Protest

I can’t think-can’t focus.  I’ve got tons of work to do this Sunday afternoon/evening for my full time job, but I can’t get my brain to stay on task.

There is much that has been written about the events of the past week.  I’m not qualified to speak to most of it, because I have no business speaking on injustice and poverty that I have not only not experienced, but have benefited from.

But I live in a neighborhood that has a high percentage of blacks. And I’ve been listening, and reading, and watching.  I also have friends and family who are critical of black victims of violence, and raging at protesters.  And I’ve listened.  Hell, I used to be one of them. I could write the scripts.  I get “not all cops are bad,” because I have family members and friends that I love and respect who are cops.  I don’t want to believe that any of them would participate in the murder of George Floyd, or in the violence against protesters we’ve witnessed over the weekend.  But still, I’ve made it a point to listen for the past few years to voices from people who don’t look like me.  I’ve listened to black mothers describe the fear of their child being a victim.

Remember Tamir Rice?  He was the 12 year old African American boy killed by Cleveland Police in 2014.  I’ll never forget.  At that time, I was trying to be available for

Image result for tamir rice photos
Tamir Rice

another 12 year old African American boy in my church.  His dad had suffered a massive stroke, and this boy was missing his father.  He was a lot like any other 12 year old boy. He knew everything. He was convinced he was smarter than all the grownups.  He had just enough testosterone raging in his body to cause his brain to think he might be able to whup an old man like me.  Just like every other 12 year old boy who was starting to feel his oats, and whose brain development was lagging his physical development.  For this young man, that could easily have been a fatal problem.  You see, his physical body had grown to be bigger than mine (and I’m 6’0″, 230#).  The boy wore a size 13 shoe!  Anyone observing from more than 10 feet away would very easily mistake him for an adult based on his physical characteristics.  But he was a BOY, just like Tamir Rice.  And his favorite thing to do with his dad was to shoot his bb gun.  An innocent hobby (ok, not so innocent, but pretty darn common for all young boys growing up in the South) that could get him killed by a cop.  I felt his momma’s fear.

So I’ve listened.  And I’ve watched.  And I’ve tried to live out “Seek first to understand…” I’m no expert on the lived experience of black men in this country, but I’m convinced that it’s a systemically unjust life.  The oppression of all people of color, but especially blacks in our country needs to be called out and eradicated.  I have so much I want to say, but I’m going to try to focus on one element for now:  protest.

Too many people who look like me have been confronted with such undeniable evidence of injustice that they have had to acknowledge that the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were, well, problematic.  Even Rush Limbaugh went so far as to say, “I cannot find a way to explain that. I can’t find a way to justify it.” (kinda disappointing that he tried to find a way to explain or justify it, but hey, it’s progress).  It was encouraging to see so many come to terms with the fact that their preconceived notions might need to be reconsidered.  And then the protests started.

And we started judging.  We quickly found comfort in the fact that our preconceived notions were right.  These people don’t want justice, they’re self-serving savages who want to steal their 84″ flat screen, rather than working hard to pay down their credit card bill.  Tonight’s outrage is directed at protesters in Minneapolis who were blocking a highway and a trucker ran a tanker truck into the crowd.  “If you don’t want to get hit by a truck, stay off the highway!” screamed my news feed.  It’s pretty safe to say that us white folks don’t approve of the way people are protesting.  We’d be OK with nonviolent protest in a confined space that didn’t inconvenience us, or disrupt our lives.  Many of us are even trotting out an insulting meme using the image of MLK to condemn the protesters.  But that just shows our ignorance of MLK, and our willingness to co-opt his teachings to our purposes.  Read his own words from his 1968 speech, “The Other America:”*

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity. (emphasis added)

MLK clearly believes that nonviolent direct action “brings tangible results,” but he also acknowledges that an oppressed people can reach such a point of despair and anger that they feel they have no other alternative.

“That’s BS!” you exclaim.  They can vote.  They can work for change.  They can get an education.  Pursue economic growth.  Be nonviolent, like Dr. King.

