Friends . . . Actually

Years ago, my decisions about who my friends were or were not were more simply made. I simply avoided you if you said or did things that I found disturbing.

You would think that the same principle would be involved in social media. I fully understand that it can be. I see posts all the time where people “unfriend” others and, if pushed hard enough, completely leave FaceBook or whatever their platform of choice is.

I’ve “unfriended” a few people in the past. To date, my standard has been to unfriend anyone who exhibits hate and discrimination in their personal posts. Oh, and anyone who has a fascination with the “F” bomb or taking God’s name in vain. (“OMG! Addicts,” you’re nearing the edge.)  I am “friends” with a wide array of individuals — many of them sensitive to such rubbish. Others are young and losing their innocence to what our greater society has begun to find acceptable. Enlightenment never looked so dark. I don’t choose for my internet spaces to be the place where they get further exposure to such things.

I am close to “unfriending” some others of you. You’re pushing the line by reposting things that you haven’t checked out and that are largely false or misleading. Just writing the word “Truth” by those posts doesn’t make them true. Others of you are posting things that do have truth at their base. However, by watching what you post day after day, I have to wonder if you choose to feature only stories that will escalate violence and hatred. If I unfriend you, it won’t be because of your view of what is right and wrong, but only because of the way your actions are perpetuating bad sentiment and behavior among others.

Because of my life experience, I have been honored to form friendships among diverse groups of people. Politically, racially, ethnically, spiritually. I have been stretched by that diversity and I am grateful. But lest you think that you are on the “right” side of my friend set and that you’re safe from the point I’m trying to make, I want to be clear that I’ve found people on both sides of the dividing line. The desire to incite negative outcomes seems to be an equal opportunity malady. I am not immune either.

I strongly believe that unfriending any of you (except for those who violate my standards about the personal bile and profanity) is not the best answer. No, I’m not keeping you on as friends because I think I can change you. I need my perspective to be broad. I need to have as friends those who think differently, see differently, and choose differently than I do. You make me uncomfortable sometimes. But that’s the point. I see goodness in you. And I hope you can look past my multitude of failings. Friends do that.

In fact, some of the discomfort you’ve blessed me with has caused me to pause and reconsider my position on some things. I’ve changed as a result. Thank you. Other things I don’t agree with have convinced me that I need to find ways to better understand you, because the ideas you are posting aren’t doing it.

My plea to you, my friend, is to be responsible. No matter how badly you see and know an injustice to be, remember that we, as God’s children, as peacemakers, are to be a peculiar people. Don’t escalate violence. Talk. Talk loudly if you must, but respectfully. March peacefully. Help bring change to this broken world. But please help stop this vicious cycle of retaliation and justification of the unholy — from both sides.

I say this as one friend to another.

“If just” — our answer to all things Ferguson

When I went to bed last Monday night with the images of mayhem in the streets of Ferguson burning as brightly as the fires in those streets, I knew that I would have to write something to express my feelings. So I did.

Thankfully, my writing session yesterday was interrupted repeatedly with meetings. I would return to my computer, read through the words that were there, edit a few, and then be called away again. What a blessing that turned out to be!

When I give advice to others about writing, I decry the evils of interruptions. Focus, write, close, ship! My advice is classic and echoes the lessons taught by many of the great writers of all time. And in this day of instant publishing, that outline for success could be seen as essential.

But it wouldn’t have served me well yesterday.

I wrote a long article. It had some great elements to it. But there was something haunting about those words. Slowly, I realized that I had fallen prey to my desire to judge and to correct from my sole perspective. That view is not simple — particularly when you add my thoughts on social and legal systems and my penchant for productive activities. Yet, I realize that my sole perspective should never be the only consideration. And I realized that I should never assume I fully know the perspectives of others.

Despite the fact that I invested several hours on that post, I couldn’t hit “publish.” This morning, just a few hours ago, I opened it one last time and then sent it to the trash. I thank God that it is gone.

Why?

Because, like most of the things I saw in social media and from the news media in the last 36 hours, it was from the “IF JUST” angle. If just people would do this. If just people would not do that. If just the prosecutor had done this. If just President Obama had used these words in stead of those words. If just . . .

“If just” paints my view and my judgment on everything. That’s the problem with most of our “justice” conversations. The concept of justice is self-centered. We agree to a set of norms or rules because, under certain circumstances, we want those rules to benefit us.

