No, I’m not creating some sort of new age spiritualism combining Christianity and yoga. Meet my Yogi.
Yogi is the newest member of the pack at my house. He’s a 13 month old Alaskan Malamute that moved in with us two months ago. Yogi is a rescue that I located through the Washington Malamute Rescue League (WAMAL). I began working with WAMAL last summer with the idea of getting a new dog that Kenai could train. I was planning to introduce you to Yogi earlier, but Kenai’s tribute took precedence.
Bringing Yogi into our home was a challenging experience. My wife isn’t the biggest fan of Mals, after our experience with Kenai (he grew on her, and Yogi is too… but don’t say anything because she’ll deny it). It took a lot of work to convince her that Kenai wasn’t the norm, and that I’d learned a lot from training him, that would help me integrate a new dog into the house with a lot less stress and drama. Then there were the rest of the members of the house: in addition to Kenai, we had (still have) two geriatric cats, along with my daughter and son-in-law (who are living with us until they get a house bought here), and their two dogs–a Great Dane and an Italian Greyhound. Both of these dogs are rescues as well, and come with their own… quirks. It’s a rather full house, with a higher energy level than we are accustomed to, before you add a 90# puppy.
Yogi arrived just after New Year’s Day, and overall his integration has gone amazingly well. Yogi is very different from Kenai personality-wise. Where Kenai was a true Alpha, Yogi is more of a surfer-dude personality. He’s not interested in being in charge of anything, and just wants to have fun. I still need to convince him that chasing cats and excavating the backyard aren’t “fun,” but he’s learning.
Yogi, like all Mals, is super-smart. Almost too smart. Malamutes are a difficult breed for many people, which is probably why there are so many in rescue situations. No one can resist the cute fuzzy puppy:
Awww, he’s so cuuuutteee…
But cuddly becomes less cute when he’s a little bigger, a lot stronger, and bored. Mals need mental stimulation as well as physical. If I don’t do something to keep Yogi’s brain busy solving a problem, he creates a problem.
Yogi is a great student-he learns what you teach him on the first try… but he makes you do it twice to determine if you really mean it. He’s always thinking, always testing rules and boundaries. It’s really entertaining, unless I’m in a hurry to do something, and he decides to test my boundaries… and patience. But as I said, I learned a lot from Kenai, and it’s helped me understand Yogi much better.
As I said in the Kenai post, I’ve learned a lot about relating to people, and even about understanding God, from dogs. The idea for this, and some future posts, is to share what I’m learning about God, from getting to know Yogi better.
The first lesson/observation I made–the one that gave me this idea in the first place–was shortly after Yogi came to live with us. Yogi is VERY food-motivated. A dog treat gets his undivided attention, and will cause him to obey just about any command you give. That can be useful, but eventually you want him to obey commands without knowing there’s a treat involved. This particular night, I really wanted to give him a treat for no reason… just because. But I told him to sit. I had the treat in my hand, but he didn’t know it. That treat was the thing he wanted most… And he thoroughly understood the command “sit.” But part of training a dog is consistency. You give the prompt once, and you don’t reward any other behavior.
I told Yogi to sit.
He wandered around my closet looking for things to sniff…
He looked under the bed for a cat to torment…
He tried to leave the room…
He knew what I wanted him to do… but he wasn’t going to do it. He wanted things his way, not realizing that doing what I asked would get him what he wanted more than anything–more than smelly shoes, or hissing cats–a TREAT!!!!!
And I wantedto give it to him!!! All he had to do was plop his butt down, and doggy nirvana was his.
I was beginning to get frustrated. I had decided for no particular reason to give him something that would bring him sheer joy. I wanted to give him a good thing, and his stubbornness was keeping it from happening.
And I laughed. I wonder how many times God has had a good thing for me, something he wanted to give, something I wanted, but I was too stubborn, too independent, too selfish to realize that I was missing out on something my Good Father wanted me to have.
The Bible says God is “patient.” The older translations use the word “long-suffering.” I think that means he puts up with our annoying stubbornness much better than I do Yogi’s. But how much better would things be if I did what I was asked, instead of doing what I wanted?
I’m tired. I’m hesitant to publish that last sentence, because compared to most, I’ve got it pretty good. But, it’s true. I’m exhausted. I feel like I’m on empty. I can’t even keep track of all the emotionally charged events of the past… I don’t even know how long. Week? Month? Year??? It feels like a never-ending cycle of conflict, of tragedy, of hurt, and anger, and despair… I want to stop feeling it, but at the same time, I’m terrified about becoming numb to it.
Part of what is making this so difficult is the divisiveness in our culture, and my awkward position that feels like I’m standing with one foot on each side of the chasm. I have friends who can be classified as pretty strongly conservative, and others who are very liberal. It’s really kind of bizarre how I can express a thought or position on a topic, and get flamed by both sides for being aligned with the opposite perspective.
