Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Where is our Joy?

I don't like to stereotype, and I don't want anything in the following post to sound racist toward any group including the group I would easily be lumped into…

For Memorial Day, we traveled to Port Huron. We found a city park with a large playground for the kids, picnic areas, plenty of shade, and a large beach. I enjoy our Great Lakes. Lake Huron is only an hour’s drive away. Something about the water, the sand, and the soft grass feeds my soul.

The park showcased the melting pot that our country embodies. It was fun to family watch. This is the soil where my form of patriotism grows, in our open arms, in our diversity, and in our families.

A large latino family claimed a large, sunny chunk of the park to play soccer. They were having so much fun. They kept shouting, "Goal!"

I worried a bit about my kids wanting to join in. Then I realized that I might want to join in.

A large arabic family played very interesting music. The young women all joined hands and danced for a short time. My son, Gage thought that was cool. I couldn't help but think about how that embodied freedom and comfort - to dance in public like that in a setting that isn't known for dancing.

As a large Indian family walked in, I noticed that the men were pushing the baby strollers. At first I thought there were no women in the group. They trailed behind a few minutes later. As the day went on, it was obvious that the men were the main caretakers for the kids.

There were other large family groups around us that weren't just speaking English. I couldn't identify them all, but they had one thing in common, they were large families. There were many interracial families too.

In contrast, most of the caucasian-only families were small (4 to 5), a mother, a father, and 2.5 kids. Most of the non-caucasian families numbered 10 to 15+ with people from multiple generations. I'm guessing that they contained great grandchildren all the way through great grandparents.

It had me wondering… and maybe it’s just my family, but why don’t we get together in such large, extended family groups anymore? We did when we were kids.

Maybe I’m generalizing too much. It was only one day at one park, and it was a holiday. But I still wonder, why don’t we value the same things? I mean, here were multiple cultures all with obvious, strong family ties, except for one.

And where is our joy? We don’t dance in the park. We don’t stake out large sections of a park to play games together. We rarely see one another anymore. If it happens once a year, we’re satisfied. Or are we?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Humbling Lessons

It was probably about four or five years ago that I decided I needed to be more actively helping people. That's when I started organizing street clean ups, diaper drives, donating to shelters. I wasn't doing this to impress God. I was doing it to know God better. If you want to see God, you find him in other people (my opinion).

For about a month, I'd get up and pray, "Lord, give me someone to help today." I'd go through my day, and people would literally show up at my desk asking for help. I WOULD TOTALLY MISS IT! They would actually use the word 'help,' and I would let it go over my head. I'd kick myself later on as the irony set in. People would say they needed help with work or with some home repair I was actually good at. Because I was looking for something grand, I'd overlook these little opportunities to be a good friend. It only made me more determined. I was going to help someone.

One morning, I prayed the prayer. I was alert all day. Nothing. It was freezing cold outside and sleeting as I left work.

I worked in downtown Flint at the time. It's a classic "downtown" with a main strip of older buildings, a few really tall ones. There are two busy times for Flint, the 8 a.m. influx and the 5 p.m. mass exodus. Traffic leaving the area is thick and cranky. 95% of people leave that area at 5 p.m. It's a ghost town after that. Most businesses, including restuarants and shops lock up shop at this time.

I was nearly to the freeway and freedom for the day. I passed a car that was stalled in the middle of the afternoon mess. It took me a few seconds, but I realized, here was a person in need. I turned around. Parked. Ran out into the traffic to see if I could help push.

It ended up being a young couple around 18 years old. The male was pushing. The female was steering. They had run out of gas.

At first the kid seemed surprised that I'd help. We had about a block to go before the gas station. Did I mention it was sleeting? Cars were honking at us. We were in the way of wall-to-wall traffic.

He started apologizing. He started degrading his girlfriend. It was all her fault. They had stopped at a friend's house for a quick exchange of some sort. They knew they were low on gas. He had told her to turn the car off and stay put. It took longer than expected, and when he came out, she had been circling the neighborhood. He started referring to her as "the dumb bitch." He continued to elaborate on his opinion of her and women in general. It wasn't pretty.

