Words

I have always been fascinated by a good writer’s process.  Do they wrangle words from thin air, piecing them together in an ideal symmetry.  Or do they take a formless lump of confusion and simply clarify?  Either way, a writer possesses the most formidable weapon on earth.  Dynamic.  Potent.  Irrevocable.  And not everyone should hold a pen.

As a child, I remember sitting in the backyard of Helen Keller’s Alabama home, Ivy Green.  A Sunday school field trip took me to an afternoon performance of The Miracle Worker by William Gibson.  I was transfixed.  Anne Sullivan turned on the light in Helen’s darkness with language.  And in an instant, the “no world” of Helen’s childhood vanished.    One line from that play has stayed with me all these years:  “Words, why, you can see five thousand years back in the light of words, everything we feel, think, know–and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.”

Language is the original institutional memory.  Words simmer in our consciousness long after we have shared them.  They wreck us with their virility.  They can lift us to unattainable heights, yet they can also drive us deep within ourselves to discover why we care so much.  They linger.  And oftentimes we welcome their company, but sometimes they haunt us.

So as I scroll along culture’s newsfeed, I find something curious.  We have never lived in a time that coupled such overt sensitivity with such a lack of regard for the impact of words.  We pride ourselves with our right to freedom of speech on the one hand and on the other, feign gross insult at every turn.  We are offended easily and often.  Yet we can’t shut up.  How manic is that?

This next week is a big one for our nation.  The conclusion of one of the most contentious, exhausting seasons that I can remember.  My prayer is more than just politically motivated.  We must remember that how we characterize the outcome of this election will hold sway, not just for the day or the week, but forever.  Some of you may have already seen relationships damaged or ended by disagreement over a person or a policy.  Maybe your garden needed pruning, and you are ultimately better off with an emotional boundary in place.  However, I know that we have all been handed an arsenal and every time we touch the keyboard, we pull the pin on a potential grenade.  When we sit around the dinner table or talk on our phones, our children are listening.  Most significantly, when those that follow us through the ages of time find themselves facing a challenge and look back for solace or wisdom, they will read how we handled ours.  And what then will our words reveal about the content of our character?

I Still Believe

I still believe in the laughter of children.  Bouncing through the neighborhood in the dull summer afternoon heat, a whisper of hope swells in the sun.  Children live in a perpetual sense of expectancy.  They remember what we have long forgotten.  They move and breathe and play with promise cupped carefully in the palms of their hands.  A single fire fly illuminating its five finger house at dusk.

I still believe in the kindness of strangers.  The commonality of shared experience.  Grace showing out in the face of the worst of the human condition.  I still believe in those who stand in line for hours to donate blood.  Those who comfort the broken.  Rescue the injured.  Share their sandwiches.  Bandage wounds.  I still believe in the surgeon’s skill and the policeman’s courage.  Brilliant luminescence against a backdrop of terror.

I still believe in the future.  That there is one.  I still believe that our salvation is found on bended knee, emptied of vainglory and affectation.  I still believe that life is best lived in search of something beyond ourselves,  inscrutable and incomprehensible.  I still believe in truth.  Absolute and infinite.  No work of man can sway its immutable judgment.  For truth was never the work of man in the first place.

I still believe that change starts in the mirror.  There will always be those who pontificate in perfect pitch, but our values best not be shaped in the wake of their words.  I believe we must, more than ever, do more than listen to talking heads and political puppet masters.  We must do more than share our opinions on social media, even this one.  We must do more than press like or love.  We must do.  Often and always.  I believe in baking pies, sharing dinners, glasses clinking together in goodwill.  I believe in a real hand reaching out to another real hand in a gesture of honest friendship.  I believe in eye contact and a trusted name.  I still believe, that our voices, however puny, can repudiate evil and chase the darkness to the corners of our existence.

I still believe.  Because I have to.  Someone is counting on me . . . on us to get this done.  They look into our faces of disbelief and horror as we watch the work of madness, and they search for sanctuary.  They hear the panic in our voices as we talk about the lack of viable candidates, threats of imminent terror and spiraling debt, and they wonder what this all means.  They are our children, happily running through sprinklers and drinking from the rivers of perpetual innocence.  They don’t have much longer until they discover we have failed them.  They have not deserved our indiscretions, but they are inheriting them.  Now is the time.  Today.  Find your real voice.  Rest in a real hope.  Reach out to a real person.  Pour yourself out.  And remember to still believe.