Let’s take a look at those claims:

Voting:  The past 55 years since the Voting Rights Act passed demonstrates that little has changed.  Gerrymandering has diluted the black vote.  Voting systems and ID requirements are designed to erect barriers to black participation.  In the state of Florida, when voters changed the law to restore the right to vote to previously incarcerated individuals, the state legislature imposed an unconstitutional restriction to countermand the will of the people.  Our own President has declared that mail-in voting, while good enough for him and his family, are unacceptable ways to allow ordinary citizens to participate in the upcoming election, possibly because it will lead to outcomes he doesn’t like:

In short, the systemic barriers to voting have precluded the black vote from making a significant difference.  And recent actions by our President and the GOP have only affirmed that they intend to strengthen those barriers.  It’s not unreasonable for blacks to not believe that voting will bring about the change they seek.

Education:  Barriers to blacks attaining equality and justice through education are just as powerful as they were in 1954 when Brown v Board of Education ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.  Economic attainment is considerably worse for blacks despite comparable education levels (here’s just one study resulting from a quick internet search).

Economic success:  Many of us whites believe that blacks are suffering because of their own laziness.  After all, they were freed over 150 years ago; that’s long enough for them to have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.**  This convenient excuse turns a blind eye to the structures that have kept blacks from accumulating wealth at the rate of whites.  2016 US Census Bureau data reveals that black households in the US have approximately 9% of the wealth as white households.  They started with nothing after emancipation, and their occasional successes were sabotaged (see Black Wall Street Massacre, as just one example).  Redlining, felony hiring prohibitions, and many other acceptable practices have served to keep blacks from attaining and retaining wealth.

Be nonviolent:  All of those who hold up Dr. King’s nonviolent direct action campaigns fail to acknowledge a few bitter truths:

  1. He was assassinated long before he was able to complete his work.
  2. Whites who feel their rights are infringed upon resort regularly and quickly to violence or the threat of violence.  In fact, it’s often presented as patriotic.  You can find this sentiment in a lot of colors and designs:Forefathers t-shirt

“But white protesters don’t actually get violent–look at the armed protesters in the Michigan capital–they didn’t vandalize anything or hurt anyone.”  You are correct.  They got what they wanted: the government shut down, capitulated, and in many similar cases refused to deploy law enforcement to enforce legal restrictions for public safety during a pandemic.  All of which reinforces the perception that nonviolent protest works for whites, but doesn’t for blacks.  And whites aren’t always nonviolent.  When they are violent, like in the case of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover, they see very different outcomes.

All of our white objections to the protests center on one thing:  We don’t approve.  We don’t approve of actions which make us mildly inconvenienced, let alone ones that make us feel threatened.  But here’s the problem with that:  we have no authority to tell the oppressed how to respond to oppression, other than the authority which comes from being the oppressor.  Blacks have tried to work within the systems and structures to bring about change.  But the very legal system that forms the foundation of those structures has failed the black citizens of this country for generations, and in thousands of documented cases, it’s killed them.  By it’s very nature, protest against oppression must be designed to make the oppressor uncomfortable!  If it doesn’t at a minimum inconvenience you, nothing will change!  I can attest to this first-hand, as for most of my 54 years, the plight of the black man in the US didn’t have any impact on me at all.  So I just assumed everything was even-Steven, just like all my teachers told me, since the Civil Rights movement was over and we had achieved equality.

“But why do they loot and burn?”  Maybe because they’ve tried everything else, and it hasn’t worked?  I don’t know–why don’t you ask them?

Here’s my best guess:  There’s an overwhelming sense of anger, frustration, and despair that pervades most moments of their lives, and boils over in response to crises like we are experiencing.  They hear us trying to dismiss the video evidence of oppression with “wait until all the facts come in” and other such nonsense, and realize that they’re not going to get anywhere within the system.  They hear us justify monuments to oppression as “preserving history” despite their pleas to take them down to honor their humanity.  They see symbols of white power in corporate American headquarter buildings, and symbol’s of Karen’s oblivion in Target stores, and they lash out.   Sure, it doesn’t make sense to you, because you’re not that mad!  Have you ever been so mad that you punched an inanimate object?  You may have even felt that you were exercising restraint, because you didn’t punch the person that was the source of your anger.  I think that’s kinda what burning and looting might be.  Black anger hasn’t escalated to the point that they are ready to direct it at the source of their pain–their oppressors–us.

I’m not saying it’s right, and I wish that we could come to a peaceful conclusion, but I can’t condemn.  Instead, I’m going to speak up.  I’m going to step out.  I’m going to be an ally.  You can too.

First, educate yourself.  Sit at the feet of black teachers and learn.  That’s a whole ‘nuther book for a different time.

