To The Moms: Just Stop It

I got home after midnight from a business trip last night. That’s probably why I didn’t notice it until the morning. This bag. Alone. On the kitchen table.

Moms bag

Normally, getting my kids to the breakfast table is like trying to coax a couple of cats into a swimming pool. As soon as they wake up, they hide under blankets on the couch and make strange noises. But this morning was a different story.

Audrey came out of the bedroom, wiped the sleep from her eyes, and went right to the table. She sat in front of the bag with a smile on her face.

“What’s the bag for?” I asked as I created my super-duper breakfast parfaits. Colorful layers of yogurt, fruit, and cereal.

“We got it for our end-of-year party yesterday.” She reached into the bag.

“What did you get?”

She started pulling out different items and commenting.

“Goldfish crackers… Some cookies… ooooooh! Gummy worms! And a mustache!”

“Cool!”

The morning went on as usual, with me reminding the kids to brush their teeth, make their beds, and get a summer job. (Note: “I’m only seven” is not an excuse.) We finally made it out the door and walked to school as a family unit.

When Gabby and I got back home, I tidied up the breakfast mess before getting to work. When I reached down to pick up all of the things that Audrey had removed from her bag, I did a double-take.

moms all goodies

moms fish

moms worms

moms orange

moms cups

Every single item was accessorized. Little notes. Ribbons. Sayings. Like a professional stylist had just prepped them for the red carpet at some weird awards ceremony for pre-packaged snacks.

Follow me on this one. I truly appreciate that people have taken so much time to make sure my child felt important yesterday. Craftiness is a gift. One I do not possess. I am awestruck by the flawless execution of cuteness on these snacks. And I realize the inherent hypocrisy of my statement, since I am guilty of adding a bit of “flair” to the breakfast parfaits from time-to-time.

But for some of you, it’s exhausting, right?

As the man who is married to the person who reluctantly put googley eyes and a graduation cap on all the fruit cups, I feel I am qualified to offer this sage advice to the mothers of the world who do this kind of thing through gritted teeth out of a sense of obligation.

Stop it!

Just. Stop. It.

Here’s a theory for you. There’s is probably one mom in the United States who actually enjoys doing this kinda’ thing. She sits whistling in her craft room, making little doo-dads out of marshmallow fluff and fairy turds while bluebirds flit about her shoulders. Meanwhile, all the rest of the moms are like:

“$#!+. That f’in party is tomorrow, and I gotta’ come up with something cute for the kids, cause you know Susie Craftsalot is gonna’ make the Taj Mahal of lemon bars. Here, let me just slap some googley eyes and some construction paper on this fruit cup and call it good.”

So now we’re all working to impress Susie Craftsalot, hoping to measure up. All the while, she doesn’t give a flying unicorn fart what we made.  Not because she thinks she’s better, but because she’s honestly, genuinely surrounded by the intrinsic joy of making creative stuff. That, or she’s too damn distracted by the little field mouse she trained to ride a unicycle to deliver her handmade, end-of-year teacher gifts.

Whatever the case, for most of you moms out there, the competition is all in your head. And so is Susie Craftsalot.   Some folks love to do this kinda’ thing, and that’s totally cool.  But if it’s not you, then don’t try to be something you’re not. Because the results of our endless impress-a-thon are not good. A survey of 7,000 women show that their average stress level is 8.5 out of 10. Nearly 50% report suffering from “Pinterest Stress” – not feeling crafty enough. And three out of four say “the pressure they place on themselves is worse than any pressure or judgment they get from other moms.”

I remember when crackers used to be enough. You probably do, too. Can we get back to that place, please? Deep down, we know we’re not doing it for the kids. They couldn’t care less. My daughter didn’t even notice the adornments. But she did appreciate the snacks.

And you know what? No one will judge you for bringing a box of Chips Ahoy. Or an unopened bag of string cheese. And if they do, why do you care? Pardon my fit of cynicism here, but we spend far too much time and effort worrying about what others will think, forgetting that most don’t even notice.  And those few who do are likely too self-absorbed to be a true friend to you anyway.

So stop it. No more worrying. No more needless effort.  No more made-up competition.

Because oranges are enough.

Cookies are enough.

You are enough.

* Enjoy this post?  For more, just preorder Scott’s book about his family’s Year Without A Purchase on Barnes & Noble or Amazon launching August 4th from WJK Press. And, to see more posts like this, submit your email at the upper right to receive new blogs hot n fresh to your inbox.  Or, Like us on Facebook.  Cheers!

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What Would Happen If We Just Quit Asking?

AM Quit Asking

“Remember! Take your time! It’s not a race!”

I called out to my son as he headed off to school to take standardized tests last week. We had heard horror stories from other parents about how their kids were filled with anxiety over being assessed, curling up into crying balls on the floor. To prevent this problem, we didn’t talk about the exams at all, save for this one piece of advice.

Later that afternoon, Jake came bounding in, filled with energy.

“How was your test today, buddy?” I asked.

“Good,” he chirped.

I prodded, looking for more detail. “Just good?”

“Yeah. I’m white.”