The Apprentice

I am the greatest sinner among you.  No, I’m serious.  Oh, so rich in depravity am I.  Weak and troubled, I fall upon God’s mercies every morning.  Understanding this about myself, I have closely inspected my righteous indignation swirling around this upcoming Presidential election.  Why now do I find myself armed with words ready to dissect each candidate?  Why do I cringe with each soundbite and distract myself with nostalgic trips down memory lane?   This isn’t my first time at the rodeo.  I have voted in some pretty important elections, but this time, I have truly railed against so many facets of this campaign and against candidates on both sides of the aisle.  This morning, I stood in front of my mirror thinking about the upcoming primary vote, and there it was.  My answer.

For decades, our culture has twisted our most essential values, hyper-dramatized them and packaged them in a reality show.  We have reduced the value of life and death to survival on a distant island.  We have minimized the sacred commitment of marriage to a rose ceremony.  We have diminished the sanctity of the family by living vicariously through a whole host of people who have sold their souls and worse still, their children’s souls for the glittering pursuit of gold.  We have diminished the value of true friendship by reveling in all manner of programs that glorify backstabbers, shysters and scammers.  Our entertainment industry has successfully played upon our “fascination with the abomination” for more than a generation, and we have happily consumed it like candy.  We have winked and laughed with each other over the water cooler.  We have raised our eyebrows, and we have turned the channels.  At the very least, we have ignored it, and at the very most, we have been complicit.

So perhaps, it is just punishment that we wake up one day to find our race for the highest office in the land has become an episode of The Apprentice.  Debates playing out more like a reunion show of the Real Housewives franchise than a thoughtful, intelligent, civilized discussion of the beautiful experiment that is America.  The hopes for our children’s futures have been exchanged temporarily for personal attacks, profanity laced interchanges, and childish arguments over appearance and hair styles. And guess what, debate ratings for this cycle have soared.  Try as we might, we just cannot look away.

When election time comes, I am going to exercise my right by casting a vote into the madness.  I’m going to pull the lever with the same hopes of all those who have come before me:  a better tomorrow.  And that humbles me.  It convicts me.  And frankly, it has forced me to take a look at my own reflection and wonder what part I have played in this chaos.  It makes me aware that every decision we have made culturally has had dramatic, life changing consequences for our society’s stability.  Truth be told, we cannot demand a principled discourse from a culture that has long since abandoned a cultivation of principles.

So, maybe we will wake up.  Or maybe we will not.  Either way, I will be once again falling on God’s good graces and asking that He heal our divided land.

Dancing in the Shadows

I love watching the world fall asleep. Dark, low-hanging clouds cover the expanse like a soft blanket. Nature stands erect, stained in piercing crimsons and radiant golds. The intense beauty is a wonder to behold. And we do. As temperatures fall, humanity is drawn into the splendor. We can’t help ourselves. It is in us to marvel at that we do not understand. And with synchronicity and precision, fall arrives, and we are compelled to dance in its shadows.

This world is a broken place. Shots ring out on the horizon, and carnage remains. Hurricanes threaten our shores. The deluge swallows people and objects whole. War, hatred, vice, animosity hold court as we grapple with how to depose them. We watch with downcast eyes and shared understanding as the funeral processions march by. Looking full in the face of grief threatens to undo us. So we usually don’t. Not directly.

Destruction is always at odds with peace. Upsetting the delicate balance of life is its express occupation. It is inevitable. It is universal. Since the beginning of time, mankind has been trying to answer one resounding question posed by the great deceiver, “Did God really say?” And pouring into that void, doubt fills our hearts and souls as we attempt to reconcile what we say we believe with the expression of that belief amidst our unspeakable circumstances. At the great intersection of faith and action, we are left to ponder how to proceed.

Like fall, we respect the death that winter brings. In nature, we can so easily identify its unstoppable momentum, and we adjust to its verocity with the warmth that home and hearth brings. We give thanks for our blessings and live in anticipation of spring. However, in culture, we abandon that understanding. We spin our wheels attempting to patch the gaping hole that death creates with a post it note. In our arrogance, we believe we can set things aright. An unmitigated futility.

