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.

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.

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.

From Heritage and Hate to Legacy of Love

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:

  1. To help those who cannot comprehend how a person displaying a Confederate flag can claim they are not racist,
  2. 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 their legacy. 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.

learn

“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.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.  Written in 2012, this book looks at the legacy of Jim Crow laws, and how the underlying biases have carried through despite the advancements in civil rights of the late 20th Century.
  • 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.

live

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.

love

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.

Heritage… and Hope.

Before I begin “Part 3” to my “Heritage” series, I want to take a moment to say thank you for the encouraging words in response to the previous two posts (if you haven’t read them yet, follow these links to Part 1 and Part 2).

I said at the end of Part 2 that I would talk today about “reconciling heritage, rewriting history, and new identity.”  Heritage is an interesting concept.  Examining different online definitions yields an idea of either possessions that are passed down from previous generations (an inheritance), or more commonly a set of cultural aspects one receives as a result of birth position.  Heritage can have geographical, economic, cultural, and even physical/biological elements to it, but the interesting part is that you have exactly zero input into your heritage.  You receive it from your predecessors.  You didn’t earn your heritage; you don’t even get to choose your heritage.  Think about that for a minute.  I’ll wait…

Whatever your heritage is, it can have an influence on you, but you had no influence on it.  And you can’t change it.  You can reject it, or embrace it; you can choose the extent to which it influences your identity, but you didn’t form your heritage, be it positive or negative.  While there is much more to consider with respect to heritage, I want to focus on the discussion of heritage occurring in our country today, particularly since the events in Charlottesville last weekend.

Earlier I used the phrase “reconciling heritage.”  I honestly had no idea what I was thinking as I typed that out at 2 am. But today as I considered the word “reconcile,” I can only claim dumb luck or divine inspiration, because it’s a brilliant phrase to describe what I want to talk about, that I take no credit for crafting.    Reconcile literally means “to bring back together.”  It has multiple modern uses, including the accounting idea of making two accounts consistent with each other, and the broader definition of settling disagreement or bringing two disparate concepts into harmony.  The more I learned about my heritage associated with the Confederacy the more I needed to reconcile that heritage with my innate desire to treat all people with dignity and respect.

I find myself confronting a second concept that, like “heritage,” is trending in the news today: “rewriting history.” The record of the story of black people in the US deserves a much deeper exploration than what I am able to do in this post.  Ultimately, the point I’m launching from is that the history of the Civil War and slavery in the US was gravely distorted.

Take a look back at Part 1, where I described my understanding of the Civil War.  I believed that the war resulted from a conflict over states’ rights stemming from economic issues. Is this simply the case of me remembering what I wanted to remember?  NO!!!  I studied the Civil War multiple times in elementary, junior high, and high school, as well as at least twice in college.  I can vividly remember my military history class professor emphasizing the point that only fools believed that the South seceded over slavery.  Again, this was at a Historically Black College! Why did I get taught this?  It’s because our history books told us this!!!

Yet the true story is that primary documents from the era describe a very different motive.  Secession was about a single right–the right to own other human beings.  Look up the prolific documentation of reasons for secession from the states.  More personally, here is the text of a letter my great-great-great grandfather, Captain William Dyer, wrote to his cousin in May 1861:

My Dear Cousin-

My regiment leaves in a few days for the east, presumably northern Virginia.  My heart and soul is in the contest; I am, you know, a State’s right democrat, as defined by that greatest of southern statesmen- John C. Calhoun. This election of Lincoln by the aggressive anti-slavery element of the north was equivalent to a declaration of war against the south, and the institute of slavery-we have the alternative presented of tame and odious submission, or secession and war.  In this hour of supreme necessity, hesitation would be treason.  The South, if true to herself, will surely triumph, and may the God of battles lead her sons. (emphasis added)

Here’s the difficulty I bumped into in my own journey to reconcile my heritage:  I was celebrating a heritage of a group of people who took up arms against the US because the majority of the US opposed the Southern institution of owning human beings and using them as property.  The symbols of my Southern pride represented people who felt so strongly about the rightness of their superiority to black people that they were willing to go to war for those convictions.

People who are advocating taking down Confederate monuments and removing the Confederate battle flag from its prominence in public places are not trying to “rewrite history,” they’re trying to correct the accepted history that is grossly inaccurate!  And that distorted history has served as a foundation for a heritage that is a key piece of many peoples’ identity.  As a general rule, challenging a person’s identity, or a symbol that represents their identity, is not the best idea.  You’re gonna get a fight.  A pretty nasty fight.  Logic and reason are almost hindrances in this kind of fight.  So, why risk it?  Let’s just leave the monuments up, and let Mississippi keep the Confederate Flag on their state flag, right?