“Huh?”

“The test says I’m white.”

“What do you mean?” I was confused, wondering if this was a new category on his color-coded behavior chart. Or maybe they had already received their test results and he was in the “white” range.

“Someone filled out the top part of the test for us. Ben was black. Arjun got Asian. I got white.”

He “got” white. Like they were handing out popsicles or something.

“But you’re not white.” I corrected. “You’re Asian-American.”

“Like Arjun?”

“No, he’s from India. Your mom is half Japanese.”

He quizzed me. “India and Japan are both Asia?”

“Yeah… I think?” Before he could test more of my geography knowledge, I added “You’re technically Japanese American.”

“But how can I be Japanese, Dad? You’re not Japanese.“ He paused for emphasis. “You’re like… pink!”

I wondered whether or not I should be offended. He continued his assessment, turning toward Audrey and saying,

“I bet I would be a lot darker if mom had married another Asian.”

To which my seven-year-old daughter replied,

“True. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

I wasn’t sure if I should laugh because it’s funny, or cry because it’s true. Here I was, a white dad, trying to explain the construct of race to my Asian-American kids, and they couldn’t care less about the subject. And all because of a pre-filled bubble on a standardized test. The whole episode had me wondering:

Why do we even ask the race question any more?

From an accountability standpoint, I understand why we need to know a person’s race. The Civil Rights Act was a beautiful piece of legislation. It was one of those rare times in our nation’s history when capitalism took a back seat to doing the right thing. Imagine if you owned a lunch counter in Mississippi in 1962.   Serving “colored people” might hurt your business. So the Federal government thankfully stepped in and made it illegal to discriminate based on sex, race, color, religion, or national origin. And today, capturing demographic information helps us see if particular groups of people are being denied jobs, loans, or opportunities based on the color of their skin.

It’s an accountability thing. So we count.

But not very well.

Consider a recent leadership meeting my wife attended at our church. The team was reviewing the demographics of our congregation to see if we mirrored the community where we live.   Gabby pointed to the document and noted,

“This says there are no Asians in our church.”

“That’s right,” someone offered.

She raised her hand, “Ummm… we should have at least one. Right?”

*insert awkward silence*

To be fair, my wife is like an optical illusion.  She can look Asian, Hispanic, or Caucasian depending on whether we’re eating at Pei Wei, El Chico, or Applebees.

Gabby filled the void by asking, “How do we determine this information? Do we just look at people and take a guess?”

That’s when someone chimed in and said what everyone was thinking,

“We definitely shouldn’t be guessing.”

Again, laugh because it’s funny, and cry because it’s true. All of us adults are trying hard to get it right, but still making mistakes.  There is a genuine intent to honor the experiences of others, and race plays a part.  At the same time, I’m finding that my own kids seem to be oblivious to their own race, and we’ve told them dozens of times. It’s like they have racial amenesia or something. Or maybe they’re allergic to labels.

If so, they’re not the only ones.

In the most recent US Census, “Some Other Race” was the third largest racial category chosen. And it’s not for lack of options. The form allows people to select between White, Black, African American, Negro, Hispanic, Latino, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Spanish, American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Guamanian, Samoan, Chamoro, Filipino, Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander.

Yet “Some Other Race” was number three.

This has the Census Bureau confounded. They are trying mightily to fix this problem to assure people accurately categorize themselves. They’re even working with the US Office of Management and Budget to adjust the “official” race categories. I know it’s silly to imagine, but yes, there are people whose job it is to determine what races are “official” in America. And it’s rather arbitrary, like trying to determine how many squares a roll of toilet paper should have, or what name to give the latest nail polish color at the Clinique counter. Looking at a brief history of how these decisions were made in the past, I was simultaneously amused, confused, and outraged.

The funny thing is, we’ve been doing all of this counting, since 1790, and every decade the number of boxes grows ever larger, with no end in sight. In fact, Census Bureau is testing a question for the 2020 form that adds a space beneath each racial and ethnic category so each person can write in his or her own description.

Yes. A fill-in-the-blank census.

As crazy as it sounds, it is probably the most accurate measure we could have. While it’s human nature to want to put people into boxes to make sense of the world, humans themselves resist being placed into boxes. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it’s because our egos don’t like being pigeon-holed. Or maybe it’s because the Constitution says that we’re all created equal, and labeling groups of people only encourages stereotyping and generalizations.

Or maybe it’s because God never intended it to be that way.

I know I am a naïve idealist given the current state of race relations in our country, but I believe there’s some truth in the words of Roger Rosenblatt, who, at the turn of the millennium wrote this in his Letter To The Year 2100,

“U.S. immigration officials recently predicted that by 2050 (50 years ago for you), nearly half the country’s population will be nonwhite. There are more interracial marriages every year. I like to picture you all as a nice, rich shade of beige.”

It sounds nice, doesn’t it? Rosenblatt is on to something here. Maybe the solution to our problems isn’t ever more boxes to check on a census form, church register, or standardized test. Maybe what we’re truly after is something completely different. Think about it…

If we no longer asked the question, would division no longer matter?

