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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Justice System that Mo'ne and Jesus Would Love

When Mo’ne Davis starred last summer as a pitcher with an 80 mile-an-hour fastball in the Little League World series, I was, like everyone else, impressed. As impressive as her play on the field has been the grace and ease with which she has handled her fame off the field. She is poised in her interviews and genuinely low key. And now we can credit her with one more attribute: graciousness.

After it was announced that Disney was planning on making a film about her, a baseball player from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania sent out an offensive tweet that was followed by an apology and the deletion of his Twitter account. The university responded by immediately removing him from the team.

What Mo’ne did next should serve as an example to those of us in the church. She sent an email to the president of the university and asked that the player be reinstated on the team. When asked about it in an interview she said, "Everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves a second chance. I know he didn't mean it in that type of way, and I know a lot of people get tired of like seeing me on TV but just think about what you're doing before you actually do it. I know right now he's really hurt and I know how hard he worked just to get where he is right now."

She not only advocated for his reinstatement, she empathized with him and humanized him to the many people who were angered and offended by his tweet. Because of Mo’ne, the baseball player is no longer a sexist jerk who cruelly mocked a teenage girl. He is a young man who has worked hard to become one of the leading hitters on his college team. He is someone who made a mistake and has paid dearly for it for, as she claims, he is hurt even more than she is. And he is a young man who deserves a second chance because, as we all should be reminded, everyone makes mistakes. 

When I read Mo’ne’s comments I am reminded of how I wish our approach to crime could reflect more of Mo’ne’s comments that our current insatiable thirst for retribution. Fortunately, more and more people are seeing the length of some of the sentences that are being handed down, particularly for nonviolent drug offenses, as unnecessary and unduly punitive. And it may even surprise a few folks who share this view: Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul and former Speaker Newt Gingrich to name a few.

But we still have the problem of demonizing certain people and claiming that they are beyond redemption or restoration. I see death row inmates in this class as well as people who have committed sexual crimes. We rightly find these crimes repugnant and devastating to the victims and their families. Approaching criminal justice from a restorative justice lens means first and foremost working for healing for the victims of crime.

At the same time, I think we have a tendency to define a person by the worst thing they have done. We see the detestable actions they have committed and they become those actions incarnate. Yet, Jesus, throughout the Gospels, repeatedly reaches out and makes an example of faith those deemed deviant by the rest of society, particularly those within the confines of his faith. Jesus humanizes them and makes it impossible for his followers to combine faith in him with demonization of those on the margins.

Our criminal justice system would be radically different – and far more effective, if we manifested this same kind of emphasis on restoration, even and perhaps especially on those who have committed the most heinous of crimes. All people are made in the image of God. All of us have sinned and fallen short. Those are truths whose ethical impact could very well transform our criminal justice system if we took them seriously.

The invitation is ours to extend to the most hardened of criminals, the most unreachable of people. Jesus is already there and bids us to join him to humanize those who would be demonized by the rest of society and locked away forever or even put to death. Whether it is a baseball player in Pennsylvania or someone who has committed an unspeakable crime, may we follow first the example of Jesus and even that of Mo’ne Davis and may we recognize the imago dei within them beyond the deed or deeds they have committed and then may we seek to restore them to a place of contribution once again. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

When Justice Isn't Justice At All

I can’t help but wonder sometimes if the very passion that drives us to work on justice issues is the same passion that hinders movement on related justice issues as we achieve the narrow agenda we are so focused on.

This came home to me in December 2010 when we came within a couple of votes in the Senate of passing the DREAM Act. I kept hearing DC advocates (though not from the DREAMers themselves) speak in favor of passage of the DREAM Act by referring to the students as “people who came to America though no fault of their own.” While this was believed, at the time, to appeal to moderates and maybe even a few of the hardliners who usually denounced undocumented immigration, in the end, statements like this have been hurtful to the larger goal of gaining citizenship for all immigrants. In validating the myth that some immigrants deserve protection of their rights while others do not, non-student immigrants have often been further marginalized from the goal of gaining citizenship because they are deemed to be at “fault” or less worthy than DREAMers. I believe we could have effectively advocated for passage of the DREAM Act while refusing to cast aspersions on non-DREAMers if we had simply been more mindful of unintended messages we were conveying.