Good argument, unless you’re a black person.  Because no matter how vehemently I assert that my pride in my Confederate ancestry and flag have nothing to do with how I view racism, that doesn’t change the fact that those symbols were all about white supremacy, in 1865, and the next 100 years.  Most of the statues placed around the country commemorating Confederate leaders were installed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as a means to glorify a southern identity badly damaged during the Reconstruction period.  They represented Black Codes , Jim Crow laws, and lynching.  The flag gained even more prominence in the middle of the 20th century when it was used as a symbol of opposition to the civil rights movement.  That usage eventually mutated into a broader “Southern pride” symbol that could conceivably be detached from racist purposes.  And whether or not an individual waving that flag hates black people, the vast majority of black people see the symbol, and are reminded of racism-much like SPC Marshall was when I called myself a “redneck.”

Consider that in recent polls about half of black Americans view the Confederate flag as a racist symbol.  The 15 year old girl who started the petition in Charlottesville to get the Lee statue removed said she and her friends didn’t attend events held in the park because of the reminder of white supremacy there.  Here’s a question worth pondering:  If you strongly  believe something, and then you discover that what you were taught was inaccurate, arguably even part of a deliberate campaign of deception, would you be willing to change your beliefs based on new evidence?  Would you still hold onto it if the belief was not only false, but hurtful to others?

I have discovered that I’m writing for the benefit of at least two audiences:  Those who, like me, might need to reconsider their beliefs in new light; and second, those who cannot understand how people like I was can be so hateful.  I have friends in both groups.  Let me talk to the second for just a minute:  I spoke earlier about the fight resulting from attacking a person’s identity.  If you start this fight with removing statues and flags, rather than helping people reconcile heritage in light of more accurate history, you’re quite possibly attacking an identity.  Now, you can take the approach that you’re tired of waiting, and that the injustices of people of color are so horrific that they need to be fixed now, no matter the cost.  But that approach is going to get you a much fiercer fight from people who are defending their identity.  My hope is that by providing an answer to the often-shouted question, “What is wrong with you people?!”, you might see that nothing is wrong with them, they are simply operating off a misunderstanding not of their own creation.

Now let me talk to everybody again-please don’t take this post as me advocating for one side or the other.  I’m trying to position my writing in the middle, and address both sides.  Because both audiences are important, need to be valued and heard.  We have an opportunity to turn Charlottesville into a milestone-in a few years we can look on it and say, “That was the event that caused us to come together as a nation, and resolve issues that had festered for centuries.” Wouldn’t that be a great legacy for Heather Heyer?

I was hoping to wrap up this “series” with this post, but we still need to talk about where to go from here. I have some ideas, based on what I’ve learned as I’ve walked this out. Because I think there is cause for hope that we can move into a much better future with respect to race relations in our country  Check back for Part 4 on Tuesday.  Or better yet, follow this blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the menu below (if you’re on a mobile device) or the menu bar on the left (if you’re on a desktop), and you’ll get notified when it’s published.


 

Heritage and Hate, Part 2

In my previous post, I described how I came to be one of the “Heritage, not Hate” guys.  How a “Southern Pride” identity could lead me to identifying with a Confederate Flag as a symbol of who I was, even though I truly held NO ill-will toward black people, or any other race or ethnic group.  This is not to try to justify Confederate flags, or statues, and it is CERTAINLY not a defense of White Supremacist ideology or the repulsive, hateful behavior displayed in Charlottesville, on alt-right websites, etc.  I don’t “identify” with that; to the contrary, it makes me violently angry.  I can understand, particularly if you’re not a white from the South, how difficult it might be to reconcile me saying I identified with the Confederate Flag as a symbol, yet bore no ill-will, and in fact had genuine love for black people.  Just hang with me a while.

Another Army story:  After college, I went back in the Army as an officer.  I loved leading soldiers and building high-performing units.  I spent a lot of time working on making my team the best, a place where everyone grew individually, and as a unit we did amazing things.  Having been a private, it was important to me to hear what my privates were thinking.  As a company commander, that’s harder to do, but I would schedule quarterly “sensing sessions” where I met with just the junior enlisted.  No sergeants, no other leaders in the room.  I gave them the opportunity to speak pretty candidly about what was on their mind.  In one of these meetings, a black female specialist (E4) spoke up.  I hadn’t been commander long.  SPC Marshall was from East St. Louis.  She told me something I’ve never forgotten.

I tend to be fairly self-deprecating, and I never really liked a lot of the privilege and honor that comes with being an officer (such as being saluted by those you out-rank).  When I stood in front of my company, on more than one occasion I had referred to myself as a “redneck,” trying to imply that I was just a simple guy, nobody special.   SPC Marshall informed me that she couldn’t understand why I kept calling myself a racist.  “I’ve been watching you, and I don’t think you’re a racist.”

“WHAT?!  When did I EVER say that?!”

“You keep calling yourself a ‘redneck,’ and where I come from that means a white racist.  I couldn’t understand why you were calling yourself a racist, but I finally figured out it must mean something different to you, because you don’t seem racist at all.”