It’s worth considering. And worth an investment of prayer and hope. That Rosenblatt’s words would somehow come true. All of us checking a single box. The human race. Created equal and treated as such. Seven billion unique expressions of the image of God.

Loving each other into oneness.

* Enjoy this post?  For more, just preorder Scott’s book about his family’s Year Without A Purchase on Barnes & Noble or Amazon launching August 4th from WJK Press. And, to see more posts like this, submit your email at the upper right to receive new blogs hot n fresh to your inbox.  Or, Like us on Facebook.  Cheers!

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The Two Most Important Things To Teach Our Kids

AM Two Important Things

I was lying in bed a couple weeks ago when it happened.

“$#!^!”

I tried to reel it back in, but the expletive was out of my mouth. I sat bolt upright, pulling the covers off my wife. She put down her book and looked at me like I was a crazy person.

“What is wrong with you?!” she asked.

Panicked, I said, “We only have six days left, and we haven’t done enough!”

Somehow, in my twilight sleep, my mind flashed back to an article she read when our kids were infants. It stated that parents are the chief architects of a child’s moral compass through age 8. After that, kids begin to question the infallibility of adults in their lives and look to their peers for guidance. Even if those peers are throwing bricks off an overpass and snorting cinnamon.

So, with my son’s 9th birthday fast approaching, a sense of doubt washed over me. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably felt it, too. Silently wondering if you’re doing it right, but knowing deep down that you haven’t done enough.

The next day, I Googled “top things to teach your kids” to find out just how much I had failed. One article listed five things of critical importance. Another had twenty-seven. One even listed 100 things. It was completely overwhelming. Especially considering I still haven’t been able to teach my kids to chew with their mouths closed or apologize for farting in my lap.

However, just before my downward spiral hit rock bottom, something miraculous happened. A still, small voice in my soul broke through the malaise and said:

Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it has to be complicated.

And that voice is absolutely correct. Our problem as parents is not that we don’t have enough information – it’s that we have too much. Parenting today is like being trapped in a dryer full of “should have’s” and an “ought to’s”. The chaos spins all around us, but there isn’t a single thing we can hold onto for assurance.

In an effort to simplify parenting and get back what’s truly important, I dove into the research looking for common themes. And while there may be countless lessons we must teach our kids, I discovered two that stood out above all the rest. Two simple things that have the greatest chance of creating the society we all crave, filled with happy, productive adults that we don’t want to punch in the throat.

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#1: Courage

In the age of helicopter parenting, raising courageous kids can be difficult. As the television fills our heads with fear of kidnappings and sexual predators, we grow ever more protective. We teach about stranger danger and conduct our surveillance from the cradle to the college campus using every device imaginable.

But here’s what has me scratching my head. There has never been a safer time to be a kid in America. A recent Washington Post article points out that mortality rates have fallen by nearly half since 1990. Reports of missing persons are down by 40% since 1997. Before you say, “that’s probably because we’re now watching our kids all the time!” note that 96% of missing persons cases are runaways.

So, not only is our over-parenting unnecessary, it’s also counter-productive. Our well-intentioned protection is actually creating a society of fearful, dependent adults.

Surveys show roughly one-third of professional employers today report parents submitting resumes on behalf of their child. One-quarter say a parent has called to advocate for their child being hired. And nearly one-in-ten accompany their child to the interview.

As parents, we must reverse this trend. We must give our children the courage to face adversity on their own.

Make no mistake, courage is not confidence. Kids today are more confident than ever. Even when there is no justified reason. Courage, on the other hand, comes from the latin word, “cor”, meaning “heart.” Courage is defined as “the ability to do something that frightens you,” or “strength in the face of pain or grief.”

And this is what our kids need.

Because one thing is certain in this life. Our children will fail. No matter how smart, confident or hard working they may be. But studies show that kids who are most likely to achieve their goals are those who find their true passion and doggedly pursue it. But it’s important to note that these passions are not painted on by a parent from the outside. No, they bubble up from within. And they become so all-consuming that the child can’t help but find joy in the pursuit itself, no matter the outcome.

Instilling such courage in our kids requires that we parent at arm’s length. Or farther. Offering autonomy, support, and en-courage-ment. So our kids can become who God made them to be.

In His image.

Not ours.

Yes, this is the courage we must teach. But it’s not enough.

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#2: Compassion

Like me, you likely feel that you do a good job of encouraging your kids without pushing too hard. You cheer them on, teaching the value of working hard to achieve a goal. The question becomes: how might our kids interpret all of this encouragement?

The Make Caring Common project at Harvard University recently surveyed 10,000 kids. What they found is both interesting and convicting.

Nearly 80 percent of the youth in the study said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others. The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree that “My parents are prouder if I get good grades than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Ouch.

Unfortunately, this is the result when we emphasize our kids’ courageous accomplishments in hopes of reinforcing effort and building self-esteem. They interpret this intense focus on achievement as an indicator of what is important in life.