I wish I had an answer… I think I do, but most don’t want to hear it. I was re-reading an old blog post from about 18 months ago, that I wrote right after the Pulse shooting in Orlando, that I called “Seeing the People.” In it I described my observations from the area right around Pulse the day after the shooting. I was remembering this because of a quote making the rounds of my news feed today, where an NRA spokesperson said:
“Many in legacy media love mass shootings. You guys love it. But I am saying that you love the ratings.”
The quote is much longer, but the speaker said it with clear intent to divide and inflame; she basically acknowledged as much in the extended statement. I try hard not to let every inflammatory statement in my news feed get to me, because I’d be in a continuous state of rage, but this one has stuck with me all day. Because, unlike the speaker, I spent the day after a mass shooting in the area immediately around the shooting, not as a center of attention personality, but as someone who came to help, and who tried to observe while I was there. And I saw the “legacy media” at work. I describe it in detail in the post linked above, but I can promise you, no one was loving it. My son left an incredibly successful journalism career in part because of his lack of love for mass shootings, which he was up-close-and-personal with way too many times. All that to say, “No ma’am, you’re wrong as hell about the media loving mass shootings, and you’re fomenting hate by saying that.”
The quote above was designed to demean a group of people the NRA has branded as an enemy. It’s not a new tactic; we’re all guilty of it. The head of the NRA has continued the practice today, branding those who don’t agree with him as “elites,” “socialist enemies” that we should be “anxious and afraid” of.
Bull. That’s my son you’re talking about. And my aunts. And my friends. They’re not evil, they’re not out to “eradicate all individual freedoms.” Stop making them the enemy! They’re our friends, and family, and neighbors, and co-workers.
Oh, I know, the left does it too. I’ve been attacked just as hatefully, as degradingly, by that side too.
I’m not just tired of it, I’m tired. I’m gonna step away from news and social media for a few days, and focus on being around actual people, and doing good, because that I can control, and I find that it energizes me. I’d encourage all of you to consider getting around actual people too. Be really crazy and spend some quality time with people who aren’t like you. With them. You know, that group that you are convinced are the source of all the evil in the world, or your life. Because you’ll find out that they are real people too. And maybe next time you want to dehumanize them, you’ll be reminded that you met one or two of them, and they really didn’t try to _______________.
There’s this whole crazy idea of “seeking first to understand, then to be understood” that I wish would take off in our culture. It’s life-changing.
The Christian church in the US (and the western hemisphere) is in undeniable decline. Despite the recent surge of influence of “evangelicals” in our political environment, the reality is that we are less and less likely to be affiliated with Christianity in the US, and the influence of churches is waning. Church leaders have been wrangling with this for several years; numerous explanations have been offered and various approaches to addressing the decline have been discussed. Pockets of change are out there, but as a general rule, the decline continues, and seems to be picking up steam.
I’ve been pondering several things lately, and I think I see something worth considering. The idea started forming when a friend recently talked about a spiritual conversation she’s been having with her 5-year-old daughter. The little girl, who has not been raised in a “Christian” home, informed her mom, “Mommy, when you die you go to Heaven if you are good. When you are bad, you might go to Heck. God says so.” My first reaction was a mix of “how cute” and amazement that a 5-year-old was processing something so complex. Her mom had not taught her this, and was unsure where the little girl picked up the idea.
My second thought was, “NO! You’ve got it all wrong!!!” But, really, she hasn’t. This is in essence what the Church is teaching today. It’s been what the Church was teaching since I was a little boy. Oh, sure, I was told, “God loves you,” but that was peripheral. The message I received for most of my 52 years has been some version of, “when you die you go to Heaven if you are good. When you are bad, you might go to Heck. God says so.” My learned theology was founded on being good enough (which really meant following all of God’s rules well enough) that he loved me, then I could go to Heaven when I die. If I wasn’t good enough, I was bound for Heck, or a less censored version of it.
How Religion Works: If I obey, then God will love and accept me.
The Gospel: I’m loved and accepted, therefore I wish to obey.
Tim Keller’s tweet is profound, and points to the idea that I’ve been considering: Maybe the Church is losing members and influence because we’re teaching religion, and not the Gospel. I know as a younger person, I had trouble with the God I’d been taught: He seemed mean. He WAS mean! A God who says, “follow my rules well enough to earn my love, or else I’m going to torture you endlessly”? If a husband or employer behaves like that, we call them an abuser. Why would I want to sign up for that?
Consider it another way: Why would HE want that? Suppose you paid for an “arranged marriage” with a person from a third world country, brought them to the US to live with you, then told them that if they showed you affection, you would treat them well, but if they broke your rules, you would punish them severely. When this spouse hugs you, kisses you, says “I love you,” do they really love you? Or are they following your rules out of fear?