That was almost 20 years ago, but I remember the moment like it was yesterday.  The conversation after that wasn’t significant; I apologized, stumbled through some quick explanation of what I meant in my mind, and we moved on to a new topic.  But I learned a hard lesson there:  A word, or a symbol, can have a huge impact on what people think about me, and it can take a lot to correct a misunderstanding.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I no longer had a Confederate Flag on my truck, but I decided then and there to pay more attention to the perceptions I gave others, because most people aren’t in the same situation SPC Marshall was.  She had to pay attention to me long enough to discover the truth, because I was her commander.  She couldn’t just go find another unit. I tried to eliminate “redneck” from my vocabulary from that day forward, not because of political correctness, but because I didn’t want people to misunderstand ME, and I didn’t want to accidently place a barrier between me and others.

It’s funny in hindsight, because about that same time, I received my copy of that big genealogy binder I showed you in the previous post.  Not only does it have huge family trees, but it has a lot of historical detail, including dates of birth, marriage, death, but also occupations and records of military service.  I didn’t know much of anything about my military heritage.  My dad and his two brothers were in the Navy in the early 60s. His dad was crippled with polio as a child, so wasn’t medically qualified to serve.  My mom’s dad was in the Navy in the Pacific in WWII.  Other than that, I really didn’t know about any other family service.  I really didn’t know much about my heritage at all.  I had a few stories that my dad’s mom told about her relatives, including her grandma telling her about watching her dad being forced to dance on the hot stove by “Bald Knobbers” (a term I wasn’t familiar with at the time), and then cut up and fed to the hogs while she watched.

I poured over the binder, and discovered more about my heritage.  I had a LOT of military service in my background.  French and Indian War, Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, Indian wars, and yes, the Civil War.  On both sides, but predominantly the Confederacy.  I didn’t dig into the details, other than to remember that there were a few officers, a few prisoners of war, but probably at least a dozen different family members with documented Civil War service.  As someone who had by that time determined that I was going to be a career Soldier, I took pride in that history–particularly the Confederate history, for all the reasons I cited in the previous post.

The binder also contained other historical records. One of the key items was executed wills.  They provide genealogists with a lot of detail on a person’s life, including their wealth, and property.  It’s funny to read through a will detailing the disposition of a person’s plow, bucket, and other things that we would consider disposable today, certainly not worth accounting for, or willing to the next generation.  Several of those recorded wills listed property that I was not all proud of… Slaves.  My family owned slaves.  Some just a few, at least one is estimated to have owned around 100.  One, who died in 1796 (of the same era as Presidents Washington and Jefferson), recorded in his will instructions to free his slaves, provide them room and board, and pay them for their labor.  Another, whose slaves were emancipated at the end of the Civil War had a married couple who chose to stay with their former masters on their land, and were apparently provided for and treated well until they died. Well, at least my ancestors were the kind-hearted masters. Except, that wasn’t any consolation.  Reality started to hit home.  Not so much guilt, per se, because it was not my doing, nor was it something I had any control over.  But suddenly, that “Southern Pride” was stained.  I could no longer claim all the positive things about my heritage while ignoring the atrocity of treating another human as less-than-human.  I didn’t hate black people, but my family was implicit in treating them hatefully.  And make no mistake, no matter how you try to spin it, depriving any human of their freedom, treating them like property, is hateful, no matter how well you treat them.

Fortunately, as my desire to have my identity tied to my Southern heritage dissipated, I found myself developing a new identity–Alaskan!  Rugged individualist? Check!  Capable of surviving in the wilderness, of taking care of myself? Check.  Lots of macho cool-guy stuff? Check!!! (Note, this was long before reality TV made Alaskans look like rubes).  Plus, cowboy boots on arctic ice was a recipe for disaster.  My binder went on the book shelf, and the “South” was 5000 miles away.  But the tragedy of black history in the US was about to get a lot more personal.

My second job in the Army in Alaska found me leading a combined team of Soldiers and US Army civilian workers.  One of those civilians was a black man named Dan Grant.  Dan was a retired Master Sergeant, and he was about the same age as my dad.  He had served in Vietnam, and was an amazing man.  Known around Anchorage as “Deacon Grant”, Dan was a big, barrel-chested man, always smiling, with a booming baritone voice that made him a natural choice for Master of Ceremonies at every military function.  Dan and I became good friends, close friends.  We often would spend hours, occasionally an entire afternoon, sitting in our office talking about life.  Dan had not always been “Deacon” Grant; one of his last duty positions was as the NCOIC of the Club.  But Dan found Jesus, and boy did he love him.  At that time, I called myself a Christian, and I went to church, but I certainly wasn’t following God.  But we talked about Him, and music, and the Army, and family…

