A question to wrestle with

My mind clears in one of two places: in bed in the wee hours when I’m not really asleep or awake, or while I’m walking/jogging. While on my favorite jogging path this morning, a thought came to me after I passed a large group of cross-country middle and high school students. If I had a chance to speak to them, what would I tell them?

Why I run

I’d start by connecting with their story. I started jogging about 15 years ago when I connected with a group of adults who played Ultimate Frisbee on Saturday mornings year-round in Saginaw, Michigan. Before I began, I had no idea how much running is involved in Ultimate. I nearly puked.

To keep up with those guys, I needed to get in shape. There’s a recreation center a mile from our house with a walking track, so for the next four months I spent a lot of time there, building up some endurance.

I was never a great Ultimate player, nor was I ever the one with the strongest lungs. Far from it, in fact. But Saturday mornings were fun. The exercise was worth it, and I still keep in touch with a few of those guys even though we haven’t lived in Saginaw for eight years.

I found other benefits to jogging. It’s a great stress reliever. About that time, the job I held for 24 years was eliminated. Without hard exercise, I might not have survived that time period.

And I discovered I enjoy being outside, year-round. I enjoy working up a good sweat in summer (which happened this morning), and in the winter, cold air on my cheeks is invigorating. Give me four seasons, and I’ll spend them all outside.

What we control

Then, my mind wandered to another question. If I could give those students a word of wisdom, what would I say?

Here’s the thought that came to me:

The only things you can control are your body, mind, soul and spirit. That’s it. You can influence other people, and we do, but control? Only ourselves.

Get some physical exercise all your life long, not just now on the cross-country team. It will help you feel good about yourself, and it’s a great stress reliever. It will help keep you healthy.

Mental health is a major issue these days, as I’m sure you’re aware. We all know people who are suffering from mental health issues, and others who have overcome them, right? Read books. Learn things. Take care of your mind.

Your soul, your emotions, needs your attention too. Do things you enjoy, things that help you relax. There are times to get serious and buckle down, but we need to breathe as well.

And don’t forget your spiritual life. We all have one, you know. This world is not about you. There’s a Creator who designed and built this world, and who designed and built you. The evidence for this is overwhelming. Just open your eyes and look.

What we don’t control

Recent events prove this, too. Some people don’t want to wear a mask, saying that COVID-19 doesn’t affect them. They miss the point. It’s not about them. It’s about protecting other people.

The systemic racism we continue to learn about after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis also proves that the world does not revolve around you. Other people have experiences that you and I know nothing about. If anything good has come from that horrible death, it’s this: We are learning how to listen to each other. To understand each other in ways we didn’t before.

It’s not about you.

I’ve heard personal stories from black friends, outstanding citizens who I’d trust my life with, who have experienced racism in recent months – before this issue became a national story. I thought we were beyond systemic racism. We’re not.

lorain2

There’s a bigger picture here that many Americans don’t want to see, but you need to see it. It’s not about you. It’s about us, about us learning how to get along with each other. Respect each other.

Systemic racism rears its ugly head in our public education system. My sister and I grew up in a household where we were expected to attend college. My wife and I raised our three sons the same way – a college degree was an expectation, and we took steps to ensure that they got good grades and had other opportunities that paved the way for a good college life.

Many minorities don’t have all that. Perhaps the best teachers stay in the suburbs, where my family has always lived. Suburban communities can afford good schools, which many inner cities cannot. The state offers minimum state funding to all districts to try to ensure a good education for all, but it doesn’t play out that way, does it?

My wife works at our local community college. We’ve learned that that is an excellent option for many of you. You can live at home and take courses for far less cost than a four-year university will charge you. And there’s an excellent vocational school in the county as well, if you’d like to learn a trade. These are all great options.

But then, even if a black student earns a good degree or trade certificate, he or she might have a hard time finding a good job. There’s an article in today’s local paper that says while white college graduates are getting good jobs, the unemployment rate for black college graduates is actually rising. Why, why is that?

So you see, young people, the world does not revolve around you. The color of your skin makes a difference in your opportunities, as does your health. And other things.

Reconciling

If you’d like a homework assignment, I’ve got one for you. I said earlier that the only thing you can control is yourself – your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. That is absolutely true. Then, I just said that the world does not revolve around you. It was here before you were born, and it will be here after you are gone.

So, how do you reconcile those two thoughts? You control yourself. The world does not revolve around you.