For those of us committed to specific issues of justice – or with groups of people directly impacted by injustices – we would do well to ask how our work and especially our messages are impacting other connected issues to the one we are so passionate about.

Case in point, watch this video by Everytown for Gun Safety focused on state legislation in Nevada.

Of course, I sympathize with the need for more responsible gun ownership and the need to stand against far too many states that are being driven by the gun manufacturers-lobby that wants guns to be openly carried in every public space, including houses of worship. But in pushing back against this reckless agenda, I must ask, aren’t there better ways to make our point for public safety and responsible gun ownership other than demonizing returning citizens and those who suffer from mental illness?

I shudder to think how this 30 second ad will continue to perpetuate negative and quite frankly, false myths about the “dangerously” mentally ill and “criminals.” Why, in this ad, is “dangerous” not applied to the weapons and instead, attached to the person? And why can’t we talk about making our societies safer as a part of an over-arching call for all of us to live into a vision that addresses justice for everyone – including those suffering from mental illness and returning citizens?

If we want to talk about creating a vision that people can live into rather creating fear that people must flee from, then I think the best model I know of is in Micah 4:1-4. Micah gives a stunning description of the final days when nations will stream to the “mountain of the Lord” to have their conflicts settled peacefully. A beautiful picture of what conflict resolution looks like appears as nations then will be given the responsibility to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (v. 3) And as nations transform their weapons into instruments that provide for the well-being of all people, the deeper attitudes, behaviors, perspectives, and values – their worldviews – will be transformed as well: “neither shall they learn war any more.”

Once the violence of their hands and their hearts are washed clean and transformed, their hopes for security and abundance will be realized.

                But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
                And no one shall make them afraid.

While Micah’s vision ends in peace and enough resources for all people – and I stress all – to live securely in abundance, I was saddened to see this ad by Everytown because it ends in fear and the demonization of people already on society’s margins. Micah’s vision calls us to work not only for safer communities, but safety is directly linked to world peace, poverty, hunger, the sanctity of work, and so many other issues.

While ads like these make us want to take action out of fear, Micah and many of the other prophets, including Jesus, have a more powerful and more effective motivation for change: a vision of love and justice for all people. Those of us with passion for specific issues would do well to learn that our issue will advance only as far as we advance all causes for justice, for if we can only do justice for one group at the expense of another then perhaps what we are doing isn’t justice at all. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Lent is a Time to Set the Captives Free

As we are now in a time of Lent leading us to Easter Sunday it is right for us to reflect not only on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but his life and ministry as well. As we do, we recall that Jesus’ ministry began with the powerful words of the prophet Isaiah quoted in part, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…to proclaim release to the captives and…to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Freedom from captivity was a vital part of Jesus’ ministry and for those of us who claim to be recipients of Jesus’ grace we would do well to make this a vital part of our ministry as well. We too are called to proclaim release to the captives and to set free the oppressed. This call has never been timelier as we live in the most incarcerated nation on the face of the earth.

The United States is first in the world in mass incarceration and one of the main drivers of this systemic sin is the disastrous War on Drugs, 40 years of failed policies that have done little to nothing to curb drug dependence and have instead broken up families, destroyed communities and cost billions of dollars.

Fortunately, just as we receive hope on Easter Sunday with Jesus’ resurrection, there are hopeful steps that we as a nation can take to extricate ourselves from our own captivity to mass incarceration. Even in the current state of polarization that our Congress seems trapped in, there are numerous bills that have brought Democrats and Republicans together. One crucial bill introduced last week by Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Lee (R-UT) is the Smarter Sentencing Act. The legislation is an incremental step towards justice reform that would address the costly overcrowding crisis in the Bureau of Prisons by cutting in half the mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses and by authorizing judicial review of cases sentenced under the old 100 to 1 crack cocaine sentencing disparity for possible resentencing.