But Brad Bushman, a research psychologist at Ohio State University, cautions that how we praise our children has a huge impact not only on what they believe is most important, but who is most important. His research found that overvaluing your child’s accomplishments, especially telling them how “smart” or how “special” they are, can lead to narcissism.

And this is how courage gets corrupted.

While self-esteem is believing your worth is equal to anyone else’s, narcissism is believing you are better than everyone else. And this can be very damaging character trait. Jean Twenge, who studies narcissism, notes that narcissists tend to lack empathy and have trouble maintaining relationships.

So why does this matter?

In the end, we all just want our children to be happy, right? But virtually every research paper written about happiness shows that the two biggest building blocks for sustained joy (besides health) are 1) having meaningful relationships, and 2) serving others. That’s right. These two trump money, trophies, and trips to the beach. Every. Single. Time. But all the courage in the world won’t give you strong relationships and a servant’s heart. It takes compassion.

Compassion comes from the Latin word meaning “to suffer with.” Compassion starts with sympathy – the ability to understand a person’s circumstances. And this sympathy grows into empathy – the ability to truly feel what another person is feeling. Even if they are suffering.

And compassion?

Compassion is empathy with action.

Compassion is how relationships are built and maintained. Friendships. Teams. Marriages. Compassion is about paying attention to the quiet voices of those on the margins. Hearing them. Feeling them. And then acting as though the interests of others are just as important as your own. Even when society and the scoreboard tell you something different.

Yes, we must teach our children to have compassion like this. And this type of compassion requires courage. The two go hand-in-hand.

Courage and compassion.

Inseparable.

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As I write these words, my oldest child is now 9 years old. There is already evidence that my influence is waning. We share fewer hugs in the school drop off line. His taste in music is becoming his own. Heck, he’s even spouting slang that I don’t understand.

Still, I refuse to believe that my time is up.

Amid the slamming doors and silent dinners to come, I’m sure there will be times I’ll feel like a failure. In those moments, my head will likely become a spin cycle of “should have’s” and “ought to’s”. But in those moments, my prayer is that I can be a father who has courage enough to show love without condition and compassion enough to see them for who they are. The ones I have raised. The ones I love. The courageous, compassionate children of God.

And in the end, that will always be enough.

* Enjoy this post?  For more, just preorder Scott’s book about his family’s Year Without A Purchase on Barnes & Noble or Amazon launching August 4th from WJK Press. And, to see more posts like this, submit your email at the upper right to receive new blogs hot n fresh to your inbox.  Or, Like us on Facebook.

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The Church Is Not Your Home

AM Church Is Not Your Home

An atheist walked into three churches last Sunday.

I know. Sounds like the beginning of a great joke. In fact, you could probably come up with an awesome punch line.

But it’s no joke.

A recent Christian Today article tells the story of Sanderson Jones, the leader of Sunday Assembly – also known as the “atheist church.” Jones’ mission was to attend three London church services in one day. But he wasn’t there to debunk Christianity. No. In his words, he was just “learning from the pros.”

Jones walked away with a great appreciation for communion and prayer. While he was not converted, he was most affected by the way in which churches welcomed him and gave him a sense of belonging.

I believe Jones experienced what every single one of our churches is trying to offer. We all want to do the work of Jesus by welcoming others like guests in our home. I’ve heard that phrase a lot lately as my own church seeks to reach the community in more meaningful ways.

Like guests in our home.

It’s a wonderful analogy, isn’t it? We roll out the red carpet for houseguests. We offer them our best food and drink. We break out the fine china. Heck, we even let them use the special towels that normally stay locked behind some sort of invisible force field in our bathrooms, never to be touched by an actual family member.

In this sense, Jones is absolutely right. Christians are pros at welcoming. If welcoming were an Olympic sport, churches would be Michael Phelps, only with coffee stations and tuna hot dish. But here’s the problem:

I’m afraid the mindset behind our welcoming spirit might slowly, subtly be killing our church.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying our churches should stop welcoming visitors. And I’m not saying church shouldn’t feel like a place where you belong. What I am saying is that we need to stop viewing our churches as our homes. And here’s the reason.

While I am very welcoming to my guests, I also see my home as mine. A possession. You probably do, too. And so I create rules and expectations to protect it. I’m kinda’ particular about the grass. The mower lines should run diagonally. And the spoons should never “spoon” in the dishwasher. Kids should never eat in the living room. And I’m fairly certain that failure to use a coaster is acceptable grounds for divorce in 36 of the 50 states. These rules are our custom, and we’re unlikely to adapt quickly.

When we do have parties for others, we relax these rules. We also vacuum the carpet, mop the floor, and scour the kitchen to make things bright and shiny for our guests. All the messy stuff stays behind closed doors or tucked away in closets, just waiting to pounce on someone who mistakenly thinks it’s the entrance to the bathroom.

Finally, while those parties may be absolutely fantastic, I have to admit that they usually only happen on the weekends, and they are normally limited to friends of friends who we know will enjoy each other’s company. But during the week, the house is largely empty, save for immediate family.

Sound familiar?

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. Our churches do amazing things. We go on mission trips. We sponsor charities. We bring the gospel to people desperately in need of a “good news” story.