Our God is different. He loves us. Period. He pursues us with love! He offers love to us with no preconditions. We just receive it. This life is not a crucible to be run, in order to win a prize or avoid eternal damnation! It’s an opportunity to know our Father, the one who loves us, cares for us, and wants to be with us.
It was terrifying to me growing up fearing a God who was waiting for me to break the rules so he could smite me. Or even a God who, at the end of my life was going to make a judgement of whether I was “good” or “bad” to determine if my eternity involved a cloud castle, or a lake of fire with barbed-wire floaties. I spent most of my life with some version of that God in my head, and knowing that I couldn’t measure up… I just hoped he wasn’t paying attention to me too closely, or that I lived long enough to shift the scales once I was too old to be bad anymore.
It would be one thing if the God I was taught were true; it’s a travesty (heresy?) that we are teaching this when it’s NOT TRUE! Can you see how this false God is driving people away from the Church?
You might object that my perception of Christianity isn’t the common one in our culture. I am not going to argue with you; instead I’d ask that you just take a look with fresh eyes. With 5-year-old eyes.
I like metaphors. They help me put shape to concepts, and often help me see things from different perspectives. Jesus liked them as well; he often used them to make difficult truths seem understandable. He would tell a story, or compare his followers to something they could relate to–like a grapevine, or sheep and shepherds–all common elements of 1st Century Jewish culture.
Dogs have been a common element of my life. I was an only child, and have had at least one dog throughout my life, except for the first two years of my Army career (my platoon sergeant wouldn’t have thought too highly of me having a dog in the barracks). Dogs help me better relate to people. I’m not a “dog whisperer,” but I’ve always been “good with dogs.” I felt like I could relate to them well (go ahead and insert your own joke here… I’ll wait).
I have been thinking about dogs and how they help me relate to people, and to God, a lot in the past few weeks. We’ve got a new dog, and I’m getting to relate to him a lot while I’m teaching him how to be a part of our family. I’ve been composing a few posts in my head of ideas he’d revealed to me in this process, and plan to start writing them down soon. But that’s for another day. This post is a tribute. Monday I said goodbye to a pretty special dog. This is for him.
Part of my early success working with dogs was blind luck. Most of the dogs I’ve had were Great Danes. Danes are very much like people–and not just in physical size. If you can relate to a person, you can probably build a good relationship with a Great Dane. When my kids were young, we had two amazing Danes-Zeus and Hera. They were the best family dogs anyone could ask for. Zeus was 140# of solid muscle, but he took care of his little girl, Shelbi, like she was his baby. He protected her from other dogs, and strangers passing by, but let her walk him, even though he was twice her size. Hera was a goof, and loved to play, snuggle, and generally make you laugh. Hera had some serious health problems, and although several years younger than Zeus, she left us all too soon.
Not too long after Hera died, Shelbi (by then in junior high) came home from a friend’s house, all excited about the puppies her friend’s dog had. The momma was a Malamute, who had a midnight tryst with the neighbor’s Siberian Husky. An unrelenting stream of “Daddy, they’re so cuuuuttteee, can we go look at them, please” numbed my brain. I remember saying, “We don’t know anything about those breeds.” This was over 12 years ago, so I don’t recall every detail, but I can see us standing in a dark wooded yard, with the momma and one puppy left, a little furball with a lot of energy. I can hear myself muttering over and over, “we don’t know anything about these breeds” as I was bombarded on three sides (my wife, son, and daughter) with a torrent of “but he’s so cuuuttteee). I’m pretty sure there were promises to brush him every day, walk him, even in the rain, train him, and buy the dog food with their allowances. Somewhere in this mindless stupor I relented. That’s how Kenai became part of our family.
My concerns were prophetic, but understated. Kenai turned out to be a whole different species. Northern breeds are in general a lot closer in behavior to the first animals that strayed from the pack to come into the fire ring with humans. They’re very strong pack animals, and are a lot less people-like than a Great Dane, or a Golden Retriever. And, in every pack, there’s occasionally one born who is perfectly wired to be the pack leader. If you’ve ever watched Cesar Milan, aka The Dog Whisperer, you’ll here him tell people that their dog is being dominant because the people aren’t. Most dogs don’t want to be the leader, but realize someone has to be. If their humans aren’t leading the pack, the dog steps up, reluctantly. But there’s that 1%, whose DNA is coded with “pack leader.” That was Kenai, but I didn’t realize it. I just knew he was the most difficult, ill-behaved, obnoxious beast I’d ever been around. Any promises from kids to care for and train him were quickly abandoned. This guy was a nightmare-high energy, teeth, and a bad attitude. We wanted a cuddly little fluff-ball. We got Cujo.