The Army works hard to appreciate diversity, including holding ceremonies to observe things like Black History Month.  One year our unit was tasked to run the Black History Month event for our installation.  It was decided to present a dramatic reading of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”.  One of our soldiers would portray Dr. King in his cell by sitting on a darkened stage on a cot, dimly illuminated by a single spotlight, writing, while Dan was off-stage narrating Dr. King’s letter.  To be honest, I’d never heard or read the letter.  I really didn’t know much about King; I’d heard snippets of “I have a Dream” and I knew he was assassinated.  Hearing Dr. King’s words, in my friend Dan’s voice, wrecked me.  I was really glad the theater was dark, so people couldn’t see my reaction.  Those impersonal historic facts became real.  Afterward, Dan and I talked all that afternoon in his office… That’s when he told me about growing up in Georgia.  I wish I’d have taken notes, but I don’t remember the precise locations.  He talked about how he lived on one side of the tracks, and his white friends on the other, but it didn’t matter.  His friends liked to hang out at his parents’ store, and they all did teenage boy things together.  A few years passed, and Dan was marching in a civil rights march (led, as I remember the story, by Dr. King).  Dan described how he saw some of his white buddies standing along side the road, throwing urine on the marchers as they passed by.

My heart ached, like it was made of lead–and at the same time, a white-hot rage burned inside it.  In my mind, I could see myself doing violent, serious physical harm to anyone who would degrade another human, my friend, like that.  That wasn’t in my history book.  This was ugly.  It was hateful. It was evil.

A few things changed that day.  First, I resolved that I would try to understand and empathize that my story wasn’t like the story of others.  Second, I began to learn more about the Civil Rights movement, and black history in the US in general.  Third, I doubled down on the lesson that SPC Marshall taught me–I was willing to let go of things that I thought were important if they were hurtful to others.

In Part 3 I talk about reconciling heritage, rewriting history, and new identity.

Heritage…and Hate

Lots of discussion going on in the world, and in social media, about race.  I haven’t blogged about it much, but not because I haven’t had something to say.  I wasn’t sure I had anything valuable to add to the discussion, but that changed last Friday.  I hope you’ll take the time to listen, because I think my journey of discovery with respect to race might be useful.  And if you don’t, maybe someone will find it useful, because I am done not-talking about it.

First, a little background-I’m white.  Reaaallly white.  Not just my ethnicity, but my upbringing.  White, middle-class, central-Missouri-raised country boy.  My mom’s family were Welsh, Scottish, and Swedish (so they claim), all immigrants to the US from those countries in just the last few generations.  My dad’s side?  Scottish, English, and one thin line of Huguenots, which gets me the “Saxon” part of my rather long, well-documented “Anglo-Saxon” pedigree. They’ve all been in the US for a LONG time… since the 1600s for the most part.  My grandma was into genealogy, and she and my aunt traced the Walker clan back 14 generations.

This binder is my family geology on my dad’s side… pretty cool!

I grew up pretty isolated from black people.  There were a few in my elementary school class, but none that lived anywhere near me.  My parents were certainly not racist, and didn’t raise me to be racist; race wasn’t really on my radar.  In high school, racism didn’t show up much, but “Southern Pride” did.  I attended high school in the early 80s.  While Missouri isn’t known as “the South” in a lot of people’s minds, the town I grew up in was sure “Southern” in culture.  Add to that the popularity of country music, led by Hank Williams, Jr and Charlie Daniels, and Confederate flags and all things “Southern” became part of my identity.

Identity.  That’s an important word here… You see, for a middle class boy in flyover country, particularly if you’re not a star football player, finding an identity that is more exciting than Wonder Bread is pretty important.  “Southern Pride” did that, particularly in the 80s.  And the preeminent symbol of Southern Pride was the Confederate Flag.  That flag represented a lot:

  • The Confederate Army:  It wasn’t until I joined the Army and was exposed to “Yankees” did I ever consider it a sign of a losing force.  I know they “lost” the war, but bear with me…  The Confederate Army didn’t “lose”, they fought valiantly, vastly outnumbered and out-equipped, and they almost won!!!

  • Rugged Individualism:  The flag represented the tough guy, the man who could provide for himself off the land, defend against tyranny, and make his own way.  One of my favorite movies then (and even now) is The Outlaw Josey Wales starring Clint Eastwood.  The movie starts with Josey, a Missouri farmer whose farm is raided and family massacred by Kansas (Union) Redlegs. Seeking revenge, Wales joins Quantrill’s Raiders, a pro-Confederate guerilla force operating in Missouri and Kansas.  My absolute favorite movie of that time, True Grit starring John Wayne, also depicts the Duke’s character, Marshal Rooster Cogburn, as a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders.  Never mind what actually happened, the image, or identity was something that was larger than life, and something I aspired to.