But the truth is, when we think of the church, we see it as ours. Like our home. A possession.

And it has to stop.

We have rules and traditions that start to take on a God-like quality in the way we worship them. Then we wonder why some see Christians as rigid and inflexible.

We primp and prime for the big party on Sunday and greet folks with big smiles, while hiding the messy realities of church life in the closet. Then we wonder why some see Christians as lacking authenticity.

We spend roughly 82% of our church budgets on staff and buildings that are only open a few hours per week, mostly for programs designed specifically for our members. Then we wonder why some see Christians as selfish.

When I work with congregations, I often ask the members what they love most about their church. And 9 times out of 10, the response is,

“It’s like a big family.”

And every time I hear this, I cringe a little.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Families are beautiful. My own family is incredibly welcoming. At the same time, we’re also loud and boisterous and overwhelming. We have inside jokes and tired old stories. If you’re spending Thanksgiving with us for the first time it can be downright exhausting. And exclusive. As an outsider, you are left to try and quickly understand decades of history and assimilate quickly.

The sad truth is, we ask our church guests to do the exact same thing.

We absolutely want them to be members of the family. We invite them warmly. But rather than meet them where they are, we ask them to meet us where we are. The result? Those who are drawn to us, and therefore drawn to Jesus, will be those who tend to worship like us, believe like us, and look like us. Threading the impossibly narrow eye of the needle.

And we wonder why church membership is declining.

But here’s the good news. We need not take up such a heavy burden. Christ never asked us to own His church or His building. No. Man was simply the rock it was built upon. Consider the scriptures:

The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him. (Psalm 24:1 NIV)

We are here to support God’s creation. As stewards. And it’s time we recapture that call. As church leaders, we must begin to see ourselves as caretakers of sacred ground rather than owners of a house.

Because the church is not our home. We do not possess it. We shouldn’t try to tame it any more than we should try and reign in nature. Consider the parks where gates are wide and all are welcome. This is what our churches should be. Open to all at any time. Some people come to work. Others come for recreation. Still more come to rest.

The caretakers of such spaces don’t care why you are there. They only want to assure that, no matter the reason you have come, you will feel the beauty and magnificence of Our Creator. They also hope the beauty you experience will be so real, so palpable, that you have no choice but to share the experience with others. Like vacation photos of the Grand Canyon that never quite do it justice.

There are glimpses of this in our own communities. Some churches operate food pantries. Others have given up their buildings altogether to provide transitional housing for those on the margins. I think of a recent Monday night at my own church, where a dozen homeless men slept in a fellowship hall, while Alcoholics Anonymous met in a preschool classroom, and a community development meeting took place in the sanctuary. Not a single event for church members.

But the family of God was there.

So I pray today that this will be our call. That we may tirelessly look for ways to be caretakers of the church where we serve. To look for ways to use our buildings and our gifts not for ourselves, but for others. And in so doing, may the light of Christ show through our generosity. Our openness. And our selflessness. Reaching out to the family of God.

Welcoming them home.

* Enjoy this post?  For more, just preorder Scott’s book about his family’s Year Without A Purchase on Barnes & Noble or Amazon launching August 4th from WJK Press. And, to see more posts like this, submit your email at the upper right to receive new blogs hot n fresh to your inbox.  Or, Like us on Facebook.  Cheers!

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Through The Eyes of a Child: Baltimore and Beyond

Slide1

When you’re north of 40 years old with two kids, spring break looks a lot different than it did in your twenties. Instead of beaches, beer and poor life choices that end with a misspelled tattoo, you take a Tennessee road trip with your family. While that may sound simple, it’s anything but. Allow me to explain.

Our trip started innocently enough, with a plan to stay at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. The place is known for its small army of ducks that live on the roof and ride the elevator to the lobby each morning to swim in the fountain. It’s like a fairy tale, and well worth the price of admission, especially if your room is free courtesy of some credit card points.

On day two, we rose early with our hearts set on seeing the Memphis Zoo. After a big Southern breakfast of grits, gravy and grease, we loaded into the car. As we rounded the corner just two blocks from the restaurant, I caught sight of a large sign that read:

Lorraine Motel

Slide1

“Isn’t that where Martin Luther King was assassinated?” I asked.

“It is.” Gabby replied. “And now it’s the National Civil Rights Museum.”

I glanced back at the kids, still sporting syrup on their chins.

Pulling into the parking lot, I murmured, “Maybe we can just look at it from the outside?”

“Is this the zoo?” Audrey asked, amazed that the trip was so short.

“It’s a museum!” I said.

She elongated her response with a well-placed whine. “A museeeeeuuuuuuum?!?!”

“Don’t worry honey. We’ll go to the zoo in a minute. I just want to see something.”

Gabby and I got out of the car and stood outside the hotel. The kids bolted across the parking lot like a couple escaped convicts, and behaved as such, lacking only the orange jumpsuits. I looked up at the small, nondescript building. The balcony outside room 306 looked just like it did in pictures I’ve seen of the night Dr. King was assassinated.

