No Saints at the Dollar Store

I was shopping with one of my sons over the weekend. The store wasn’t especially crowded, but they were short staffed and so the line was long and slow. My son is usually in motion, so waiting in line requires using a variety of sensory-input strategies to pass the time. Little stay-in-place activities like giving hand squeezes, standing on his toes, or even small bounces in place will help him to endure the tedium, and so we did these things as we waited for our turn to check out.

He also likes things to be orderly, so when items at the check-out line, like the candy displays or the plastic bars to separate orders on the conveyor belt, are misaligned he will organize them while he waits.

When it was our turn to check out he stood with me at the register as I tried to get the card reader to recognize my debit card. Then he noticed that someone at the front of the store had left a helium balloon unattended. This reminded him that he loves to release balloons to float off into the sky, and he quickly walked to the errant balloon and started for the front door. Seeing this I left the register (debit card still sitting in the card reader) and blocked his path. “No, no, that’s not yours, we need to leave it alone,” as he tried to push past me, before accepting my redirection and letting go of the balloon. The entire exchange took less than 5 seconds.

Returning to the register my card was finally accepted, and he took our bag and headed for the door. “Thank you,” I said to the cashier.

“Have a good day. And you have the patience of a saint,” she responded.

Usually this sort of comment triggers embarrassment in me, as I would rather move through these life moments unnoticed. When he was young, I would feel the burning sense that I was being judged as insufficient as a parent and a caregiver – maybe even being exposed as actually being insufficient to this role. This time, I was initially confused, and then I was angry.

Confused, because his actions in the store were so inconsequential. Nothing was lost or broken, no one else was inconvenienced beyond the seconds it took to redirect him back to line. Why did this woman think I was being patient? Then her view of the moment sucker-punched me: I was impressively patient because I related to him respectfully. That’s when I got angry.

If you haven’t spent time with my son some of his choices will be unexpected. Some of them are inappropriate (recent episodes of dumping water on cars so he can see people use their windshield wipers come to mind), but many of them are just atypical, like sing-songy vocalizations and asking for hand squeezes. Some of them are actually helpful – organizing a disorderly display, or putting stray carts where they belong. None of these choices, or any of the other unusual things he might do in any given moment, make him less worthy of respect as a person. None of it changes that at the same time he is impulsive and socially awkward he is also kind, funny, smart, playful, charming, and eager for connection. He’s fully human.

When we look at another person and decide that being in relationship with them requires super-human attributes we are denying their humanity, we are cutting them out of the picture of community. Even the “difficult” people. Even the “weird” people. We are giving ourselves an excuse to not be fully human ourselves. We are hurting ourselves, but more importantly we are hurting them and all of the people who are blessed by their presence.

Different does not mean inherently difficult, or threatening.

Include people who are different from you.

Perceive the ways they can expand your perspective.

Let them season and deepen the flavor of your community.

2021 Media Journal: Books

In 2021 I attempted to keep a detailed journal of all the new (or at least new-to-me) books, movies, tv shows, music and podcasts I experienced during the year.

I made it through May. After that, it gets a little dicey.

Looking back at the accounting of it has been eye-opening. There’s so much more of it than I realized. Reviewing the year has really helped me get a sense of what has stuck with me and what has turned out to be forgettable. So, I thought I’d share it here, starting with books (since I’m the kind of guy who likes to believe that I’m a book-first person). Rather than take up a lot of your time with mini-reviews I’ve decided to describe every work in 20 words or less. The rest is up to you.

Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (Jeremy Beer). Maybe the first great Black baseball player, a generation before the guys you know. He’s worth your attention.

The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife (Brad Balukjian). What if you met all the guys in a pack of baseball cards? Great idea, disappointing execution.

Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy (Margaret Sullivan). Local Journalism is in trouble. So is America. These truths are related. Short, clear, direct. Worthwhile.

The Conquest of the Illinois (George Rogers Clark). First-person account from the general who secured the Illinois River Valley during the Revolutionary War. Short, fascinating.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Kristin Kobes Du Mez). The timeline of hyper-masculinity poisoning American Evangelicalism. Clearly documented and explained, damning evidence of the state we’re in.

Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask (Jon Pessah). A fascinating man, but the writing style grated. Like 500 pages of ESPN The Magazine pieces. Wish I liked it better.

Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art (James Nestor). Fascinating, easy to follow, not jargon-laden. Practical techniques well explained. I’ve found it helpful and healthful.

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Fleming Rutledge). Profound examination of the event of the Crucifixion and the Biblical motifs related to it. Important contribution to never-ending topic.

The Disabled God (Nancy Eisland). An early approach at theology of disability. An important voice in an essential conversation. Challenging, with important insights.

The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Beth Allison Barr). Clear, detailed history showing Complementarianism as veneer for non-Christian patriarchy. Also personally examines the cost to the whole Church.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (David Epstein). Explores the advantages for those who have had diverse experiences in work, training and development, contra the “Laser-Focused” approach.

A Study in Emerald (Neil Gaiman). Graphic novel imagining Sherlock Holmes in the Lovecraft Cthulu mythos. A blast if you like either or both of those.

The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell). Amazing. Science-fiction, faith, religion, philosophy – all at once. Don’t read about it before you read it.

Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez). First book of a trippy graphic novel about a family, a house, and a wild set of keys. Fun read.

The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead). Beautiful and horrible, depicting life for boys on the edge in the Jim Crow South. I cried, and gasped. Actually.

What Is the Bible? (Rob Bell). I liked it. YMMV on his style, but his explanation of how to read the Bible is pretty solid. Worthwhile.