If you can figure that out, you’ll go a long way in this world. I wish many adults would wrestle with this question as well. This country would be a lot more hospitable if we could figure this out.

Best of everything to you. Good luck on your season.

Hope rising from the pain

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

Galatians 6:7-8

 

If we sow violence, we reap violence. If we sow finger-pointing, we reap finger-pointing. If we sow anger, that’s what we reap. If we sow peace, we receive peace (in the Spirit, if not in practice).

We don’t get this. If we raise a Bible outside (or inside) a church, we think God is automatically on our side. If we defend every lifestyle under the sun, we think that defines love.

If we actually opened our Bibles and tried to understand its meaning, we’d see that both sides have missed the point.

All is not lost, however. Many of us do get it.

Especially in the past week or so. As George Floyd is laid to rest, we as a nation are taking a collective breath.

Perhaps for the first time since the Civil Rights Act was passed after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, we are learning to listen to each other. Equality, justice and mutual respect are gaining traction, but we still have a long way to go. A very long way.

We see violence on cell phone and store camera videos, but racism goes much deeper than that. An offhand comment here. A derogatory word there. A promotion not received. Educational disparities. Housing discrimination. A look in a donut shop or grocery store.

listening 5

I attended a listening event last week in my city, where I heard about two dozen people share stories, many stories, including young people facing racism from peers, teachers and administrators at school; parents who did not receive justice in the courthouse next door; people who suffered silently from random events around town …

I’ve heard stories from friends with a different skin color than mine, people who are successful in life, people full of caring hearts and kind words. Even they have stories. I had no idea.

Recent stories. Current stories.

We have such a long way to go.

We focus on institutional changes, and those need to happen. Accountability in our police departments. Changes to our educational systems. Prosecution of looters and vandals – and how to prevent those people from showing up at future demonstrations and riots. Hires and promotions earned regardless of skin color.

These are big-picture, long-term issues that our nation must address.

We reap what we sow.

And yet … we cannot legislate morality. Changing laws will do only so much.

 

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!

2 Corinthians 5:16-17

 

Even more than new (or better) laws, we need new (or better) hearts.

The human point of view is selfish, me first, I’m right and know what’s best. This goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. Every human, man and woman, who has ever lived understands this. Myself included. Every time I run a red (or pink) light I’m saying that my values and purpose are more important than society’s values, that the light has to turn green for someone else and I have to stop and wait while other drivers pass through the intersection.

I roll my eyes, get impatient. Especially when traffic clears and the light stays red.

Selfishness is that easy. I need a heart change.

Time to breathe.

Society does not revolve around me. I have to keep reminding myself of that, and still I don’t learn.

We wave the Bible in public, making a mockery of God’s written word because we won’t open the pages and actually read what’s inside it.

Those who condemn our president’s recent Bible-toting photo op in front of a Washington, D.C., church often aren’t modeling Christian values either.

There’s plenty of anger and finger-pointing on both sides. The anger and, yes, hatred on both sides have simmered for years; George Floyd’s horrific death was the lightning rod that triggered our hearts to act on our anger.

Righteous anger? Yes, far too often.

As a white man, it’s not up to me to analyze what’s going on and decide how to fix it.

White men have run this country since it was formed. Let’s be honest. In all other societies throughout history, the only way a minority group takes power is by force – figuring out how to overthrow the ruling oppressors.

We in the United States are working to share leadership, power and authority. It’s not natural, and it’s certainly not coming easily.

It requires a heart change. We can’t legislate morality. We can write in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal …” but until we actually treat each other that way, such statements are nothing more than pipe dreams.

This requires humility. The willingness to listen. To let others lead. To respect opinions and decisions different than ours.

None of that happens without a heart change.

I am encouraged. In the midst of police brutality and destruction of small businesses despite our not-quite-over-yet isolation from COVID-19, I see many people listening. I see police chiefs and officers marching with protesters, not against them. I see many people helping clean up broken windows and stores. I see blacks, whites, Asians and others talking, listening, meeting together, seeking to find similarities instead of differences.

In the midst of struggle and pain, I see hope.

We have such a long way to go.

But we have to start somewhere.

Will history look back at this moment as a turning point in our country?

This is my prayer.  Let’s make it happen.

We cannot escape

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,

and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is so high that I cannot attain it.