When I looked back toward the plaza, the kids were standing at a kiosk, wildly pressing buttons. When we finally caught up to them, they were halfway through a short video.

“What’s this about?” Jake asked.

“Remember your teacher talking about Martin Luther King, Jr.?”

He nodded.

“It’s about how he led a movement to change laws so people wouldn’t be mistreated because of the color of their skin.”

Audrey immediately ran to the next kiosk. Jake, distracted, ran to catch up to her. There were a half-dozen stands in all, and they stopped at every one, watching the videos and growing calmer with each passing minute, occasionally glancing up at the balcony where King was shot. I grew nervous. Some of the images were hard to stomach. Angry people yelling at lunch counters. Fists pounding. Dogs barking. Faces marked with dripping blood.

I thought to myself. This isn’t appropriate. They’re only 7 and 8. This is too much for young kids.

When they finished the final video, we were standing right by the door to the museum.

“Can we go in?” Audrey asked.

“This isn’t the zoo,” I reminded them, hoping they would drop it.

They didn’t.

Gabby looked at me and shrugged a “why not?” I tried to manipulate the situation, feeling hypocritical based on my recent post about racism and the need to move beyond our shame.

“Audrey. There are no animals inside,” I quipped. “And no rides.”

“I know.”

“No cotton candy.”

“I know dad. Let’s go see it!”

She tugged on my arm and pulled me toward the door. I told the kids that this was a quiet place. Not just regular quiet. Silent quiet. To which they replied that they knew dad.

They knew.

And they still wanted to go.

At that moment, I heard God say,

If your kids want to go learn about civil rights instead of petting goats at the zoo for the zillionth time, then take them to the museum, you moron!

Message received.

As Gabby bought the tickets, I started to sweat at the thought of my two young, white kids running and screaming through the civil rights museum. They are nothing if not loud, irreverent, and unfiltered. Unless this was the most inappropriate museum in the history of museums, there wouldn’t likely be any Emmit Till’s Tilt-A-Whirl or Jackie Robinson’s “Bat Like The Pros” baseball challenge to sap their energy.

But then it dawned on me that it wasn’t their behavior I was worried about. This would be heavy. And messy. And real. There would be confusion and sadness and heartache and questions. Questions for which this father has no answers.

We walked through the turnstile. I took comfort in the fact that the kids wouldn’t last more than fifteen minutes. It was clear their motivation was seeing the inside of room 306, which was at the end of the tour, and the mystery pulled them along like a rushing stream.

Then something happened.

The stream stopped rushing.

And so did they.

They listened.

They read.

Audrey crouched down in an exhibit that demonstrated how slaves were chained in a 3’ x 3’ space when they were transported across the Atlantic.

We sat in the bus seat next to Rosa Parks and listened to the recorded voice of a bus driver telling her to give up her seat to a white man.

Jake watched videos of people battered and broken for daring to sit at a lunch counter.

And they were quiet. Silent quiet.

Standing next to Jake at an exhibit on Brown vs. The Board of Education, I saw a question come across his face. I knew he was thinking of his best friend at school, who is African-American.

He asked, “Dad? So I couldn’t go to school with Ben back then?”

“Nope,” I said.

He paused, then muttered, “That’s stupid.”

More uncomfortable questions came. With an innocence that fails to phrase things in a politically correct fashion. And I continued to sweat. I did the best I could, but sometimes my best answer was, “I don’t know.”

In the questions and the confusion, fifteen minutes turned into three hours.

Three. Hours.

The zoo became an afterthought. My heart swelled along with my feet. The experience was heavy, and depressing and sad. It was also hopeful, inspirational and soul-stirring. It was one of the most profound moments I have ever shared with my children.

And I almost missed it.

And this is what I think Jesus was getting at when he said:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt 18:3 NIV)

Too often I try and shield my kids from the ugliness of reality. I want to sanitize the truth to make it more palatable, transforming the nightly news into a made-for-Disney script where it’s easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys, and everything is resolved with the wave of a wand. But here’s the problem with that.

Kids know fairy tales aren’t real.

And what I learned that day at the museum is that we can’t reduce the civil rights struggle down to the “I Have A Dream” speech any more than we can say that the resurrection is a story about Jesus “going up to be with God in Heaven.” By doing so we turn reality into a buttoned-up fairy tale with easy answers. A concluded story that has already been written.

But reality is messy. And ugly. And heart-breaking.

Reality is Selma. And Ferguson. And Baltimore.

Reality is nails and wood. A crown of thorns. A pierced side.

But reality is also a place where we live. Where we contribute to a story with no set rules and no easy answers. One where we can help write the ending. And in this quest, one thing is certain. Healing begins with a change of heart. And our hearts will never be changed if we choose to stand outside the fray, looking on like a patron outside a museum. Unfazed, untouched and uncommitted. We must be willing to pay our admission. To abandon the fairy tale, acting like adults with all of the answers, and instead approach the messiness with a child-like innocence.

With curiosity.

And wonder.

And hope.