I chair the Interfaith Criminal Justice Coalition, working to end mass incarceration on Capitol Hill. Our coalition is made up over 40 faith organizations representing millions of people from across the theological and political spectrum and one of our primary goals this year is to see sentencing reforms like those found in the Smarter Sentencing Act enacted. We are meeting with numerous House and Senate offices and we have activated our grassroots folks. The time for dramatically reducing the size of our prison population has come.

Throughout the U.S. congregations dedicate countless hours to aiding, ministering alongside, and advocating for people negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. We are gravely concerned that overly punitive mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, passed by Congress nearly 30 years ago, have disproportionately and unfairly incarcerated people of color for low-level and nonviolent offenses.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has previously testified before the Judiciary Committee that Black and Hispanic defendants constitute the majority of people subject to mandatory minimum sentences and existing opportunities for relief from them are less often available to African American defendants. Passage of sentencing reform measures like those found in the Smarter Sentencing Act would help restore fairness in our justice system by limiting this existing racial disparity. Therefore, my prayer this Easter is for the hearts of Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner to soften and to make the passage of sending reform a priority for this year. Could the Holy Spirit even anoint Congressional leaders, “to proclaim release to the captives and…to let the oppressed go free”? What an amazing Easter this could be.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Blessing of Sarcasm (No, Seriously!)

Like so many people I was particularly shocked by the massacre last week at the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. The idea that people would be so enraged by cartoons that they would kill someone, much less go on a mass murder spree, is stunning to me.

Obviously, murder does not reflect anything about God in any religious expression. But to kill in the name of God for the purpose of stamping out free expression is particularly revolting to me. As I have reflected on the repulsive nature of the event, I thought about how many times historically creativity has been stamped out in the name of religion, under the pretext of disrespect. Now, I want to be careful and not make any comparison – there is no comparison whatsoever between people who would murder large numbers of people and people who are just Debbie Downers.

But it does seem like we have a lot of Debbie Downers in the Church, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t matter from which side of the aisle you stand. I grew up spiritually rooted in conservative evangelicalism and man, if I had a dollar for every time someone was offended by a joke or comment I made I could build a new Crystal Cathedral! I used to beat myself up for it, promising I would rein myself in next time, get control of my mouth; not be so damned offensive. I was given lots (and I mean LOTS) of verses from offended fellow Christians about my need for self-control, my need to consider the “weaker” sisters and brothers who might be hurt in their faith by something I did or said, and my need to only say those things that are edifying to the Body of Christ. I tried to be speak only encouragement, but it only lasted as long as I didn’t see the blatant, hypocrisy so present in the church. In other words, it never lasted long. Now, I want to give my evangelical friends the benefit of the doubt and say that most meant well – they didn’t mean to stifle me, only to mature me. But no matter how they tried to “encourage” me, it always felt like a straightjacket; just too stifling.

And so when my job changed and I was hanging out with a whole lot more liberals and progressives I thought, “Hey, now it’s time for me to let it all hang out!” Boy was I wrong. And I am not talking about political correctness – I don’t feel the need to make racist statements. But I have felt, at times, as shut down by liberals as I ever was by conservatives. I am told quite a bit that there are just things that cannot be joked about and that list seems to be quite long. There are some folks – change that, there are a lot of folks, I just don’t joke with. And I know you are thinking, “lucky them!”

And let’s be serious. In the end, who really cares if I make some stupid jokes or not? No one. But I bring this up now because I am concerned for a church that is always so serious, that is always so offended at sarcasm or humor. A church that cannot laugh is a church that cannot breathe and a church that cannot breathe is certainly a church that will die.

No doubt, there are indeed somber moments in life. But the key word there is “moments.” Not years, not decades, not generations. Moments. There are times to be silent, times to be in awe of God’s beauty or wonder. And there are times to cut up, times to question the stupidity and mindlessness of the traditions we are handed down, times to mock the most serious of moments and ideas, times for sarcasm to remind us that what we believe is most holy might be only the most sacred of cows. Sarcasm can expose false gods and bring about much needed perspective. We need more sarcasm, more humor in the church, not less.