Honestly, every society in history has written laws and rules to benefit self. And the “self” that was benefited was always those who were in power at the moment. I’m not just talking Democrats and Republicans here. For the sake of continuity, the concept of legal precedent surfaced to help people make decisions — so they would know what to expect from their behavior and from society’s response to that behavior. And the laws and the precedents have shaped multiple systems that raise barriers and increase the likelihood that you and I will never have true relationship and understanding with those we perceive to be different from us.

Systems are efficient. But systems aren’t perfect. Some systems are just bad. One of the strengths of a system is its ability to resist change. That strength is also the biggest threat posed by systems.

We must change some systems in this country. I am of the opinion that we suffer from systemic racism. Maybe you don’t share that view. Yet, perhaps you would agree that we have some sort of problem. However, if your answer to that problem is preceded by “IF JUST” it has little chance of success in the long term.

I hope I haven’t urged “IF JUST” beyond what I hope is a clear statement of our need to make this conversation about more than our personal justice perspectives. Let’s truly scrutinize the things we do and the things we permit that discriminate and devalue others. And let’s do it in a spirit of building instead of destruction. And let’s take action.

You know, perhaps our conversations should be framed “IF JESUS.”

 

Sometimes the Sun

Sometimes the sun, after a day of gray and cold, shines through.

Sometimes the sun, when news is bad and the outlook is bleak, finds a hole in the cloud.

Sometimes the sun, when the forecast offers no hope and we’ve resigned ourselves to the dismal, appears on a distant horizon.

Sometimes the sun isn’t the sun at all, but instead, is the intertwining of souls caught together in something bigger than self.

In these sometimes dark days of violence, war, famine, poverty, and discrimination, stand together and remember . . . sometimes the sun!

A Picture of Ferguson, Missouri

You have probably noticed there isn’t one.

I looked for a picture of Ferguson that didn’t have police lined-up across from citizens or chalk outlines of bodies on the asphalt or clever protest signs. I grew tired of looking.

I simply wanted to write about Ferguson and its struggles with words that would provide the space we all need to grapple with the problems and handle the results of confrontation, death, peaceful demonstrations, riots, prospects of grand jury indictments. And the incredible sadness of a community where the pictures are all of trouble.

And, I wasn’t hoping to show a peaceful Ferguson in an effort to downplay all that is at risk there today. I was hoping to show a town much like the towns we know. Towns not caught in the public spotlight. Places where mistakes are made and bad things happen, but we have a sense that, overall, people are trying to do the right thing. I was hoping that there was a time when Ferguson was like that.

From what some would say, there may not be a picture of a truly peaceful Ferguson in recent history — perhaps decades. I don’t know. I don’t have enough information.

I read a blog post earlier today that said I shouldn’t write anything about Ferguson if I was going to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have enough information.” But I don’t have the information that can positively place blame on one side or the other. I don’t know what the outcome should be.

So, here is what I do know.

  • It is a shame whenever anyone’s life is taken by violence, whether justified or not.
  • Minorities, especially African Americans, are involved in confrontations (often deadly) with police at a much higher rate than white Americans.
  • To some degree, that higher rate is the result of personal and institutional racism. (Sorry, I don’t know to what degree. I am not smart enough to read and interpret all of the statistics. But I’m not dumb enough not to understand the implications.  If you are offended by my use of the word “racism,” I apologize for making you uncomfortable. But, it’s an accurate word. Discrimination based on race is racism. Our systems do discriminate.)
  • People across the ethnic spectrum misbehave and make mistakes.
  • It is not wrong to enforce laws for the good of society regardless of a person’s race or the color of their skin.
  • It is wrong to hand out justice inconsistently based on race and skin color.
  • Because of past history with our justice system, many of our friends and neighbors who are not white will not trust an outcome by that system — in Ferguson or elsewhere — if it does not result in an indictment against the police officer. Their experience makes the system suspect.
  • If the system is corrupt, it needs to be changed. If people are corrupt, they need to be replaced.
  • This is a horrible situation.
  • We each — every one of us — need to find one piece of holy, common ground to start the conversation and the healing.

And that is where most of us will say, “I don’t know” how to find that one piece of holy ground.

Let me offer this.