* Since my last post, The Shame of Silence, people have asked how they can get involved.  For Nashville residents, I have found NOAH (Nashville Organized for Action and Hope) that works for affordable housing, economic equity, and criminal justice.  For those living elsewhere, consult the NAACP website to find a local advocacy group in your area.  Finally, if you enjoyed this post, submit your email at the upper right to receive new blogs hot n fresh to your inbox.  Or, Like us on Facebook.  And, for the die hard fans, we invite you to preorder Scott’s book about his family’s Year Without A Purchase on Barnes & Noble or Amazon, due out August 4th from WJK Press.

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The Hidden Danger In Our Favorite Hymn

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I grew up Catholic. Even though I’m not practicing today, I have a reverence for the rituals of the faith. They were imprinted on my soul at a very young age. In fact, if you look closely at my ultrasound pic, you’ll see me executing a picture-perfect sign of the cross in utero.

What’s interesting about ritual is that it can become so automatic that we miss its significance. That is, until we see it in a different context.   Take, for example, the time we were teaching our son the Lord’s Prayer. We marveled with delight one evening at the dinner table as he made it through the first half all by himself. Then he said,

“Forgive us our trash passes as we forgive those who pass trash against us.”

Even though he wasn’t perfect, we had to give him bonus points for coming up with a translation that is likely a more accurate representation of what Our Savior intended. Now that ritual has new life and meaning for me.

You’ve probably had the same experience if you have ever tried to teach your kids this famous prayer.

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

This is hands-down, the most popular bedtime prayer in the history of bedtime prayers. Ritual. However, if your kids really listen to the words, there is a good chance they will NEVER. SLEEP. AGAIN. Think about it.

Mommy, who is this Lord and why is he hoarding souls as I sleep? Is my bed really some sort of death trap? Is someone really going to kidnap my dead body?

Sweet dreams, kids!

Recently, in an attempt to recapture the meaning behind ritual, I found myself listening intently to what is perhaps the most beloved children’s hymn of all time. It was being sung by an angelic, smiling child in church.

Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak yet He is strong
Yes Jesus loves me
The Bible tells me so

Simple words and a simple melody with a simple message. Beautiful and timeless. But I was struck by something.

For most of us, it’s just not true.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying Jesus dislikes children. And I’m certainly not saying we should remove the song from the hymnal. What I am saying is most of us don’t know Christ’s love because of words we read in the Bible. No. Christ’s love is something beyond explanation that we have experienced in the flesh.

And this is where I have noticed a troubling trend. Or maybe it’s always been there. But I fear that it’s slowly becoming a ritual.

We’re worshipping the Bible at the expense of Jesus.

Christians today, myself included, recite scripture to illuminate some truth that we feel deep in our bones, hoping others might feel Christ’s love leap from the page and capture their hearts. Unfortunately, when we do this, we lock Jesus inside the Bible. Forgetting that the Bible is a book full of words.

And words can be troublesome.

Consider these “inspirational” words from a religious book that shall remain nameless. These texts were behind the killing of thousands on our soil and overseas.

Make ready to slaughter [the infidel’s] sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants.1

Then I heard [God] say to the other men, “Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children.”2

Cursed is he who does [God’s] work deceitfully, cursed is he who keeps back his sword from blood.3

As we read these words, our thoughts likely turn to 9/11 and the horrific tragedy that affected the world. Our hearts also go out to those in the Middle East tormented by ISIS. But there’s just one problem.

These scriptures are from our own Bible.

And there are hundreds more like them. Literally. Hundreds.

When I look to The Good Book for examples of God’s love and forgiveness, I also encounter words of God’s wrath and judgment. It’s confusing and contradictory. But no matter how hard I thump on my Bible, these scriptures just won’t fall out and leave only sunshine and rainbows behind.

The fact is, Christians throughout history have used the words of the Bible as a weapon to justify some horrible atrocities in the name of love. From the victimization of Native Americans to the Spanish Inquisition. And while only Christian extremists would justify such actions today, we also have to acknowledge that many of us, myself included, lift verses out of context to serve our own agenda. Leaning toward the side of judgment and away from the side of love.

But that’s when we must remember that many of the words we read today are the same ones Jesus pondered and prayed over. Ritually. And His life was a perfect testament to the idea that we should let words inspire and inform us, but when we are truly connected to God, it’s our actions that do the teaching.

Christ himself saved his wrath and judgment for the righteous. The ones who were caught up in living life by The Book yet ignoring the image of God standing before them in human form. Born of God, He understood the basic premise that humanity would never truly experience the love of God unless humans learned to give that love. Freely. Without condition.

Word made flesh.

The gospel of John tells us:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And later, the writer recounts Jesus’ arrival

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1: 1-5, 14 NIV)

And here we have all the illogical contradictions of the Bible summed up in the most beautiful logic problem ever. The Word = God. God = Life. Life = Light And this light exists in all of mankind. Made real through the example of Jesus Christ.

And for most of us, this love isn’t the result of some lines in a children’s song or words in The Book. We know the love of Christ because some human, flesh and blood, filled with light, has shown us this love and light in our darkest hour. They have ventured out beyond what is reasonable to demonstrate to us that God is alive in each and every one of us.