Ted Strong Jr.: The Untold Story of an Original Harlem Globetrotter and Negro Leagues All-Star (Sherman L. Jenkins). The inspiring life of a Negro League All-Star and Harlem Globetrotter which was almost lost to history. Joyous read.

The Prophetic Imagination (Walter Brueggemann). A reading of the Hebrew Scriptures which sees the prophets as divine agents of counter-culture. Brief but rich, must-read classic.

The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead). These both won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason. Again, beautiful and devastating. An alternate version of pre-Civil War America that casts new light on old horrors.

Four Lost Cities (Annalee Newitz). The author looks at current archeology to consider the forces that can make seemingly healthy cities and civilizations disappear.

A Burning In My Bones (Winn Collier). Authorized biography of beloved pastor/author/translator Eugene Peterson. Gave human scale to a larger-than-life figure, affectionately.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Bessel Van Der Kolk). Understanding trauma, how it affects body and mind, and the ways of healing that are restoring people. Profound and empowering.

From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution (Brendan Purcell). Purcell considers human origins from the discipline of philosophy, a fresh angle which offers fresh insights. Friendly to science and religion.

Klara and the Sun (Kazuo Ishiguro). A meditation on what it means to be human and our need for belonging. Joyful, sad, beautiful.

Tear Down These Walls: Following Jesus into Deeper Unity (John H. Armstrong). John is a personal mentor and inspiration who has committed himself to Christian unity. This is his latest work exploring that vision, and it is a beautiful expression of his mission.

Teacher, Educate Thyself

I expected to be writing more often than this by now. In the culture of the moment, it seems that everything is public, but I keep finding things that I want to say that I cannot share with the world. Things about my past that I cannot share because they are still too raw within me, and I cannot trust that I will say them with balanced wisdom. Things about my present that I am realizing are not yet mine to speak, because they are experiences shared with people with whom I am still building trust, or because I do not yet know how to speak about these moments and people without being trite. So, I’m not writing much.

The old saw from the lips of uncountable teachers is that they teach because it is in teaching that they learn – one of those humble-brag things we say to make it clear that we’re just like everyone else (but maybe just a little more intentional about it). The truth in the aphorism is that for the teacher willing to learn, there are usually opportunities in abundance. Learn about the topics we teach, but also humility, and humanity, and endurance, and patience, and kindness, and turning the other cheek, and forgiveness, and attentiveness to small victories, and the art of properly setting and managing expectations, and how there is no end to learning even when we think we have finally come to the end. And learning about ourselves.

As a teacher, I am still in the stage of learning far more than I am teaching. I’m not putting myself down, either. In the early days of a new setting, there is so much to learn about the context of one’s teaching. Every environment is unique, as is every learner. There is so much to take in, but even as that is happening we must begin to teach, out of the poverty of our immense limits. Everyone must always start, somewhere.

Skill sets

My job title is Family Teacher (or, one half of a Family Teaching Couple), and as I’m getting used to that I’ve been thinking about skill-building of late.  The teaching which is expected of me is entirely practical, not at all esoteric, and so if I am teaching effectively, the people I am teaching will be gaining skills, or deepening and sharpening skills they already possess.

During this last week I realized that I wanted to be intentional about observing the skills possessed by the women who employ me as teacher*.  In taking an inventory of what these women can do, and cannot do, and want to do, and would be enriched by learning to do, I am getting to know them; I can also (humbly, to be sure) begin to learn their past in seeing what they do and do not know how to do.

*I am finding it important to remind myself that I am in the employ of these women.  Funds which the state of California provides for their well-being are used to pay for my services, and if these women or their families find that I am insufficient to the task of being one of their teachers, then my services will cease.  We often identify ways in our relationships in which we are the superior, especially when we deal with people who have some sort of obvious limitations or weaknesses.  It is valuable for me to remember that my bosses are three women who have not been considered fully capable of living independently.  They have real power, and that is as it should be. 

During these first two weeks, there have been plenty of instances of people not getting their way, and showing their displeasure about that.  This is not unexpected, especially since new people (me, my family) change the dynamics of a household, and there is inevitable testing of one another.   A partial list of the ways I have seen people act in their displeasure during these weeks would include: crying, hitting, screaming, slamming doors, biting, tattling, spitting, throwing objects, kicking, swearing, whining, emptying drawers and closets, soiling ones’ self, tearing clothing, running away, and self-inducing vomiting.

I’m not going to tell you which of those things have been done by the women who reside in the house, and which have been done by my children, my wife, or me.  Trust me when I say there is more than a little bit of overlap.  As you read that list, there are probably a few items you nod knowingly at, some that you chuckle about, and some that hook you.  Maybe they make you recoil, or feel a catch in your throat, or feel disturbed.  Maybe you felt pity.  Maybe you felt superior.  I’ve felt all of those.

A couple days ago, I realized something, during a moment when one of the most jarring of these behaviors was going on.  The person doing this really unpleasant thing, which they really weren’t enjoying, which was debasing them and threatening to put the distance of judgment between me and them, was doing this thing because at some point it worked. At some time in this person’s life, this act had succeeded in getting them something.  Maybe they got the tangible thing they wanted.  Maybe they got attention. Maybe they got personal space.  Maybe they got momentary power over the person who had to clean up. But this person learned to do this thing because at some point it was how far they had to go to get something important.

Think about that.

Think about the most desperate thing you’ve done to get something important.

In that moment, I realized that I hope I can teach with this person long enough and well enough that they can learn a new way, a healthier way, to get what they want and need.  I hope I can help this person let go of some of their current skills.