There is something particularly Pharisaical about shushing sarcasm and humor. There is something ungodly about drowning out laughter for the false sense of self-designed holiness. So I thank God for the souls at Charlie Hebdo. I Thank God that the idiots who hoped to crush satire have pushed a magazine that sells 60,000 copies to now sell 3 million. Let the laughter be lifted up to Heaven because I am sure in hell they are too busy telling everyone to shut up.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

My Final Update on my Sabbatical

I have come to the end of my time of sabbatical and as I wrote at the midway point in October, I have LOVED my sabbatical time. It has been a gift and I am deeply grateful to my office and especially the wonderful people who covered for me while I was away.

Sabbath is often characterized as a time to step away and gain new perspective as well as much-needed rest. I don’t see my Sabbath as a step back as much as it was a step forward into a direction I hadn’t experienced in a while; a step toward greater presence and creativity.

As I wrote in October, I have been able to be present for my two wonderful boys, Eli and Isaiah, as well as for my beautiful partner in life, Marti. I take my boys to school, I am home when they get home from school and I run everyone on endless errands, but I have loved every minute of it. I felt like I knew my sons fairly well before, and I won’t embarrass them and say everything that I learned and never knew here, but one of the things that I was surprised at was how much they genuinely love one another. I didn’t grow up in a close family so it has been one of the greatest blessings of my life to see my two boys really love each other. They share things, they encourage one another and they can make each other laugh like no one else. I have been able to be present when school stories become side-splitting, laugh-til-you-cry episodes. I love to make people laugh, but I have never laughed so much myself until this time of Sabbath – thanks to my two amazing boys.

Presence has also been something I have been able to give to my church. In the almost nine years I have been at GBCS my family has attended Culmore UMC and we love it. It is a multi-cultural, multi-socioeconomic  Body that truly loves and serves Jesus. But throughout my time at Culmore I have always felt like I am half there, if even that. I travel a lot with my work and so one of the things I am pulled away from is being present at my church. It has been during my Sabbath that I have been able to step into greater presence in my local church and in leadership as we, like so many other churches, struggle with knowing exactly how we are called to serve. I love my church more than I did before and it is a commitment I plan on continuing to live out.

And that is what Sabbath is all about isn’t it? Having a time of rest not to simply pick up where we once left off and continue to do the same thing we did prior to our Sabbath. God forbid! Sabbath is meant to gain wisdom so that we can be even more effective in the work we are called to. The one thing that I haven’t learned as much as it has been even more deeply embedded in me is that THE locus of mission and transformation is the local church. No other place can match the local church for where personal transformation can occur. No other place can match even the political impact that is felt when local churches opt for incarnation among people who are marginalized and abused through systems of injustice. In short, the local church is where the action is and nothing else comes close.

Though those and good and faithful souls at the general church level can mistakenly fool ourselves through endless meetings and thousands of emails into believing that we are the source of change and missional movement, it is actually the local church where it all begins and ends. Therefore, all we do should be focused on supporting, empowering, and unleashing the work of our local churches.

And while I return to work with renewed determination to no longer work 12-15 hour days, to no longer allow work to crowd me out of being present for my family and my church, I also return with a passion to see that all I am doing is to support the life-changing, society-changing, politically-impactful work that is happening in so many United Methodist churches.

I will remain present and engaged in my church as well. I will cut down on my travel – especially on trips that have nothing to do with supporting the work of local churches and on trips that carry into Sundays. I will continue to pour myself into reconnecting the general church with the local church in ways that are meaningful and helpful to those doing the amazing incarnational work among those being crushed by injustice. And I will continue to pour myself into my family and my church for nothing can match the power that is found when a vision for mission is collective and life is shared. I am blessed beyond measure and I am so grateful for it.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best and Worst Films of 2014

This year was a great one for films and there are several that will be ones I will see again. On the other hand, some films I will be happy if I never see even late night on cable. See if you agree with the lists I have made, and for the ones I have recommended that you haven’t seen, I hope you will!