He was also a runner. In more ways than one. If he was outside, unrestrained,
he ran. And ran. No human was going to catch him, although he found our attempts to do so quite entertaining. Most of those escapee chases ended in a bath (he liked mud too).
But he also liked to run on the leash. While I was nearing the end of my forced running career (at the tail end of my Army days, I no longer had to go to organized PT), I could still put down a pretty healthy pace for 4-6 miles. So I decided that I would run that energy out of him. Ha! We could take off for Frye Cove Park, and run the loop multiple times, at a pace that would have my heart rate in the danger zone and my legs burning, and he would finish, look at me, then go tearing through the house like he had just finished warmups.
Kenai never understood rain days. Living near Olympia, Washington, this could be a problem. I was never a fan of running in the rain, but I was less of a fan of an over-energized Mogwai (amazingly appropriate 1984 pop culture reference). So we ran. Every. day. When we moved back to Alaska, I discovered that cold didn’t bother him either. In fact, he kinda liked it, like he was made for it or something. So we ran. Every. day. 25 below zero? He didn’t care. My best estimates are that over the last 12 years, we logged over 10,000 miles running together.
But running didn’t solve everything. His aggressiveness was a problem, and I wasn’t very good at dealing with it. Oh, and by this time, he’d become “my dog.” Part of that was just because I was the only one big enough to physically handle him, and partly because he had no respect for anyone else in the family, and very little for me. By this time, Kenai had grown to about 90 pounds of solid muscle. What “respect” he had was based on fear.
Kenai had a lot of behavioral issues, including a fierce protectiveness of his food. Or any food he decided was his. This lead to a pretty ugly incident where he stole my daughter’s Easter basket, and had it under the desk, devouring the chocolate. My daughter, out of either a concern for his health, or her own protectiveness of all things chocolate, tried to retrieve it, and Kenai bit her foot. I came close to killing him on the spot. I’d always had a rule: Any dog in our house ever bites anyone, he’s gone. And I tried to find a new home for Kenai. We had him on Craigslist for about two weeks, with no response. He spent a lot of his time in his crate, or outside during this stretch. In my mind he was already gone. My daughter was the one who came to me after two weeks, and reminded me of something else I’d always said, “There are no bad dogs, only bad owners.” So I set out to find someone to help me train Kenai.
Up until this point, I had never watched The Dog Whisperer. But I found a trainer who came to our house, and she had studied under him. Part of my homework was to watch the shows, and in the process I realized that my lack of understanding was making Kenai a problem. Cesar uses the phrase “rehabilitating dogs, training people.” That was exactly what I needed. In the process, I learned to understand what Kenai needed, what he was telling me, and how to lead him. It was a LOT of work. For most of his life, I said, “I’ll never get another Northern breed.”
But we ran together. Every morning. For 12 years. No matter what was going on, all I had to say was “Go for a run?” and his eyes lit up, the problems went away, and he was looking for the leash. And slowly, we became closer.
After seven years in Alaska, our pack relocated to South Florida. Kenai enjoyed the road trip, but we were concerned that a true Alaskan dog was going to have a hard time adapting to the Florida weather and lifestyle. Kenai enjoyed the snow, and the mountains. He chased moose and bear out of our yard, and occasionally stood on the hill, howling along with a wolf pack that ranged the valley below.
Kenai took to Florida. He actually enjoyed the heat. He would nap on the back patio, soaking the warmth into his aging joints. His disposition improved too. He was mellower, and although he never became “cuddly”, he’d occasionally seek out a friendly pet on the head. We jokingly said that Kenai was the first Northern breed to have Seasonal Affective Disorder.
A year ago, as we moved back to Washington, Kenai was really starting to show signs of aging. He had arthritis in his hips, and I had to stop taking him on runs because he would drag his back toes until they bled. He wouldn’t stop running, he just couldn’t control his legs well enough to not hurt himself. We downgraded to walking, which he still managed 2-4 miles per day. Raining or not. By this fall, the walks were getting shorter, and the stairs in our house were becoming a challenge. This past weekend, I could see it in his eyes. It wasn’t fun anymore. He was never going to give up, but his body was giving up on him. We spent the weekend saying goodbye, taking slow walks, and spending time rehearsing memories. Monday morning we took one last ride. As I laid with him on the vet’s office floor, with him sedated and resting before the vet came in, I was trying to whisper “happy” words to him. I assumed he was pretty well out of it, and figured it was safe to say “go for a run.” His eyes snapped open, his ears perked up, and for just a moment the face was that of an energetic pup. I smiled through tears.
