourself’ videos. Maybe it is the creativity required to excel at something like that that excites me. I think the fact that Lent coincides with spring plays a huge factor into my love of it. Spring is one of my favorite times of year (no not just because my birthday is in the beginning of April, but it does not hurt). Having the interpersonal journey of Lent start when the outside weather is cold, grey, and bleak and end with warm sunshine, chirping birds and beautiful spring blooms really helps to reframe my entire mental attitude toward myself and the world around me. Some of my first Lenten experiences happened on the beautiful University of Washington campus in Seattle. There is one special place on campus called ‘the quad’ that has some amazing Japanese Cherry blossom trees. Having Lent culminate with the stunning blooming of these trees is such a beautiful metaphor for the entire Lent and Easter seasons.

But I think I need to admit that I did Lent wrong for a long time. A common Lent practice is to give something up for Lent. The idea being that every time you crave that particular thing that you take that moment to think about Christ. I went all in on this practice. My first Lent I did a 40 day fast, where I did not eat from Sunrise to Sunset every day. I came to the end of it exhausted, frustrated, and in an emotionally unhealthy place. I was too hard on myself during that season. I told myself that if I failed in my Lent fast that God was going to be mad and disappointed in me. For this very reason, I know a good number of people dread Lent. They see it as a burden that they must shoulder every year in order to be a ‘good Christian.’ I think of Lent as a time of personal growth and a time of closeness to God. Those two things do not have to go hand in hand with being miserable or dreading these 40 days.

My own love of Lent did not really begin until I learned to practice grace with myself. I find it so fascinating that people are more ready to dole out grace and forgiveness to others than they are to themselves. I want people to enjoy and look forward to Lent as much as I do. But I know that will never happen if we put too much pressure on ourselves to turn into the perfect Christians during Lent. One way I found for me to do this is to no longer ‘give anything up’ for Lent. Instead my Lent tradition is to go out and find one or two great books on the Cross or on the Resurrection and read those. I guess you could say I am ‘giving up’ some time to read these books, but I much prefer the framing of adding something. Now, is this something I do every day? No! I get busy and might go a week without reading one of my Lent books. But that is OK. I know those books will be there when I get back to them. I have even had a few years when I did not finish my two books during the Lent season. I had to finish them up the week after Easter. That is just fine, the knowledge or wisdom or insights of these books is not restricted to a single 40-day window every year.

If you are someone who practices any kind of Lent fasting might I suggest added one more thing to your fasting list. I would encourage everyone to fast from self-deprecating thoughts during Lent.  Or if you want to spin it so you are adding something. I would encourage all of us to up the amount of grace we show ourselves over these 40 days. Use Lent as a time to grow and thrive not as a time that drains and haunts you.


Valentine’s Day Loneliness

Valentine’s Day is an interesting topic. It seems like people either absolutely love it or wholly despise it. If you have a partner, having a day set aside to reflect on how wonderful they are and doing something you love together is great. Kristine and I have enjoyed some amazing Valentine’s days. Last year, we found a nickel arcade and wasted an entire afternoon blowing through nickels. This year we got a new board game and are excited to play it tomorrow.

But I also know Valentine’s day can be a hard and depressing day for people. One of my favorite Simpsons episodes, “I love Lisa”, is all about how Valentine’s day can exacerbate feelings of isolation.  I have conversations with people every year about how this day reminds them of how lonely they are, whether because they are worried that they will never find a partner or they are mourning the loss of a loved one. We often try to give a consolatory word or an encouragement, ‘God has just the right person out there for you.’ While this is true, it is often the last thing a person feeling this way wants to hear.

It is an interesting conundrum that days and times of the year that are set aside for joy and love are also the times when people often feel the least amount of joy and feel the furthest away from love. Perhaps this is why there is such a rise in counter-valentine’s culture/events. Groups of friends celebrating gal-intines day together or game stores offering Valentine’s discounts are all efforts to help people who feel lonely and isolated.