Best Films of 2014
Draft Day
As a Cleveland Browns fan, this was a must-see and it lived up to my expectations both times I saw it! Kevin Costner might be the finest sports film actor of all time, able to combine the passion for sports with the personal emotional conflict that comes with unresolved relational turmoil. The story plot is certainly not the most original but for sports fans like me who have grown up watching the NFL draft religiously, seeing a little bit behind-the-scenes keeps you fully invested. Anything that shows the Cleveland Browns with hope is an automatic winner as far as I am concerned.

A Most Wanted Man
Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors so this became a must-see once I heard of his untimely death. Hoffman gives one of his usual incredible performances as he weighs the benefits of national loyalty with authentic justice. This qualifies as a suspense thriller, but not in the over-the-top-Hollywood way, but rather, as a steady and subtle emotional build-up where you are kept in the dark until the very end and then are left with thoughts and questions even as it is resolved. There just aren’t enough movies like this anymore and it is a shame. It is a shame as well that Hoffman has been taken from us; he will be missed greatly.

Guardians of the Galaxy
I find these films at best entertaining, mostly forgettable, and at times nauseating. The fact that a Marvel, superhero film makes one of my best-of-2014 is certainly an achievement. I admire good special effects, but I really do not need them when I see a film. Character development and story substance outdo special effects every time as far as I am concerned. I found myself actually liking and identifying with some aspects of the characters and while the story was not too original (seriously, how many times do we really need to save the world), it was enough. I might even go see the sequel, but my expectations will be lowered considerably.

The Equalizer
I hedged on this one quite a bit. But the fact that this film deals with real ethical questions of what does justice really mean without being too preachy gets it for me. I am not super high on this film, but Denzel does intensity like no one else. Still, I think it is time for him to get away from the action/violence genre for a bit as he is actually getting to be typecast for this kind of role. I miss him in the straight dramas.

Kill the Messenger
An excellent film that has not gotten the notoriety it deserves. It tells the story of Gary Webb, a journalist who uncovers the truth of US complicity in the South American drug trade during the 1980s. Webb experiences the great acclaim as well as the tremendous despair that goes with truth-telling, especially when the truth you are speaking involves an enormous institution that will do anything to cover its culpability in injustice. I was so moved by this film and by Jeremy Renner’s performance that I wrote a blogpost about the costs of truth-telling. Truly an excellent film and one I highly encourage you to see.

I am not usually all that impressed or enthused by war films. US society could do without war films for a while. Hell, the US could do without war for a while! But this is by far the best war film since Saving Private Ryan, the last time when a war film was as much about the relationships between those who fought as it was about killing the enemy. I recommend this, but I wouldn’t mind if we dropped these films for a while.

A peculiar film, but an excellent one that showcases the talents of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and especially the Director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Keaton plays an actor who seeks to rebuild his once-fabled career through producing a Broadway play while also trying to rebuild the relationships with his family. What was fascinating is that the film is shot much like a film, with long running takes that run through several scenes without many cuts. I found myself amazed but yet almost more distracted by how it was directed than at the story lines, which are multiple and complex. The film is shot as if you are watching a play and the skill involved is indeed fascinating to see. This is not really a feel-good movie, but it deserves the attention it has received and Inarritu should get an Oscar for his direction.

Dear White People
I love films where there seems to be good guys and bad guys, but the characters are much more complex and nuanced. This film deals with the complexity of race in a respectful and challenging way. I wish I could say that all white people should see this, just because I know white people will be extremely hesitant to see it. But advising only white people to see it as if they will be the ones to be ethically challenged and socially slammed sells this film way short. All people should see this and talk about it at length afterwards. I wish I had seen this in a group.