When the vet came in to administer the injection, Kenai was sound asleep. She was going to use a back leg for the injection. All of his life, Kenai was pretty adamant that people weren’t allowed to touch him unless he okayed it, and then only on his head. On rare occasions you could pet his shoulders, but anything else got you a rather stern growl-warning. Even with me, if I had to do anything to his legs, or heaven forbid touch his belly, teeth were slashing and he was having nothing to do with it. Grooming and toenail trimming were a significant emotional event. Even under heavy sedation, in the twilight of his life, when the doctor grabbed his back leg, he came to, and firmly explained that he didn’t approve of ANYONE touching his legs.
Kenai was a great dog. He wasn’t an angel; far from it. But he was my devoted companion. And, in the process of learning to be a pack together, he taught me much. This has already been a long post, but if I didn’t share some of the lessons, it would not be clear what made him a great dog. I’ve had good dogs all my life, and Kenai really wasn’t a good dog. But he changed me more than any other dog has, and that’s why I say he was great.
Lessons from a Great Dog
Love is a verb, not an emotion. Many Christians know this fact. The “love” we read about in the Bible is most often an English translation of the Greek word agape. It is about self-sacrificial action that benefits the other. I knew that bit of information, but Kenai made me really experience it. The “feelings” of love for a cute fuzzy puppy fade with destroyed belongings and bad behavior. Loving Kenai took work. The funny thing about agape love is that while self-sacrifice doesn’t sound very appealing, certainly not as appealing as the infatuation of a new romantic love, this love is ultimately the most rewarding. Kenai was often a jerk. There were times when you knew he was going to try to bite you (like toenail clipping time). He was often deliberately disobedient. I loved him not because he was good. I loved him because he was him. His behavior never caused me to love him any less, even when he had me so mad I couldn’t see straight.
Lordship is not domination; submission is not subjugation. Growing up, I always had trouble with the idea of a God who wanted me to completely submit to him. I had thoughts of complete power and utter powerlessness. Quite honestly, this was how I treated most of my dogs before Kenai. Not abusively or inhumanely, but I “owned” them. Kenai wasn’t about to be owned, and the more I tried to dominate him, the more difficult he became. As I learned to lead him, to act in his best interest, understanding him and wanting him to thrive, not just obey, he began to submit. Not a subjugation to me out of fear of my power, but out of a recognition that he could be more himself, and live a more enjoyable life, with me holding the leash. At that point, when he knew he could trust me, I found I could trust him. Then he could run off-leash, because I knew he wanted to come back. Our walks and runs were different too. At first the leash was a tool of captivity and enforcement–that’s how I controlled him. Those days, the leash was taut; he was pulling, or being pulled. But the leash became a means of communication; it’s how I told him where we were going, and at what pace. It’s how he told me when he needed to pee, or that there was the most amazing aroma coming from that particular tree. The leash was still there, but it was slack. We were working together.
The most effective leadership is empowerment, not control. When I learned to know what he was thinking, what he was trying to do, what was important to him, I could align his goals and mine. When that happened, we were both working together. He wasn’t out front pulling me to his objectives. I wasn’t out front dragging him to mine. We were moving side-by-side, enjoying each other’s presence, accomplishments, and the journey itself.
The Bible is disappointingly silent on what happens to our pets. Disney says “all dogs go to heaven.” Kenai taught me so much about my relationship with God, that I believe God’s gotta have a special place in his heart for Kenai. I’m going to believe that Kenai has found a good trail in heaven, and he’s running free, waiting for me to catch up with him. That would be my idea of heaven.
Thanks for everything, Buddy Bear. I’ll miss you until we meet again.
One of the things I appreciate about Facebook is its “On This Day” feature. It can serve as a great reminder of what we’ve accomplished, overcome, and experienced. Diaries used to do that, or, if you’re a guy, “journals.” Facebook just makes it more convenient.
My “on this day” from a year ago includes two posts. The first from 2:32 am was a lengthy quote from Psalm 37 (vs 1-8). The time gives you a little idea of my state of mind–I couldn’t sleep. The second was from 4:06 pm:
To clarify what is buried in another post and cryptic replies:
Our house deal is officially a bust. We are starting over. It was a long, difficult process that at the end the seller refused to close or comply with other contract terms. As much as my nature is to fight, hold people accountable, punish wrongdoing, and generally be real-estate Batman, we have decided to walk away.
No clue as to what is next, but we are trusting God for the right house at the right time.
That’s my “stiff-upper-lip” voice. The words were carefully chosen to not betray the devastation that Kelli and I felt. I was a volatile mix of enraged and inconsolable. The house deal I referred to was supposed to be the culmination of a months’ long process where we sold our house in Florida, moved across the country to Tacoma, Washington, because God told us to come out here, become part of this city, and start a new church. When I wrote these posts, our stuff had been in storage for about 2 months. We had been living in a hotel for more than 6 weeks. The deal that was originally to close on November 1 had been pushed to December 28th. We endured delays, lies, and thousands of dollars of unrecoverable expense because we were certain that THIS house was part of God’s crazy plan–and because there was NO viable “plan B”. On December 28, 2016, we found out we didn’t even have a Plan A.