  • Leadership:  Like it or not, the reputation of Confederate Army leaders, from Lee on down, was one of gentlemen-warriors, chivalrous, honorable men of great moral character and superior strategy and tactics.  Union generals, on the other hand, were often portrayed as bureaucrats, poor strategists, and even drunken buffoons (or in the case of the bad guys in The Outlaw Josey Wales, rotten, blood-thirsty scoundrels of no morals).  The superiority of Confederate Army leaders was reinforced after I joined the Army, where I was stationed at Fort Benning and  Fort Bragg (both named for prominent Confederate generals).  There is no “Fort Grant,” and the only Union leader I remember being lauded in my studies was Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg.

But what about the Civil War? That flag represented rebellion against the US!!!  No, not according to my history books, they didn’t.  See, what I learned, IN SCHOOL, about the Civil War, was that the North took advantage of the South, using Southern raw materials to get rich making products in their Northern factories, then selling the finished goods back to the Southerners at a premium.  The poor Southerners could only make their economy work using the labor of slaves, and now those no-good Northerners were trying to take the slaves away… This wasn’t about human rights, it was economic oppression, rotten to the level of Pharaoh taking away the Israelites’ straw used for brickmaking, but telling them to continue producing the same number of bricks!  Those poor Southern statesmen did everything they could to try to appease the judgmental Yankees, but they just kept taking, and taking, until finally they left the poor Southern states no choice but to stand up for states’ rights.  You see, all the real scholars know that while the North might have used abolition of slavery as a means to rally popular support for a war against the South, it was really all about the North, and the US government, trying to economically and politically dominate the Southern states.

Seriously.  That’s what I was taught, all the way through high school, and college, IN MY MILITARY HISTORY CLASS by a PhD in History, at a HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGE!!!

But what about slavery?! You know, actual, people-owning-other-people, SLAVERY???  Yeah, I watched Roots. But what I was taught was that the reality of slavery wasn’t really that bad.  Most slaves were well-treated, and even loved their masters.  In lots of cases, after they were freed, they chose to stay with their benevolent masters for the rest of their lives…  I’m serious–these were the FACTS that I learned.

What about Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement???  Lynchings! The KKK!  So, in my American History classes, we quickly glossed over the Reconstruction, where we learned about how those rotten Carpetbaggers abused their victory, and robbed the poor Southern states of the little bit of wealth they still had after the war (“but they never took our dignity!”). From there we jumped right into WWI, the Great Depression (which, as I look back, only apparently affected white folks), and then, after we got back from Easter vacation (that’s what Spring Break used to be), we did a big unit on WWII, and how we defeated the Nazis and the Japanese.  A quick skim through the Cold War (which was still going on, where we were in a life-and-death battle against the USSR and godless Communism), and it was finals week.  Oh, yeah, somebody shot Martin Luther King, Jr.  Terrible thing.  James Earl Ray was probably a communist, but don’t worry about that, because the final only goes through WWII.

Through that lens, a heritage represented by the Confederate Flag doesn’t look so bad… might even be something to be proud of!

After high school, I joined the Army.  The US Army is one of the most integrated places in our culture today.  Southern Pride is thick in the Army.  I don’t have statistics to back this up, but it sure seems like there are more Soldiers from the South.  There is racism, but it gets squelched pretty quickly and thoroughly.  I still remember as a young Private, fairly new to the 82nd Airborne Division, my platoon sergeant, SFC Jeffries, a black man from Alabama, yelled at me one night to “turn that shit down!”, referring to the Hank Williams music I had playing on my stereo while we were cleaning the barracks one night, getting ready for a big IG inspection.  Being the good soldier I was, I immediately went to my extensive country music collection and queued up that great Kris Kristofferson classic, If  you don’t like Hank Williams…” and called out, “Hey!  SFC Jeffries!!!” just in time for the title line.  SFC Jeffries, being the great soldier/philosopher that all platoon sergeants are, grinned, looked me right in the eye, and said, “Walker! Are you prejudiced?”  My blood ran cold, and all my false bravado evaporated, leaving me a stammering mess…  “N-N-N-NO! SFC Jeffries, I’m not prejudiced!”  And I meant it!  I wasn’t!  “Bullshit, Walker.  Everybody’s prejudiced.  You gotta grow past it.” The Army reinforced in my brain, that you judged people by their performance, period.  And you fought, and died if need be, for your brothers in arms.