Look for opportunities to stand in the gap.  That might be standing between cops and protesters.  Or between white punks vandalizing businesses and the businesses themselves.

Hold politicians and police accountable.  Let’s demand justice that’s just as swift for the black man as that which we demand against him.

One last thing–I don’t care to hear your “but what about…” crap.  I’ve heard it.  I’ve said it.  It’s wrong.  So don’t bother @ing me.  I don’t have time for it.  I’m going to love my neighbor.  You can come with me, or come against me.  I’ll be standing with my black brothers and sisters.


* I can’t recommend enough that each of us should read and ponder the full text of this speech, as it seems like he could have spoken these words this May 31st, 2020, just as relevantly as he did on March 14, 1968.

**See Dr. King’s refutation of this really ignorant statement in the same speech.

Chuck got a home

My friend Chuck got a home New Year’s Eve.

I’ve known Chuck for most of my 3 years in Tacoma. I met him near People’s Park. He sat at the bus stop every morning as Yogi and I walked or ran by, drinking his 2 Milwaukee’s Best tall-boys and talking to passers-by. Chuck was hard to miss:  his dirty-white beard was at least a foot long, his white hair escaping from under the ever-present Seahawks cap (or beanie, when it was really cold).

For the better part of two years, the conversation was pretty much the same: Chuck would yell, “GOOD MORNING, GREG!!!” at least half a block before I reached his bench, followed by a more conversational, “Hello, Muttley” to Yogi as we approached. From there, we discussed the weather, Chuck’s health, and how he was faring in his efforts to find a home. He would occasionally let slip a detail or two about his family, his upbringing, or his past, but mostly we talked about his days-what had happened yesterday, what he planned to do today, and maybe what was in store for tomorrow.

Chuck didn’t think too far beyond tomorrow. He was convinced he didn’t have much time left. Not too long after I met him, he informed me he was dying. Some doctor somewhere had diagnosed him with COPD, and told him he didn’t have long to live, probably just weeks. He was OK with that. He didn’t have much to look forward to, other than hanging out at the bus stop every day, drinking his beer, smoking cigarettes, and waiting for people to talk to. He said his biggest regret was that he couldn’t chase women anymore, and wouldn’t be able to do anything if he caught one.

Chuck was cantankerous. He disapproved with much of what he observed, and didn’t suffer fools, politicians, social workers, or religious people gladly. He generally didn’t appreciate being told what to do, whether that came from well-meaning family or friends, or police. He also was very wary of letting anyone get close. As I got to know Chuck, I realized that he’d been hurt by people, and used his grumpy-old-man demeanor to protect himself. Trying to crack that shell by asking about family, about growing up, typically got a person yelled at. Mentioning God or anything to do with religion yielded a stream of profanity and anger that hinted that some of the hurt in his past had come from religion, or religious people.

He lived for a while at a homeless shelter, but eventually was evicted. After that, he lived on the streets for months. Chuck found a room to rent for a few months before he was evicted for trying to sneak his friend Joe, aka “Grandpa” in to live with him. Chuck was one of those homeless people that folks love to put on TV: He would tell you that he was happy living on the streets because he didn’t want to follow the rules. We’ve all seen them… the interviews that make it easier to ignore that guy on the corner, to even judge him… to believe that he deserved his condition for rebelling against society, rules and laws.

But it was a lie. Chuck wasn’t happy on the streets. He had simply given up hope of any other life. He was estranged from his family. He’d joined the Army when he was young, only to be medically discharged after about six months because of his poor eyesight. He’d worked for a time installing fences, but eventually couldn’t physically do the work.  He drank to ease the pain in his life–emotional pain, and then physical pain. People betrayed him; people let him down. Eventually, social workers got involved and tried to help, but too many times they weren’t able to deliver, or deliver quickly enough, and Chuck quit trusting them, quit believing that they were trying to help*.  Chuck didn’t want to live on the streets.  He just didn’t want to be hurt any more, and the streets were the easiest place to isolate himself.  Being cantankerous was the easiest way to keep people far enough away that they couldn’t hurt him.

Chuck spent this summer living at the bus stop.  Living outside in the summer in Tacoma isn’t too bad.  It doesn’t rain much, most days are sunny and beautiful.  But as the morning air started to get crisper, it became harder for a 65 year old man with COPD, a massive hernia, dementia, and dependent on a cane or walker to sleep on the sidewalk.  The rain was beginning again, making it difficult to stay dry. 