Lots of friends encouraged us; the general sentiment was “God must have a better plan.” That sounds great, unless you’re the one living in the hotel, with a dog, two cats, and a wife that’s had more than enough. I second-guessed everything I thought I knew about the journey that had brought us to that moment.
“Seriously, God? We stepped out, big time, obeying you and putting everything on the line. And THIS is how you reward us?”
I’ll spare you the rest of that rant. It’s not the best example of how a devoted Jesus follower should talk.
While I truly appreciated our friends’ encouragement, it didn’t help much. I’d said similar words to others, knowing they were true, and in a small corner of my mind, I hung desperately on the belief that they had to be true now, too. But it didn’t help much. I knew that we were looking at another 6-8 weeks of hotel living, and couldn’t imagine a better option than the one we had lost out on. We looked at EVERY house that came on the market. Nothing was even mildly interesting, let alone something to get excited about. Every option was literally, “can we make this acceptable enough to not hate coming home every day.”
It was almost two weeks later when an open house showed up that looked promising. Not exactly the same neighborhood we were looking in, but close. We went by after touring a rapidly filling new apartment complex that we could get into immediately… an apartment. We were that desperate. We went to the open house, just in case.
This is it: Our 1907-built Craftsman home is more than we could have hoped for, and waaayyyy better than what we lost out on.
On THIS day, one year later, I’m incredibly happy that the events of 365 days ago happened. I run past the first house fairly regularly. We would be miserable there. It was too small, the street is much narrower, my garage wouldn’t have come close to being what I needed, let alone as amazing as what I have now. We wouldn’t have had room to let my parents, and then our kids, live with us while they are looking for a place to live nearby.
Proverbs 3:5-6 is a verse that a lot of us Jesus followers memorize. You may have even seen it on a desk calendar or motivational poster. I like the Message version:
Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.
A year later, everything’s not perfect. There’s still no church. I don’t even know how that’s going to happen; everything I’ve attempted to make it happen over the past 12 months has been unsuccessful. But I have had a great year nonetheless. I’ve been able to spend time with my family, make new friends, serve my new neighborhood, and most importantly, I’ve gotten at least a little closer to God, which helps me better trust him. And I’m learning that’s what he really wants: me to be closer to Him.
As we approach the New Year, I pray that this past year has been one of good things for you, and that better things are ahead. I hope you’re not in the same boat I was one year ago, when everything seemed hopeless. But if you are, I encourage you to believe that God is keeping you on track. Listen for his voice, trust Him. He loves you. Believe it.
I’ve never written to any President before. I seriously doubt he’ll read this, but I’m going to publish it nonetheless.
You have indicated that you finds the actions of professional athletes protesting systemic racism and violence against people of color to be “a total disrespect of everything we stand for.” Much has been written these last few days about the appropriateness of the protest. I’m not writing today to express my opinion one way or the other.
You have called on the owners of the NFL to halt these protests by firing or suspending players who participate. Personally, I don’t believe this proposed solution would work. Colin Kaepernick began these protests over a year ago, and finds himself still unemployed, while more players seem to be protesting each week. After your call on the owners to act, many issued statements and stood in unity with the protesting players.
You have also called on fans to act to end the protests, by boycotting the NFL. This doesn’t seem to be a viable solution either. For one, the opinion of fans seems to be mixed, meaning that many of us are going to still watch the games, and some are even voicing support for protesting players. The NFL has proven in the past to be a strong enough business to survive major hits to revenue as demonstrated during previous labor disputes. There appears to be a lot of profit in an NFL franchise, that will enable teams to weather partial boycotts.
No, Mr. President, the owners and the fans can’t end the protests, but you can.
Despite all of your attempts to bluster, obfuscate, and redirect attention to claimed “disrespect” to our flag, our military, and our nation, these protests are about what one author has described as “America’s Original Sin.” These protestors are crying out for someone to address the oppression and violence against black and brown people in our nation.
There is a problem.
It is not getting better.
Our nation needs to unite behind strong leadership resolved to eradicate the problem. This is a cultural issue that is woven into the very fabric of our country. All change is difficult. Changing the culture of a society can only be accomplished through determined, unrelenting leadership willing to do that which is unpopular, but necessary. Even then, it is the rare leader capable of pulling it off. You are positioned to be that leader. Will you?
Here’s how you can start:
Appoint and resource a commission to define and clearly articulate the problem and develop strategic solutions to begin addressing it. You know, like the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity? You’ve commissioned an organization to, at taxpayer expense, study a problem (alleged voter fraud) which has little evidence to prove that it actually exists, and all experts on the subject agree that to the extent a problem, has had no material impact on our nation. Surely you are willing, as one who aspires to unite our country and make it great, to invest at least as much to solve a problem that is real, heavily documented, and causing real harm to the fabric of our nation?