After my initial enlistment, I left active duty to go to college.  I attended a small Historically Black College in my hometown.  What an education in cultures and race.  Nestled in the middle of rural Central Missouri is Lincoln University, founded in 1866 by the officers of the 62nd and 65th US Colored Infantry Regiments.  When I attended, Lincoln had about 3000 students, about 900 of which lived on campus.  The on-campus students were about 90% black, and came primarily from inner city St. Louis, Memphis, and Chicago.  The off-campus students were 90% white, from Central Missouri.  During my time there in the late 80s, Louis Farrakhan was making news with Nation of Islam, and Jesse Jackson was running for President, bringing issues of race to the forefront in national news, and creating division on campus.  There were major protests when the administration rescinded the student’ government’s invitation to NWA to perform at our homecoming concert.  Our book store sold t-shirts that said “IT’S A BLACK THING, YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND” and “BLACK BY POPULAR DEMAND.”  I got to see racism from the other side… sorta.  I walked around campus wearing my cowboy boots and hat, and I knew I wasn’t part of the predominant culture-on campus.  But when I drove my pickup two blocks down the street I was back in my world.  So there was no real threat.  And besides, I was a big deal in ROTC (at Lincoln, every incoming freshman had to take 1 year of ROTC), and I got along with almost everyone.  I was even invited to join the Alphas.  I left college proud of my university, happy for the cultural experience, and confident that I didn’t have a race problem–I did not judge people “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  

OK, so that was more than a little background… but it’s relevant.  I get it when people say “Heritage, not Hate.” If you made it this far, thank you.  Hang with me.  This is going somewhere important, but if you bail now, you’re gonna miss it.

Heritage and Hate, Part 2

Jesus-follower? Here’s some clarity on what our Lord says about Refugees

This article, published in “The Gospel Coalition,” is adapted from a speech the author gave in May 2016.  He does an excellent job laying out a Biblical foundation for bringing refugees into the US.  No tweetable platitudes here–sound theology.

I do have one disagreement though–In the author’s fourth “Biblical truth”: “Though God generally establishes government for the protection of all people, he specifically commands his church to provide for his people”, I believe the author provides an unsupportable excuse to prefer Christian refugees over non-Christians.  I don’t believe a comprehensive reading of Jesus allows his followers to show preference.

  • The author supports his point with one passage from Matthew 25, focusing on the word “brothers” when Jesus says that what we do, or don’t do, for the least of these, we did, or didn’t do for him.  The Greek word translated “brother” in this passage has a base meaning of “flesh and blood male sibling,” but culturally the Jews used it to mean fellow Jews, and the Greeks and Romans of the day used it to mean “compatriots.”  Taken by itself, one could infer, as the author does, that Jesus was talking about taking care of fellow disciples of Jesus.  But we shouldn’t interpret a stand-alone passage of Scripture to build a comprehensive understanding of Jesus’ way of thinking.  Consider other teachings of his:
  • In Luke 10 we read Jesus teaching one of his most well-known stories–the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells of a man who is beaten, robbed, and left on the side of the road.  His fellow Jews, his “brothers,” pass by without helping, because they have good legal or religious reasons not to help.  A hated enemy, from a race of people whom the Jews of the day considered inferior people, stops and goes to great trouble and personal expense to help the wounded Jew, even though society would say he was well in his right to leave the Jew to die.  The story by itself should convict us, but it is important to note why Jesus tells the story:  He’s answering a question.  A religious expert asks Jesus what the man must do to earn God’s favor.  Jesus asks the man what the Scriptures say.  The man replies with the correct answer:  Love God with your entire being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus tells the man that he has given a good answer, but the man isn’t satisfied, because this answer is too open-ended.  It requires self sacrifice. The man seeks to clarify, asking, “And who is my neighbor?”  The man is looking for a way out–a way to show that he is good enough for God, without having to sacrifice.  THAT is when Jesus tells the story.  He ends the story with a question back to the religious man:  “Who do you think was a neighbor to the man who was robbed–his fellow Jews, or the low-life?”  When the man answers, “The one who had mercy on him,” Jesus affirms his understanding by saying, “Go and do likewise.”
  • In the teaching on the Good Samaritan, Jesus is explicitly answering the question, “who is my neighbor (or brother)?”  Earlier in Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and teachings, Jesus makes a similarly difficult point:  “Love your enemy.”  This passage is one that gets a lot of “interpretation” (read qualifying) to help make it more palatable.  A straight-forward reading of the text is pretty easy to comprehend, and totally incongruent with what we believe to be “right.”  A more nuanced reading, with the benefit of some Greek background and cultural understanding of Jesus’ day makes this even more difficult to swallow.  Jesus isn’t talking about “enemy” like a foreign army.  He’s talking about anyone who isn’t “in your circle.” To his immediate audience, this was anyone outside your family, or your community, and even outside the Jewish religion.  When he says “love,” Jesus doesn’t mean to have warm feelings for them; Jesus is saying “do good things for them, even when it isn’t in your best interest to do so!” In case you want to argue with him, he even expounds on his point in the latter part of the passage, saying, “Don’t be proud of yourself for loving those who are in your circle–even evil people do that.  My followers will love those who are outside their circle!” And then he drives the point home:  “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  We were all outside God’s circle, but he sacrificed so we could be brought back in–he sacrificed at a great price.
  • Full disclosure:  I despise the thought of Christians being killed because they are follow Jesus.  It makes me sad, angry, and vengeful, to be honest.  Nik Ripken, a former missionary to Somalia who has extensively studied Christianity in closed cultures, writes in his book “The Insanity of Obedience: Walking with Jesus in Tough Places” that these martyred Christians have a better understanding of Jesus’ teachings than we do!  When Jesus teaches in his Sermon on the Mount,