One wet morning in early September, Chuck told me that he was going to ask his payee for money to buy a tent.  I told him he wasn’t going to survive the winter in a tent, and asked him if he’d be willing to go to a homeless encampment the city was operating.  To my surprise, he agreed!  For those that may not be familiar, Tacoma, Washington is in the midst of an overwhelming homelessness crisis, where the need greatly exceeds the available resources.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to make connections with several organizations doing the work, and quickly got Chuck set up with an intake meeting with my amazing friend Latisha, who leads one of the homeless outreach teams.  

Latisha met Chuck and I at the bus stop to conduct the interview.  That’s when first I learned of Chuck’s military service.  Chuck was a veteran!  That’s just about the best news you can learn about an individual experiencing homelessness, because it unlocks a lot of resources that aren’t available to others.  It immediately qualified Chuck for a bed in the “veteran’s room” –a quiet(er) place within the cacophony of the men’s shelter.  It also qualified him for housing assistance and better access to medical care through the VA.  I’d been talking to Chuck several times a week for more than two years, and he’d never let me know that he was a veteran.  This changed everything!

Latisha and Chuck’s VA case managers did all the hard work, and I kept pestering them to make sure he didn’t get side-tracked by the wheels of bureaucracy.  I also kept pestering Chuck to make sure he made it to his appointments and followed up on tasks his case managers gave him.  Even with all of that support, it took from September 4, when he first agreed to seek assistance, until December 31st, to get Chuck his own apartment that he could afford.  

Chuck got a new home on New Year’s Eve.  But it wasn’t the apartment that he was scheduled to move into overlooking the bus stop and park where he’d spent every day for the last 3 years that I’ve known him. 

The day after Christmas, Chuck was taken by ambulance to the hospital.  Latisha called me yesterday to inform me that she had just found out Chuck was in ICU.  When I arrived at the hospital, Chuck’s older brother and his sister-in-law were in his room, having just found out themselves that he was hospitalized.  The hospital hadn’t been able to locate any emergency contact information for 5 days.  Chuck’s body was failing, and there was nothing doctors could do. 

I spent the afternoon sitting by Chuck’s hospital bed with Chuck’s brother Dan, as we pieced together details of the last 3 years of Chuck’s life, along with tidbits of the previous 62 years.  I was surprised to discover that Dan lived less than 20 miles away, and that he did homeless outreach work in Olympia.  Dan was surprised to hear that Chuck had been talking with a pastor (me) almost daily for 3 years!  He shared with me that Chuck had severed almost all contact with Dan and his wife when Dan began following Jesus.  Dan has always been there, but for reasons that none of us can fully understand, Chuck couldn’t let him get close.

From almost the day I met Chuck, I knew he wasn’t going to be receptive to discussion of Jesus.  He never told me why, but he made it glaringly obvious that he had NO use for discussions of faith.  But in the past six months, he’d actually been agreeing with my comments about God watching out for him, or providing a home for him.  In the past couple of months, when he’d get angry because the VA process wasn’t happening as fast as he thought it should, he’d soften and acknowledge that people like Latisha loved him and were caring for him.  His demeanor shifted this fall– he was less and less cantankerous, and more and more… joyful?  Chuck didn’t want to be homeless so he could live by his own rules.  Chuck wanted what every person wants–to love, and to be loved.  

Chuck moved into his new home at 8 pm on New Year’s Eve.  I missed him this morning.

*This is not an indictment on social workers–most of them are doing way more than we pay or equip them to do, and serving way more people than they have the capacity to help. And people like Chuck are hard to help–they are easy to lose contact with, the instability in their lives causes them to frequently miss appointments, etc.

Learning about Jesus from my Yogi

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 wanted to 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 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.

Good People and Bad People

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.

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.

Lessons from a Great Dog

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.

“He’s so cuuutteee”

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.

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Kenai looking over his kingdom, Eagle River, Alaska

He was also a runner.  In more ways than one.  If he was outside, unrestrained,

Washing a muddy Kenai, in the dark, after a game of “chase-the-escapee”

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.

11 year old Kenai, revisiting his puppy stomping grounds of Frye Cove Park, near Olympia, WA, 2017.

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 and I after a morning run in Alaska

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.

Kenai in napping his natural habitat

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.

“Retired” Kenai napping in the Florida sun, with his “sister”Jillian

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.

On this day…

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.

Happy New Year!