I honestly don’t know what the solution is. Trying to curb loneliness is something we as a population have been struggling with for 100s of years, if not longer. All I might suggest is reaching out to someone in the coming days. Just a simple text or funny meme can remind someone that they are not alone and that there are people in their life that love them. Don’t limit it to specific times of the year. Make it a habit of reaching out to people. Text that co-worker you have not talked to in a while. Sit next to that person that always sits in the back row of class. Call that person you have not seen in church for a while. At RiverTree, we firmly believe that relationships are the foundation to everything the church can and should do in the world. Let’s all make an extra effort to reach out and connect with someone we normally don’t interact with this Valentine’s season.


2020 Pastor’s Blog Restart!

As anyone who is reading this can certainly tell, this blog section has not been the most up-to-date line of communication here at RiverTree. One of my New Years Resolutions for 2020 is to is to utilize this more. So here I am, writing into the void on a cold, snowy January morning. To be honest, I am not entirely sure what this page will end up being. I might reflect on something I have read or heard. I might use it as a sounding board for up coming messages. I might recommend books or TV shows. It might even devolve into me just reviewing games or movies. (Because I do love talking about movies and games!) Whatever this ends up being I want it to be something we experience together. I want a dialogue; I want to hear from all of you!

Some of you know that Kristine and I recently got a little kitten. In fact, little Sheev Meowpatine is sitting on my lap right now as I am typing this. One thing kittens do a ton of is sleep. I mean this little guy sleeps 15 plus hours a day. One of his current favorite places to sleep is on me. Now, I love this. Who would not want an adorable kitten napping on them (maybe people who are allergic to cats, but that is besides the point). The problem is, I don’t often just sit or lay down for an hour in the middle of the day for kitten to sleep. But I am not going to wake little Meowpatine up, he is so cute sleeping—he snores even! So this means that for the past few weeks I have been forced to just simply sit or lay down and do nothing for 30 or 40 minutes at a time. If I happen to have my phone on me, I can read or listen to a podcast or something. But often times it is just simply being still.

Thinking about these times of forced stillness, I thought of the story from the book of I Kings where YHWH appears to Elijah. In the story there is a cacophony of noise and excitement that swirled around before YHWH’s coming but that, “After the earthquake came a fire, but YHWH was not in the fire. After the fire came a gentle whisper,” (I ki 19:12). Like many people (I’m sure most of you reading this) I am always on the move – bouncing from one task to the next one meeting to the next. That is what life is right now. If you are not continually going you are falling behind someone else who is. But I am finding that this does not have to be the case.

Believe me the first few times I was trapped under a sleepy kitty I was frustrated. ‘I have to get a draft of this week’s sermon done today.’ ‘I have to email that person back.’ ‘I have bulletins to make.’  But, in only two short weeks, I have grown to love these moments of forced rest. Often, I think we get so busy doing things for the Kingdom of God that we are too busy to actually hear from God. I have found that I connect more with God and hear more from God in these 30-minute kitten nap moments than I do in hours and hours of sermon prep or other church work. This little kitten has done a better job than any book or motivational speaker ever could, in reminding me the importance of stillness; the importance of simply being. I know that as Mewopatine grows he will nap less and less, and I know that our kitten naps will become more and more infrequent, but I am truly grateful for the quite moments we have together. For, they have reminded me that too often I look for God in the big, loud, important things in life. When realistically, God is best heard in the quite whispers of life. I just have to slow down to hear.


Re-imagining Church

What if we could re-imagine church?

Statistics tell us that most people in our country are slowly giving up on church. I don’t blame them. Church can be a difficult and even harmful institution. Many people people have good reasons to stay away from organized religion. If that’s you, I don’t blame you. I have been in and around churches my whole life. I have yet to escape with no hard feelings at least and wounding at most. So, why not just give up? Why keep giving it another shot? For us at RiverTree, we are hoping to answer that question not with pat, oversimplified answers, but with substantial and meaningful acts of love that produce authentic community that is difficult to find in our culture today. In other words, we invite you to come and see for yourself what we’re trying to accomplish, and maybe consider contributing to it. Because the answer to improving the church is not abandonment but active involvement. We welcome differing voices and experiences into our community because we believe that that makes us richer and more like God’s family. Come on. Give church another try.