It is not our job to solve death. It is not a force we have the power to eradicate. We can’t will it, push pills at it, disarm it, or undo it. We are simply inadequate. Perhaps we should approach the destruction of our world as we do nature. Acknowledge it. Respect it.  Adjust to it. Live to spite it. Anticipate an eternity without it. And while the world scrambles to solve another death filled conundrum by debating political agendas, the power of death will remain in time and space despite our best efforts.  Evil doesn’t fear legislation.  Perhaps if we spent as much time at the feet of the only one who has defeated death, we would spend more time living in spite of it. Even dancing in its shadows.

America the Grateful

Excuse me, sir, this is America.  And it’s about time we stop feeling like we have to apologize for it.

The United States of America.  The grandest global experiment to date.  A land marked for its opportunity.  A land of adventurers and explorers, wanderers and innovators, pioneers and risk takers.  A land of unequaled wealth and prosperity.  A land that affords the luxuries and conveniences that we all take for granted.  A land that lives in the shadow of its sins.  America, the greatest place on planet Earth.

I spend my days in the classroom with high school students.  Many of them are seniors about to embark on an uncharted future.  In fact, this is the 20th year that I have walked with these semi-adults as they finish up a journey they began before they could tie their own shoes.  It’s humbling, I tell you.  A lot has changed in two decades.  Hair styles, fashion sense, and popular fads have swayed back and forth along the coolness scale.  Technology has altered the way the high school experience works and feels for students.  Even our community has shifted from a sleepy town dotted with old homesteads and small neighborhoods to a bustling, commercial development, with more on the way.

One day, out of the nearly 3,600 days sticks out.  The day the Towers fell.  September 11, 2001.  During my first period class, our principal came by to alert me that something catastrophic was taking place, the extent of which we would have been foolish, at the time, to predict.  Shortly after, our administrators called a special assembly, a time of prayer for our nation.  After that, we all made our way, hushed and stunned, back to our classrooms to resume, as best we could, our academic day.  I had seniors.  I remember clearly that nobody found a desk, the traditional seating order abandoned in light of the stark reality painting flames in the sky.  Without smart phones, television or working cable in the classroom, I plugged in a radio to the back wall, and we listened as Tom Brokaw’s voice filled the room.  Within ten minutes of our return, the Towers began to crumble, disbelief filled the air . . . the heaviness was palpable.

As a rule, seniors are rarely quiet.  They are also rarely emotionally sober.  This was a moment that I marked in my memory as both.  Breaking the stunned silence, one voice spoke.  A young man, pondering the consequences of this heinous act uttered this declaration, “Our lives might just have changed forever.”  At the age of 18, one senior spoke the words that specifically pointed to the possibility of imminent war, and the even greater chance that the others in that room, already defined as legal adults, would be required to be a part of it.  Little did he know that his declaration would inform the next 14 years of our lives as Americans.

Since that moment etched in my memory, I have watched an entire generation of students enlist . . . proud and valiant warriors in our global conflict.  However, I have also witnessed, over time, essays composed with pro-war sentiment and stalwart patriotism erode into a thick bog of unanswered questions, skepticism about the global political climate along with a dash of downright isolationist tendencies.  Media images of our enemies burning the red, white and blue have morphed into media stories, like the one out of the University of California Irvine, where our own citizens argue whether or not displaying the flag on campus reflects the necessary inclusivity.  Our attempts to avoid offending our enemies has required, in many ways, a repudiation of our own greatness, a softening of our outspoken gratitude for a citizenship we did nothing to earn.  I don’t hold a political party or a particular politician at fault.  I see the manipulation of tolerance as the instigator.

The truth is that at the core of our nation’s founding principles is the essence of tolerance.  We need not add it.  It already exists as a primary ingredient in the very fabric out of which our flag is woven.  In fact, our founding fathers are the architects of it.  Very few of our modern enemies aspire to our practice or our definition of tolerance in their respective cultures.  No, in fact, we are a spectacular study of what can happen when people groups, guiding beliefs and core values from all over the world attempt to live together in a shared pursuit of liberty.  Our survival, staggering.  Our success, singular.

I, for one, will not be shamed into believing that our missteps as a nation define our identity on this spinning globe.  Whether the nations of this planet understand this fully, they need America to continue to prosper.  They need these mountains, prairies, and oceans, “white with foam” to continue to yield a harvest, plentiful enough to sustain life in the face of this world’s catastrophes.  We need a return to our unabashed support of one another, and a renewal of a tougher skin.  We have little time to be the easily offended, mind numbingly divisive, ridiculously litigious society we have become.  This world desperately needs to believe that this experiment of democracy really can work, and we are the only ones who can show them.  America, I don’t mind if I do.