Task the Attorney General to put the full force of the Department of Justice into eradicating the well-documented systemic injustice in our legal system. Refocus the resources he is aiming at employing to resurrect the failed “war on drugs” to instead get to the problems that are resulting in between 70 and 80% of African American men in major cities targeted by the drug war having criminal records that permanently sentence them to the lowest caste in our society. These are appalling numbers particularly when one considers this rather astounding fact:
Despite illegal drug usage rates that are essentially the same for whites and blacks, “black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men.”¹
Black men are dying at an alarming, disproportional rate at the hands of our law enforcement officers. No citizen of this nation should ever have to fear an encounter with our police; sadly Philando Castile demonstrates that even when an African American driver is doing everything right, he can still be shot to death, and our criminal justice system will not hold the officer accountable. Your Attorney General can begin the reforms necessary to address mass incarceration, at your order.
Hold a rally. Seriously! You are gifted at stirring a crowd to act. So why don’t you rally our country to unite to address some of these issues?
You’ve said your comments had nothing to do with race; that it “has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.” If that is true, you can help these players respect our country and our flag, by addressing the issues that they feel so strongly about that they are willing to risk their livelihood, reputation, and the ire of their fanbase to raise. Marcus Peters, of my beloved Kansas City Chiefs, has pointed to our Pledge of Allegiance to ask for nothing more than what our country promises: Liberty and justice for all.
I started this series talking about my heritage, and how my upbringing led me to be a member of the “Heritage, Not Hate” crowd. I did so with two hopes:
To help those who cannot comprehend how a person displaying a Confederate flag can claim they are not racist,
To help folks with backgrounds like me to consider how we might be hurting others without realizing it.
I am hoping that some might choose to pursue a journey of understanding similar to mine. I’ll warn you up front, it’s not a fun trip. You’ll find yourself between two warring factions, understanding, yet disagreeing (in some aspects) with both sides. You’ll be frustrated, misunderstood, attacked and condemned, sometimes by your own friends. Not the greatest sales pitch, is it? Best answer I have for why you should walk this route comes from my faith. If you’re not a Jesus follower, this might be meaningless to you, but you may have a similar principle in your faith background. But Jesus told his followers, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
In Part 3 I explored the idea of “heritage” and the key point that “you have exactly zero input into your heritage.” Heritage is inherited from our ancestors-it is what they did, not what we did. Today I want to explore the other side of the “heritage” coin. We call the coin our ancestors made our heritage, but the other side of that coin is theirlegacy. You have nothing to do with forming your heritage, but everything to do with forming your own legacy–what you hand down to future generations. You choose your own legacy.
The legacy I’ve chosen is one of love, of peacemaking. “That’s a nice sentiment, Greg, but it’s not going to change the world we live in. This has been going on for centuries.” I will agree that it’s easy to look around, and become overwhelmed with a sense of doom. We’ve been fed a pretty steady diet of fear and defeatism. But here’s the thing: While I might not be able to change the world, I can change the world around me. Jesus called his followers to be peacemakers, not to set us up for an impossible task, but precisely because it is possible!
How? Good question. I don’t have all, or even most of the answers. But I offer a few things that have helped me.
“If you never leave the small comfortable ideological circle that you belong to, you’ll never develop as a human being.” -Malcolm Gladwell¹
“Read one thinker and you become a clone. Read two and you become confused. Read a hundred and you start to become wise.” -Tim Keller
Unfortunately, what passes for learning in our culture today often is simply reinforcing what we already know or believe. If I keep reading the same books, or blogs, from the same authors whose ideas I already approve, all I’m going to learn is how to embed the same ideas more deeply into my thoughts. Repetition of a thought is critical if you want it to become something that you call forward without thinking, but it’s not “learning.”
Read things you disagree with! This is hard, but it’s key to learning. If your news feed doesn’t include at least one or two sources that are from the other side of the ideological aisle, you’re becoming a clone. I’m not saying you have to go totally extreme. But if your thoughts and perspectives on a subject aren’t challenged, they’ll remain shallow.
With respect to the discussion of heritage, and race in our country, take the time to read things from the “other side.” A couple of suggestions:
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. Written over 100 years ago by the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard, who founded the NAACP, this is a great look at the history of black Americans in the initial decades after their emancipation.
Don’t want to buy a book? Pick some topics and read the Wikipedia posts for free. Start with Jim Crow Laws, Emmitt Till, Lynching, 1917 East St. Louis Riots. This last one was eye-opening to me, because it happened near where I grew up, less than 50 years before I was born, and yet it didn’t once get mentioned in school, not even in my state-mandated Missouri History class in high school.