 

Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

 

For it was you who formed my inward parts;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

baby-growing

Wonderful are your works;

that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

all the days that were formed for me,

when none of them as yet existed.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them – they are more than the sand;

I come to the end – I am still with you.

 

osr 4

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,

and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me –

those who speak of you maliciously,

and lift themselves up against you for evil!

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;

I count them my enemies.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

 

Psalm 139

The best Christmas gift

I tried to do a little yard work yesterday, but it rained all day. Squish squish. Not good for raking.

Later in the afternoon, the rain turned to snow. We woke up today to this, taken from our front doorstep.

It’s pretty. I like winter.

The 14 mph winds make it cold, however. I can handle the 29-degree temperatures, but the biting wind cuts through me.

Since winter weather was predicted, the city was ready for it. The main roads, including through our neighborhood, are fine. I had no trouble running a few errands this morning.

But those final leaves got buried. Will the snow clear in time to rake them to the curb, where the city will collect them? Yes, I imagine so, since the leaves already at the curb are buried too.

I was hoping to mow the yard one more time before winter.

Right.

I know a guy around here who mowed his yard last February – in between snow showers. I’m not kidding.

I still might mow, if the ground hardens enough after the snow melts. I’ve mowed the first week of December before (after a late-November snowfall, as well). I’ve also stopped mowing at Halloween and called it good.

We’ll see.

According to weather.com, we’ve received almost 6 inches of precipitation this month. The average for November is 3.38 inches.

https://weather.com/weather/monthly/l/44035:4:US

No wonder my yard is slushy under the snow cover.

georgetown3

The city repaved the street in front of our driveway this summer. Hopefully we won’t see the potholes this winter and next spring as the temps warm up and the road thaws.

Safe at home

I’ve met a few of the neighbors in the year and a half we’ve lived in this neighborhood, but not very many, really. I see them doing yard work in the summer, when I’m outside too. A good New Year’s resolution might be to meet a few more of them, to learn their stories.

But most of the time, we remain inside our well-insulated houses. It’s easy to not get involved.

Since no one trusts each other anymore, I wonder how successful efforts to talk with neighbors might even be.

I can’t forget a trip I took to Mexico City almost 30 years ago where I saw Third World poverty up close.  It wasn’t unusual to see three generations living in a one-room shack. In crowded Mexico City, neighbors lived very close to each other, with thin walls between them.

When one family had no food to eat, the neighbors shared what little they had, because the favor would get returned. Neighbors took care of each other, literally.

Those Mexicans were some of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

Rich materially, poor in spirit

Americans, in contrast, are lonely. Depression, stress, suicide, overeating, bullying … so many of us hide our true selves. It’s easy behind the walls of our mansions. All of us – and I mean all of us – live in mansions compared with most people in the world.

We don’t know how rich we are. And how poor in spirit.

The Christmas season emphasizes both extremes. We spend money we think we have on relatives who don’t need what we’re buying for them, while we miss the whole point of the holiday: Christ’s birth as a baby. God’s gift to us was a child who, when He grew up, showed us how to live in harmony with God and with each other.

Getting personal

Jesus didn’t give material possessions.

He and his father were carpenters. They could have built something tangible and offered that as a gift to their close relatives. Perhaps they did that.

But that’s not Jesus’ legacy. His gift to us? Himself.

A human’s heartbeat doesn’t wrap well under the tree. But I have nothing better to offer you than … me.

Perhaps this is why I struggle with Christmas every year. I’m horrible at figuring out what material gifts are meaningful to those closest to me. (I don’t buy much for myself either. I suppose I should buy new sneakers one of these days, since my everyday shoes have holes in them.)

I’m also not good at giving myself as a gift. It’s easy to stay inside my warm, comfortable house, like everyone else around here does.

When we moved into the neighborhood last year, my wife baked some cookies and took a tray to several of our immediate neighbors. We rang their doorbells and introduced ourselves. The neighbors all said thanks and chatted with us for a few minutes, but nothing has developed since with any of them.

We stay in our own shells, in our comfort zones.

We live in our own worlds, and don’t connect with others who may think differently than we do.

Where’s the common ground? What connects us?

If we don’t share our lives with others, we’ll never find that common ground.

As an introvert, I use that as an excuse to keep to myself. I wonder if many extroverts are hiding insecurities, so that’s their reason not to take the next step. We all have our reasons, don’t we?

Perhaps we need each other anyway.

There’s a Christmas gift worth sharing.