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil things against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

he is telling us to “Rejoice and be glad!”  In another teaching, Jesustells us that he is sending us out like “sheep among wolves.” He’s not telling us to be mindless here, because he follows that statement with the directive to be as shrewd as snakes, but innocent as doves.”  However, he also tells a parable in Luke 15 about how important it is for people who don’t know Jesus to be connected to him.  He tells a story of a man who has 100 sheep, but loses one.  He leaves the 99 in the open country (where they are most susceptible to attack) to go find the one.  He tells of the man calling all his neighbors to celebrate when he finds the one, and then says, “In the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” 

While I’m in no way wishing martyrdom on any Christian, could it be that if Jesus wants us to show preference to refugees, that we should be more concerned with providing refuge to those who don’t know him than those who do?  As Ripken describes in his book, many Arabic Christians who have converted from Islam point out that American Christians are soft.  They are more concerned with getting former Muslims to safety outside their Arabic nation, but the Arab understands that Jesus has called him to risk his life to tell his Muslim brother the Good News!  Rather than taking these indigenous missionaries out of the country, perhaps we should be preferring (if any religious preference is indeed necessary) to provide refuge to Muslims who can then experience the life-saving love of Jesus!

If you’re not a Jesus follower, I don’t expect you to agree with this.  I’m ok with you disagreeing, because you aren’t claiming to submit yourself to Jesus’ teachings and leadership.  But if you call yourself a “Christian”, literally a “little Christ,” I would encourage you to examine whether you are showing beliefs and attitudes that are more in line with Jesus’ teaching, or with a need for safety and security.

and God knew

Haven’t posted in a while.  It’s a crazy season, both nationally and personally, and I hold to the Thumper-rule:  “If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all.” OK, I try to hold to that rule.

Today, I can say something that, if not “nice”, should at least be encouraging.

My Bible reading this morning included the first two chapters of Exodus.  The Cliff Notes version:

Chapter 1:  A whole lot of time passes between the death of Joseph and the birth of Moses (We’ll leave the specific amount of time to another discussion).  During that time, a new Pharaoh took over, and decided that the Israelites who were welcomed during Joseph’s time, had become too numerous, and were now a threat to the Egyptians.  The Pharaoh declared first that they would be treated harshly as slaves, and when that didn’t decrease their numbers, he decreed that every male baby should be killed at birth.

Chapter 2:  This chapter only covers 80 years, and if you’ve watched the Charlton Heston movie, you know this story:  Moses is born to an Israelite slave couple.  His mom hides him for 3 months, then decides she can’t hide him anymore, puts him in a basket in the river, where his sister watches while Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the baby.  Pharaoh’s daughter gives baby Moses back to his mom to nurse him. When he’s older, she takes young Moses into Pharaoh’s house and raises him as her own son.  Fast-forward to 40-year-old Moses, a member of Pharaoh’s household, who also knows that he’s of Hebrew descent, goes for a walk in the brick yard, sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and kills the Egyptian, hides the body, and apparently is not found out.  The next day, when he interrupts two Hebrew slaves fighting each other, they get mad at him, he suddenly becomes paranoid that he’s going to be found out for the murder, and runs away into the desert to the land of Midian.  There he marries the daughter of a shepherd, and spends the next 40 years unremarkably watching sheep for his father in law.  The last three verses of the chapter tell us that Pharaoh dies, and the Israelites cry out to God about their oppression in Egypt. God hears their cries, and remembers his promise to Abraham to make Israel a great nation.

I’ve read this account countless times, and seen Charlton Heston act it out several more.  What stood out to me today was the last verse of Chapter 2, and particularly the last three words.  Today I was reading from the English Standard Version (ESV), and it translates Exodus 2:25 as, “God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”

“and God knew.”  That’s interesting.  I couldn’t recall ever reading that before.  I pulled out “old faithful,” my worn NIV (84 version) and read the verse, where those translators converted verse 25 to the English, “So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.” That sounded a lot more familiar!  In fact, I had looked at that verse many times, and thought, “What a primitive understanding of God.”

It always seemed as if the writer is giving the impression that God forgot about his promise to Abraham, and the fact that his chosen people, Abraham’s descendants, were being beaten as slaves for over 80 years, and then one day he said, “Oh, I wonder how they’re doing?  I seem to hear them carrying on about something.  I should check on them. They may be having some sort of difficulty.”

Now, I hold to a view of God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere at the same time, so I am certain that he hadn’t become unaware of the plight of the Israelites.  I just chalked the peculiar language up to the fact that the writer of Exodus didn’t really have as complete an understanding of God as us modern folks do (that’s a joke, by the way).