Beyond reading, I recommend listening. Not just to podcasts and famous speakers, but also to those around you. Really listen. Remember the story about SPC Marshall in Part 2? I learned from her because I took the time to consider her perspective. I could have easily dismissed it, because it didn’t align with my own, and simply told her what I really meant, and called it good, because I had taught her “truth.” That route would have left me continuing to believe what I believe, and reinforced her beliefs as well. We’d have both been worse off.
If you don’t get “Black Lives Matter,” ask them. And listen. Especially in light of the history and personal experiences you may not be aware of. Consider that the white person in the Midwest who is railing against immigration may have very legitimate concerns that aren’t driven by an ideology of racial superiority. Discover why “systemic racism” and “white privilege” are not condemnations of personal character.
Add some variety to your life. Ruts are easy, but pretty much guarantee things won’t change. Think in new ways. Here are three ideas:
Stop “winning.” Start “excelling.” Don’t mistake this for “everybody gets a trophy.” Winning is measured against an opponent. To win, someone else has to lose. Excellence is measured against a standard. The Latin word literally means “beyond lofty.” When I was in the infantry, we had an award we could earn called the “Expert Infantry Badge.” One of the tasks was to complete a 12 mile road march carrying a 35# pack and weapon, in under 3 hours. It’s a difficult task, and in theory, 10 soldiers could finish the road march, but not make it in the 3 hour time limit. The first one across the line still “won”, but none of them “excelled.” Conversely, in an “excellent” unit, all 10 might come in under three hours. When we set our standards as beating the next guy, winning can be as easy as choosing an inferior opponent. If my goal is to beat the clock, I have to push myself. If my goal is to beat you, I can just push you in a ditch.
Ask a brilliant question. When you find yourself ready to disagree, to fight for your (correct) position, ready to condemn those ridiculous fools on the other side, ask this question: “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person act that way?”² Part of the problem with the polarization we see in our country today stems from the mindset that everyone agreeing with me is a genius, and those who don’t are either idiots or devious evil people bent on all us good folks’ destruction. In truth, the vast majority are reasonable people. Rational people. Decent people. So, if they’re acting contrary to my way of thinking, that means there is a good chance they have a reasonable, decent explanation. If you begin there, and then ask, they’ll be likely to share, and you can learn. If you aren’t in a position to ask, check yourself, because you’re likely about to head down a dangerous, divisive road. You’ve already started forming a story in your head to explain the action. Most likely, that story begins with a belief that the actor isn’t reasonable, rational, or decent. Once you re-start the story, you might find a plausible explanation, or at least be open to one. Most of the people you disagree with, really aren’t the enemy. They’re not even necessarily wrong.
Get out of the box. This goes along with learning by listening. Too many of us are living such a homogenous life that we can’t listen to diverse voices because we don’t have any in our circle. When’s the last time you had a person of color as a guest in your home? Had coffee with someone from outside your political, social, economic circle? Be deliberate about making friends with people different than you. Sure it’s awkward, but if it’s genuine, people will appreciate your willingness to reach out. You’ll discover that most people are just waiting to be invited in-but someone has to be bold enough to be the inviter.
One of the most overused, misinterpreted words in English. I’m referring to sacrificial love; not an emotion but an action, a choice that says, “I value the wellbeing of others more than I do my own.” Love says, “I want to see you excel.” Then love surrenders some of oneself in order to actually make it happen.
Call me naïve, but consider history. When real cultural change has occurred, strength and power didn’t achieve it. Military force or threat of violence doesn’t make someone think differently. Power might subdue someone, but it won’t make them your friend. Loving those who aren’t like you is the most counter-intuitive, objectionable answer there is; And it’s the only answer that actually brings about real, positive change.³
What about you? Have you seen people change for the better? Have you experienced change in your own perspective? What has worked? What are you struggling with? Let’s keep the discussion going. Drop a note in the comments. Help us all learn.
¹ Malcolm Gladwell is an author and speaker that I’ve just started listening to. His podcast is called “Revisionist History.” If you want to be exposed to some new thoughts, I highly recommend it.
² I stole this question from Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. This book is probably second only to the Bible in helping me change how I view and interact with others. It has helped me become a better problem-solver and communicator. Even if you don’t want to change the world, it’ll make you a better employee, spouse, friend. It’s really that good.
³ If you’re a Jesus follower, love isn’t an option. It’s a command; Jesus says it’s how the world will know you are a Jesus follower. It’s your identity. Beyond the “spiritual” aspect, consider Roman history. The world’s most powerful country, a pagan empire that oppressed and killed Christians to defend its emperor-religion, became a “Christian nation” in just a few hundred years, not through force, but in spite of it.