This is another peculiar film about a very peculiar guy played by Jake Gyllenhall who becomes somewhat of a Machiavellian free lance news cameraman for crime journalism in Los Angeles. He is willing to do anything to get ahead and as he does so he becomes more alive and real while those around him are diminished and objectified. This is a powerful film and Gyllenhall is masterful as a disturbed loner who makes you uncomfortable as you watch him. But you can’t help but watch him just the whole of society cannot help but watch the blood and violence he captures on film for the news channels.

This film is one of my favorites of the year. Jon Stewart wrote and directed this film and you can tell. It is at once harrowing and sweet, frightening yet funny. Rosewater is a true story of a journalist – yes another film about a journalist! – who is detained after returning to his home in Iran in 2009 to interview the political opponent of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Gael Garcia Bernal is incredible in his portrayal of Maziar Bahari, as Bahari deals with not only the emotional and physical torture and torment of indefinite detainment, but also dealing with the expectations of his family. A powerful film, with incredible writing and Oscar-caliber acting.

Not only my favorite film of the year, but one of my all-time favorites. Historically spot on and yet, a film rooted in history but not obsessed with every fact and date. This was a brilliant narrative of one of the pivotal times in the civil rights movement. The movie did focus on Martin Luther King – who was absolutely brilliantly played – but also included important and less historically known figures such as Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis, James Foreman, Fred Gray, to name a few. The powerful narrative of the overall movement – that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things – was evident in this film and should be a lesson to all of us, especially those of us in the church. This is a must-see.

Films in 2014 I would NOT Recommend
The Monuments Men
This was disappointing, what with the build up and the star-studded cast assembled for this film. But a cast does not a good film make. The dialog seemed silly at times and I was bored and checking my watching after 45 minutes – not a good sign for any movie.

Anchorman 2
Yes, I love Will Farrell and yes I laughed out loud numerous times. But his character actually started grating on me as well, which is always the problem with sequels. Still, Will Farrell is the funniest person in movies today so I don’t recommend it unless you just want something entirely mindless, you don’t get too offended too easily and maybe if you shut it off after an hour and a half, which should actually be the limit for all comedies.

I was tempted to put this on the recommended list just because of the freak-out so many had in response to this film, but I had to keep it here. I personally do not go to movies to get Sunday school lessons though sometimes I am surprised! But in the end, this is just another action film. Crowe’s portrayal of Noah as an insane religious fanatic just didn’t come across and frankly, it didn’t fit the story.

Captain America: Winter Soldier
Entertaining, but zero substance. Basic formula are hot guy, hot girl, save the world from some overwhelming force, but does anyone know why or for what reason? I have no idea either.

The Drop
The story of a local bar that serves as a front for laundering mob money gets robbed and the films examines the lives of those who work at the bar. The plot is intriguing and some of the characters, particularly James Gandolfini in his last film, as well as Noomi Rapace. But what did not work for me was Tom Hardy in the leading role, who seemed out of place and out of character. His slow, plodding portrayal made the “big switch” seem implausible and not much of a switch at all. This was a good film, but one that could and should have been much, much better.

Gone Girl
An interesting story and well done in terms of surprises, but by the time this film ended I was tired of everyone and I frankly didn’t care what to anyone. I like Ben Affleck, but I did not like this film.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
This was Captain America: Winter Soldier part 2 as far as I am concerned. Another forgettable sequel with good special effects and little narrative or character development. Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

St. Vincent
A sweet film and Bill Murray is funny as usual, but didn’t we see this already in Gran Torino? The ending was nice but a little too predictable.

John Wick
I love my dog, but I wouldn’t kill anyone over her, much less dozens of people in an endless orgy of violence that characterized practically every minute of this movie. I had a headache by the time this movie ended. Hopefully we will not have to see John Wick ever again.

Wish I had seen:
I wasn’t able to see every movie this year and here are the ones I wish I had: Boyhood, Million Dollar Arm, Cesar Chavez, Pride, The Theory of Everything, The Interview (not because I really liked this film, but just to piss off a dictator), The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, Wild, Exodus, The Gambler, Unbroken, Big Eyes, and Cake.