“and God knew.”  OK, now my curiosity was piqued.  I needed to know more.  It turns out the Hebrew word translated by the ESV as “knew” and by the NIV as “was concerned about them” is yada. This is a complex Hebrew word that has a lot of variation of meanings in the 944 times it is used in the Old Testament.  Without going into all of the variations, it is safe to say that both translations are accurate interpretations of what the word could mean.  Being “concerned about them” fits within the various meanings of yada, but “know” hits the primary meaning.

“and God knew.”  As a parent, this resonated with me.  As we watch our children mature, we sometimes see them experience something for the first time, and we understand their experience better than they do. Often, we understand what they’re going to experience before they get there.  Imagine a teenager in their first romantic relationship.  They are “in love,” but parents know…  There is going to be infatuation;  sickeningly-sweet, life-long commitment; and eventually the  devastation that elicits sobs of, “I can’t live without him (or her)!”

“and God knew.” As that parent, we can’t intervene, we can’t stop the process, we can’t lessen the pain.  We can warn, we can cajole, we can make crazy threats and buy “Dads Against Daughters Dating” t-shirts, but no matter how much we would like to spare them (and us) of the experience, we have to let it play out.  But we know. We let the scenario play out, standing back, but watching intently, knowing that there will be a time when the lovelorn child cries out to us in anguish, and we are ready to step in and comfort.

“and God knew.” God hadn’t lost track of the Israelites.  He hadn’t become distracted, and suddenly realized he’d left them alone.  He knew. He was there, ready, waiting for them to cry out.

“and God knew.” Not only was he waiting, but he was prepared!  Read Exodus 2, or at least my summary above, again.  How plausible is this story?  A Levite couple (the family that priests come from) hide a baby. The king’s daughter finds it, and says, “Hey, Dad!  I found a baby today while I was taking a bath.  It was one of the Hebrew babies you are trying to kill.  Right after I found it, there was a girl standing there who said she could find a slave woman to nurse it for me, so I gave the baby back to her.  When he’s weaned, I am going to bring him here and I’ll raise him like he was my own baby, ‘K?”

Then, when the 40-year-old Hebrew/Pharaoh man kills somebody, he runs away into the desert and hides in another country for 40 years.  So a guy with a top-flight education, military training and leadership experience sits on a brown mountain for 40 years watching sheep do sheep-stuff, until one day when God randomly finds this perfect candidate to take on Pharaoh and lead hundreds of thousands of slaves to freedom from the world’s greatest power.  That’s only plausible if there is an unseen power directing the events.

“and God knew.”  In Jeremiah 1:5, God tells the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew (yada) you; and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  God had given Jeremiah a purpose before he gave him a heartbeat.  Exodus 2 is a story that God authored before “In the beginning…”  I am always hesitant to try to determine or explain God’s purposes, but if we look at Exodus 2, it would appear that God needed to get the Israelites miserable enough in their current situation that they’d be willing to go through the hardship, fear, and unknown of leaving Egypt for a “promised land” that they’d only heard stories about.  And while they were getting good and miserable, God needed to raise up a leader, train him, and then shield him from the misery until the time was right.

“and God knew.” There is a lot of turmoil in our world, our nation, our cities, and even in our own homes right now.  My wife and I are facing an exciting, but terrifyingly uncertain future as we prepare to move across the continent to a city we’ve never lived in, to start a church in a place that doesn’t perceive a whole lot of use for Christians or God.  Oh, and the cost of living is higher, starting a church isn’t real lucrative, and my retirement savings is depleted after 3 years of being a volunteer (that’s Hebrew for unpaid) pastor. Things are looking pretty chaotic, unorganized, and… impossible.  Some of my friends are facing uncertainties much greater than mine.  They’ve lost their health, livelihood, or even their spouse, or father, way too soon.  There’s no way this can work!  In their more honest moments, they might even tell you that they might not want it to work.  It’d be easier to just quit.  And if you take the time to sit in their place for a minute, you can see how they think that.

“and God knew.”  God didn’t take away the Israelites misery.  In fact, he used it to move them.  He was standing close by, watching, waiting for their cry, and at just the right moment he sent the leader he had begun preparing (on earth) 80 years prior.  Truth is, if you consider how quickly the Israelites were ready to abandon the Exodus and return to slavery in Egypt, he probably should have let them get a little more miserable before sending Moses.  But he knew.

And he still does.  The Israelites never got all the answers, and their suffering didn’t magically go away.  In some ways, life got harder once they were freed from slavery.  But God was with them, watching over them, knowing them, throughout their time in slavery, their time of testing in the desert; always watching, acting at just the right moment.

“and God knows.”  Wherever you are today, whatever you are enduring, or fearing, or mourning, he still knows.