Race, the Police, and a Dissertation. What was I thinking?

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Race Dissertation
The mess sat there on the table in between us. I had just spilled all of my struggles, frustrations, the emotional toll that was ravaging my heart, my spirit; all of it spilt right in front of us. Dr. Crumpton looked me in the eye and with both compassion and conviction she grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s pray.” I can’t even begin to tell you, but this was one of the most meaningful and even enlightening moments within my PhD journey to date.

I haven’t been very upfront or forthcoming with my dissertation topic, mainly because no matter who you’re talking to it elicits a wide range of emotion and opinion. It’s a controversial subject for a white man to talk about: racism–––but really only with other white people.

In the early summer of 2014 I decided that for my dissertation I would research and study systemic racism within the justice system. A few years earlier I had been impacted a great deal by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and her look at systemic racism within our prison system. My eyes were open, and in the words of the activists in this new Civil Rights movement, I became “woke.” I wanted to dive deeper into this subject, I wanted to explore more of its intricacies and nuance but instead of looking at the outcome (mass incarceration) I was more interested in looking at policing, which at the front line of the justice system is its the most visible representative.

Now before I go any further, a bit of a disclaimer. It is important to note at the outset that I do not have a complicated relationship with the police. This nagging interest was not borne out of strife nor experience. I have family who are police officers, friends who are police officers, have been protected by police officers, served in a church where we took care of and served police officers throughout the city in myriad ways–including as chaplains to the police department. This research is not a “hit job” on the “cops” but rather from a listening ear and a desire to understand.

This early, nagging question about policing and race took greater shape and focus after I read W.E.B. Du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk. “It wasn’t so much that black people were being dehumanized,” I thought, “rather they’ve never been seen as human at all by our policing systems and structures. They have remained as something ‘other.'” That was what I wanted to study. This what I wanted to test out to see if it held water.

And then Ferguson happened.

As the protests unfolded on tv and the police presence escalated while the nation watched, as the citizens of the city cried foul and the police strapped on riot gear and unleashed tear gas, I found myself wondering if this was really the right time to be studying such a phenomenon. I called my advisor (and now dissertation chair) Dr. Crumpton. “I can’t do this,” I told her. “This isn’t the right time to be studying something like this… it’s too raw, too emotional, to present tense.” “Take some time,” she told me. “Let it sit for a bit and see where you are, you’ve got more time to decide what you’re going to do. But know, that this is an important work.”

And then 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot by police while playing in the park…
and John Crawford III by the police in a Wal-Mart and the Grand Jury in Ferguson came back with the decision not to indict Officer Wilson.

My doubts only intensified. Not only to wondering if I could do this, but would researching such a subject even be possible in this climate?

Dr. Crumpton once again told me to take some time, let it sit for a bit and see where I am. But know, “this is an important work.”

As I began the year-long journey towards PhD Candidacy, I was caught in limbo. A piece of strategy that I wanted to employ, after talking to several other PhD graduates, was using my Candidacy research towards my dissertation. Knowing I could skirt the issue of policing in my candidacy, I decided to write about Du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk. That would be a safe decision, and perhaps open me up to new avenues of thought in race towards my dissertation, right?

My Candidacy paper was entitled: “The Negro and the Imago Christi: W. E. B. Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk”. In it I concluded that Du Bois is calling attention to the humanity of black people, arguing to gain their humanity in the eyes of the white world, for the presence of a soul, and countering against the theological and cultural positions of the day that black people were animals at best.

And all the while Walter Scott was shot by the police, and Freddie Gray, and Rekia Boyd, and Samuel DuBose, and Sandra Bland, and Mario Woods… and the list grew and grew.

I can’t do this. This is too much. I’ll never make it through this gauntlet. Can’t I write something different? Something emotionally easier? Something on servant leadership? This is a leadership studies PhD, who would say no to servant leadership?!