So today my prayer is that I can create a new ritual. Bringing the Word to life by showing others the love of Christ. With uncommon compassion and selfless service. For the broken and blessed. For the sinner and the saint. Pouring out my life like a song until all God’s children know every word.

By heart.

  1. Isaiah 14:21 NAB 2. Ezekiel 9:5 NLT 3. Jeremiah 48:10 NKJV

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The Shame of Silence

AM Shame

I’m ashamed today.

Odds are you have seen it by now. The video of fraternity brothers in Oklahoma singing a racist song to the tune of “If You’re Happy And You Know It.” Certainly, the words they use are despicable. They chant racial slurs and reference lynching in such a nonchalant way that you might think they were singing about a school carnival. But far worse than the words are the intent behind them. These kids from my home state created an entire song to proclaim that African Americans were beneath them. Less than. Worthless. As an Okie myself, it’s hard to watch.

But our shared geography is not the reason for my shame.

Over the past several months the topic of race has been front and center. The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The choking of Eric Garner in New York City. The shooting of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy in Cleveland who was killed for brandishing a toy gun in a park.   These incidents lit a fuse leading to demonstrations, protests and riots.

This whole time, I have sat silently on the sidelines trying to wrap my head around the news reports. What happened in those fateful moments between Michael Brown and the officer who took his life? Why does a community believe that rioting is the best way to bring attention to a crisis? What might cause a police officer to fear an unarmed man? How on earth could Garner lose his life for selling unpackaged cigarettes? How could two seconds end a child’s life? How could any of this happen? And who is to blame?

In my quest for answers, I have listened to interviews and read numerous articles, and several things are now clear to me.

I understand why Michael Brown and other black men are so distrusting of police.

I understand how officer Wilson might have felt threatened enough to pull the trigger and take the man’s life.

I understand why a community of voiceless people would riot.

I understand the arguments of those who say the riots did more harm than good.

I understand why a police officer in Staten Island might have felt the need to subdue a man who was resisting arrest.

I understand that Garner died of asphyxiation caused by a police-administered choke hold.

I understand how police might feel endangered if dispatchers did not inform them that Rice’s gun was a toy.

I understand how Tamir’s parents would feel outraged at an official report saying it was their son’s fault that a police officer shot him in the torso two seconds after arriving on the scene.

Yes. I understand.

I hoped all of this understanding would make me feel better about the whole situation.

But it doesn’t. And that’s why I’m ashamed.

I have been settling for understanding. I have convinced myself that my quest for facts and a balanced perspective has accomplished something. I argue it has helped me to remain level-headed in debate and assures no one gets too riled up.

But all of my understanding has accomplished absolutely nothing.

Yesterday, I sat in an airport terminal as CNN blasted the video of the frat boys singing their song. Talking heads on screen expressed outrage. Meanwhile, a big, boisterous fella’ sat across from me. He was a giant of a man. As he sat holding his newborn baby, his wife was arguing with him about how they should have packed more diapers. Half-listening, his gaze was fixed on the TV screen when he said,

“Sheesh. Here they go again. Last I checked, this country allows free speech.”

I winced.

His wife, embarrassed, immediately said, “Shhhhh!”

Even though she wasn’t talking to me, I complied. Slowly filling with shame.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a huge conversation in my head. I labeled him a racist. I wondered what might make him so insensitive. I tried to understand his perspective. I reasoned that his parents were probably raised in the Jim Crow south. I assumed he probably had no black friends, so he was ignorant of the double-standard.

But I still said nothing. And neither did anyone sitting at the gate. We didn’t want to ruffle feathers or cause a scene. So we all just sat in silence. Most of us praying we wouldn’t have to sit next to this man on the plane. Our shared responsibility became a shared excuse to do nothing. So we let it slide.

Every.

Last.

One.

And this is the problem with systemic prejudice. When everyone is responsible for fixing the problem, no one is responsible. I have been safely hiding behind the language of “We need to” and “They should stop”, completely ignoring my role. Owning my shame, yet offloading the blame.

And it has to stop.

For me, it starts with moving past understanding and moving toward action. For understanding alone is unacceptable.

I can understand that 27% of African Americans live below the poverty line, nearly four times the rate of whites.

But I cannot accept it.

I can understand that schools enrolling 90% students of color receive over $700 less per pupil than schools with 90% white students.

But I cannot accept it.

I can understand that blacks are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate nearly ten times that of whites even though the rate of drug usage is fairly consistent among all races.

But I cannot accept it.

What I must accept is the fact that I am part of a broken system. An unfair system that I cannot change by myself. But silence is not the answer.

So I pray I will find ways to speak out against injustice every day. Even if I am unsure of the facts. Even if I do not truly understand. For in the end, the only fact that matters is that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. And allowing anyone to tarnish that image is to deny the God I profess to follow.

So Lord, today I ask for you to give me the strength. Give me the words. Give me the courage to lend my voice to the chorus.

Silent no more.

* Writers note:  Would love to hear suggestions from you Accidental Missionaries out there about the best ways to help.  Especially those directly affected.

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