I tried to remind him that, if they were together, he must have some feelings for her. She must have some value. We all make mistakes. I shared that I have ran out of gas in the past.

He gave me a look like I was the dumbest person on earth.

There was a few minutes of silence after that.

As we pushed the car into the gas station, he turned away from me acting like I had never even been there. I told him to have a good day. He acknowledged me with a quick sneer, but didn't even say thanks. Apparently I was a fool for helping and a fool for thinking his girlfriend was anyone important.

I went home feeling like crap. On top of that, I got very sick the next day. I even had to miss work.

For weeks I thought about how crappy the experience had been. I had helped someone. It would have taken him much longer to push that car by himself. But it hadn't been a positive experience for either of us.

As time passed, I think I got the lesson. I can want to help people. I can even actually help them, but it doesn't mean they'll appreciate it. Does that mean I quit? I don't think that was the lesson. I think the lesson was to just reign in my expectations. Be realistic. Remember the type of world we live in. A good friend pointed out, perhaps the kid was just embarrassed. Perhaps my words even made him realize that it wasn't cool to bash someone he's supposed to love.

Others have pointed out, maybe I really helped the girl steering.

Or, perhaps it was totally pointless. I have to be willing to accept that because sometimes it might be pointless.

If I'm only helping others to make myself feel good, then my motivations are wrong. If I'm helping just to be a help, it shouldn't matter how I feel afterward or how they respond. I shouldn't be looking for a response.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Violence, Justice, Wrestling…

In the weeks that followed September 11th, 2001, many words escaped my lips that, even then, felt like they were being spoken by some anti-Brian. The words didn't feel like me. Other people told me as much back then.

I had been married for less than a year. Life was good for me. Planes crashing into buildings, that shook my world view, and I didn't like it. It opened my eyes to things I wanted to ignore. It opened up a reality I wanted to deny. I wasn't as safe as I had once thought. Fear, though certainly no stranger in life back then, seemed to grow legs in those days. I was sad too, but that wasn't as transformative.

Hitting that wall of reality made my tongue wag. I wanted justice. I wanted revenge. I wanted violence. I wanted blood. The words that escaped my tongue felt both wrong and right back then. They only feel wrong now. I feel too much shame to share them with you today.

The death of Osama Bin Laden should be something we all contemplate. This is a case where my faith butts heads with my patriotism. It's hard not to see the death of a violent person as a victory when he's caused you sadness and fear, but it's also hard to forget the lessons I've picked up on since then. Death removes the possibility of redemption as we know it.

Using violence to solve problems is easy, but I believe it costs us part of our souls. It's harder to avoid violence if it costs us our lives. So the question may be, what's more important our lives or our souls? Would we rather be a King Jr. or a Bin Laden?

My heart has changed. I feel now that my words were likely very similar to the words of those I sought to harm. I had become no different than my perceived enemy. They were killers, so I wanted them killed, making me a killer.

Justice is a tricky subject. It may sound cliche to say that only God knows the whole story, but I believe it. Even when someone is clearly committing acts of evil, we never know what every motivation might be. We think we do. Maybe there is no justification for evil, but maybe it's not right for us to judge anyway. Over and over again in scripture, God reminds us to be merciful.

I was a fairly new Christian back in 2011. I hadn't chased God much. There's been a lot of pursuit since then. Today, I can't see God being happy with further bloodshed. I can't imagine Jesus approving the outcome or methods. I don't think he wanted us to pray for enemies as we planned to shoot them in the head. It's hard to make a bullet loving.

I also became a father since 2001. My concept of love has grown in ways I can't put into words. If I love my kids so much that nothing they could ever do would take that love away, how much more does God love us? If God loves me, doesn't he love everyone, including terrorists?

If I find fault in a man because he caused so much death, how can I find comfort in even more death? To me, yesterday's death was just one more ugly event in a cycle of ugly events. I doubt the cycle has ended.

This world, this savage garden, it seems it will always leave me shaking my head in disgust, not just for the actions of others, but for the yearnings of my own heart. I thank God my heart is less stony today. I pray it's even less stony tomorrow.