Glad I didn’t see:
And then there are the movies I am exceedingly grateful I did not see. They definitely deserve a mention: Blended, Spider Man 2 (shouldn’t this be Spider Man 5?), Ninja Turtles, Left Behind (seriously Nicholas Cage?), Interstellar, Dumb & Dumber To (one was more than enough), The Hobbit (when will this series finally die?), American Sniper, and, of course, Saving Christmas (double UGH)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Captivity of Subdivisions

You know how when you hear a certain song you haven’t heard in a while, you can be taken back in time to when you first heard it, almost feeling the same feelings, thinking the same thoughts you felt and thought back then? I had a similar experience over Thanksgiving from, of all things, dead, brown grass. 

My family and I were back in Texas visiting relatives for the Thanksgiving holidays when my boys said they wanted to see where I went to high school. I was a little surprised – they usually hate it when I talk about how much I love REO Speedwagon or talk about the glory days in college. So, we were on the west side of Plano and started making our way east to Plano East Senior High, a place where I left no impact or mark. As we drove we passed neighborhood after neighborhood with house after house with yard after yard filled with the dead, brown grass that took me back to all of the times I came back to see my family from college or seminary. And the neighborhoods, houses, and yards all looked exactly alike to me. And just with the song or smell of certain foods that takes you back in time, the sight of the yard after yard with dead, brown grass took me back to each time I returned for the holidays – and the feeling I had was a total dread. 

No offense meant to my fellow Planoites, but I hated Plano when I was growing up there. And after I left, I dreaded going “home” to visit family. It just always felt so stifling, like the sameness was the strangling grip of uniformity that demanded certain attitudes, beliefs, even a certain lifestyle. It was hegemonic in many ways. 

When I was growing up in Plano I couldn’t wait to leave. I used to dream of living in the North or Midwest or Northwest – anywhere but Plano. You see, the neighborhoods and houses in Plano were actually a sign of progress and affluence in the 70s and 80s when the low taxes and zero regulations on businesses meant that lots of corporate headquarters relocated to North Texas, Plano in particular. Plano exploded with the insurgence of so many newly planted “Texans” and as the corporate ladder-climbers moved in, so did my family. 

Neighborhoods were popping as fast as builders could cheaply build them. Stores followed the neighborhoods as did churches, and it was a economically booming time. The arrogance of the recently-planted Texans was quite high considering almost none of the friends I had in high school were actually Texans – meaning born in Texas (and for the record, I am a TENNESSEAN and proud of it!). 

I even remember a song that I clung to in high school because it captured the suffocation that I was feeling. The song is Subdivisions by Rush and it followed their huge album, Moving Pictures. The opening verses in particular captured my thoughts:

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

Alone is what I felt through most of my time in Plano. And driving through it with my boys I felt at first the same dread and yes, the loneliness. I felt every time I came back. But I also felt contentment especially as I thought of my two amazing, beautiful boys travelling with me now who make me so proud and happy. I felt the kind of contentment and gratefulness you feel when you have passed through a set of trials and have come through them largely unscathed. 

I always am amazed when I hear testimonies of people who have gone through truly sizable obstacles: things like addiction, abuse, violence, poverty. I went through none of those so it hard for me to identify, though I am amazed when I hear their stories. I merely had to endure boredom and a strangling, hegemonic sense of conformity. Yet, it’s the boredom and the stifling hegemony that creates or exacerbates the marginalization of those who are captive to addiction, violence, poverty and the rest. It is societal conformity and our slavish obedience to it that keeps us from looking compassionately upon those who fall outside those tightly controlled boundaries. Conformity means detachment and is only smashed when we truly relate with those who are unwilling or unable to conform. 

So, let’s remember and hold up the dreamers and misfits that Geddy Lee sings of above. It is the Church alone, I believe, who can provide the alternative community to the captivity of subdivisions. It is the Church that can foster creativity and imagination. And it is the Church that can welcome and provide hospitality for all who feel burdened by the “geometric order…detached and subdivided in the mass production zone.” In Christ and his community of believers we truly are welcomed for who we are. There is glory in our differences and uniqueness for it reflects the perfect imagination of our Creator.