Find one person who does not share your racial background. Sit with them and talk quietly about this. Listen. Don’t expect to solve all of the problems. Do expect to discover holy ground. Don’t make it your job to persuade the other person. Do make it your job to understand the other person. If your relationship permits, pray with the other person. If you don’t have a praying relationship, pray that you will.

If you can’t do that, please pray that others can have the conversation.

And while the blog post I read earlier tells us that we should be ashamed to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have enough information,” I can’t be tagged with that shame as long as I am listening and searching for the answers. With understanding, we come to that place of knowing.

We should pray for hundreds of thousands of these conversations. Even if that quest for holy ground only saves one life . . . even if it only helps one individual make a better decision, it will be worth the effort. I know that it will do far more.

I can guarantee that the holy ground discovered will be exponentially larger than that small stretch of asphalt in Ferguson where tragedy occurred. Even if we don’t know — and may never know — the full story of that tragedy.

Who are you listening to today?

Day 12 – Re-entry

Boarding our red-eye flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam brought a sense of relief. Our team of peacemakers was tired and we were eager to see family and friends back home. Yet, our relief was not about our re-entry to our own lives and routines. No, we were just pleased to finally be beyond the checkpoints and into a series of flights and layovers that would be routine.

Well, that didn’t quite work out.

That first leg of our flight was uneventful with the excellent level of service we had come to expect from a KLM-Royal Dutch Airline crew. Polite, helpful staff, clean airplane, and excellent dining. Most of us tried to follow the advice we had received to “sleep on the first flight — stay awake on the second” in order to ease jet lag on re-entry. Well, let me put it this way. I followed the advice. The rest of the team managed to get seats in pairs. So, it’s possible that they decided that this ten hours was better spent in conversation. The German guy next to me simply put his blanket over his head before we left Nairobi — a pretty clear signal that we wouldn’t be talking.

The blanket did come off the German quite rapidly when we touched down in Amstersdam. And I heard more words from my seatmate in 10 seconds than I had in 10 hours. German words. Although I’m pretty sure they weren’t nice German words.

2014-10-01 08.39.04Of course, almost everyone came to attention at that moment. Within seconds of touching down, the 747’s brakes malfunctioned and locked on the right side of the plane and we rapidly came to a stop, nose and right gear off the runway. (Later we would learn that the captain accomplished a heroic feat in keeping the plane upright.) Our great crew put us all at ease and we watched from inside as fire trucks, ambulances, and light trucks began to surround us.

2014-10-01 08.39.16Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt. We began the slow process of deplaning, boarding buses, and making the 15 minute journey to the terminal. The flight attendants, ever friendly, invited me out on the stair platform for fresh air and to shoot a few pictures while Aaron, Betty, and I waited for the last buses.

We had a 5-hour layover, so none of us were concerned except . . .

2014-10-01 08.42.45Did I mention that Betty and Robyn were leaving us in Amsterdam and flying to London to attend a special event honoring Nanon Williams, Betty’s co-author of The Darkest Hour? So I probably didn’t mention that their layover wasn’t as long as ours, did I?

2014-10-01 08.41.38Nevertheless, the dynamic duo did make it on board a plane bound for Merrye Olde England, without bags, of course. And the rest of us took advantage of our remaining layover to charge phones, grab a bite to eat, and stand in line for the ever-present security checkpoint.

The last leg of our journey into the United States was uneventful. I watched 3 movies in a row, ate the two meals that were served, and walked the aisles to stay awake. I was determined to conquer jet lag.

Leaving the plane in Dallas, we made our way through passport control and down to baggage claim. Because of the mishap in Amsterdam, there were no bags. But the KLM agent we contacted had documents waiting for us. Aaron, Allison, Dan, and Malcolm would need to return to DFW for theirs. Mine would be flown on to Abilene.

So, we said goodbye. Hugs and a few tears. Then, we parted.

Re-entry. Initially it seemed it involved a few plane rides, gathering our belongings, and a short drive home. But in the ensuing weeks, we found it was much, much more.

Re-entry came to be about a far different worldview from that we had experienced in Rwanda and Kenya. Re-entry surfaced as a longing and loneliness for the new African friends we had made. Re-entry became a complicated attempt to extricate ourselves from the daily lives and routines of our life-long partners in this adventure.

Africa Team

Photo: Betty Gilmore

Betty, Robyn, Allison, Dan, Malcolm, Aaron, and I had formed a bond that was stronger than any of us had anticipated. We had become brothers and sisters in a very special calling.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9.