But it was too late. I had already ventured to far into the rabbit hole. The subject would not relent, it had pursued me and captured me. I was at its mercy.

Just before she prayed for me, Dr. Crumpton brought a spiritual angle to PhD studies that I hadn’t before considered. “Sometimes,” she said, “the dissertation topic is something that God reveals to you and calls upon you to study.”

Shit.

And you know, at the same time I think she’s right. I do have a sense of calling in this, and while the “what to” and “what for” are not necessarily clear at the moment, I do have a sense that something lay just beyond this.

Dr. Crumpton grabbed my hand and prayed for me. She knows that this is not only a difficult subject, but an already difficult journey has become that much harder as a result of this calling.

And so here’s where you, the reader, come in… I’m pretty sure this is outside of the norm for a PhD Candidate to ask, and it may sound strange but I need you to pray for me too. I am 8 months into my dissertation, 8 months into my research and the emotional toll of the subject has made for many sleepless nights, stress, anxiety, anger and tension in my heart and my head. I need your prayers, I covet your prayers, and I humbly ask for your prayers with both a sense of gratitude and a profound appreciation.

Grace + Peace be with you.

“Good Friday”

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blackWhat have we done?

Jesus, Son of God, have mercy upon us.

For He hangs up on the tree, the symbol of shame and humiliation, nailed upon the tool of torture and of control.

He hangs up on the tree for you.
He hangs up on the tree for me.

Fastened to the wood.

And His blood?

It pours.

Every last ounce drained for our transgressions.
Every drop squeezed out for our iniquities.

His blood,it pours.
It pours because of you.
It pours out because of me.
It pours.

“He was despised and rejected by mankind,” writes the prophet Isaiah. “A man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hid their faces.

“He was despised, and we held him in low esteem. But He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

“For he was cut off from the land of the living and assigned a grave with the wicked though he had done no violence, though there was no deceit in his mouth.

“He poured out his life unto death…”
poured out every last drop…
poured out every last ounce…
for you.
for me.

What have we done?

Today is Good Friday. I’ve always hated that designation… for what can be good about today?

What can be good about his torture?
What can be good about his shame?
What can be good about his humiliation?
What can be good about the Son of God agonizing away on the cross, his life slipping away?

“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering. Yet we considered him punished by God,”
stricken by him,
afflicted by him.

But he was pierced for our transgressions.
he was crushed
for ouriniquities;
the punishement that brought us peace was on him.

And by his stripes we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him…
every white lie,
every lustful thought,
every impure motive,
every arrogant action,
every deceitful scheme
every slanderous word
our sins. The Lord has laid on him… our sins.

The abuse you spew out on others…
our sins,
the gossip you spread around…
our sins,
the back biting and underhanded comments you speak about your boss, your neighbor, your friends, your pastors…
our sins… the Lord has laid on him our sins, the iniquity of us all.

For he has bore the sin of many, and made intercession for you… for me… for us… the transgressors.

As Paul writes in Colossians: [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth
visible and invisible
whether thrones, or powers, or rulers, or authorities;
all things have been created through him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Once.
Once you were alienanted from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior, your transgressions, your sins.

But now… Now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

For you,
For me,
For us.

As Christians, the cross is a sublime moment of unarmed truth and unconditional love manifest in the face of the catastrophic. It is here on this cross, on this tree, on this device meant to humiliate and execute, that God, our merciful God, our gracious God, our loving God, paid for our freedom and showed the perfection of his love for you… for me… for us.

Oh merciful God,
Forgive us.
Oh merciful God
Forgive us for what we have done and left undone.
Oh Son of God
Rescue us.
Rescue us now and at the hour of our death.
Amen.

It is finished.

Who Is On Your Spiritual Mt. Rushmore (Pt. 3)

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SpiritualMtRushmore
Each of us have a spark of identity within our being, placed there by God at the dawn of our existence. We can either smother that spark or gently tend to that spark in such a way that it can catch fire, ultimately expressing the true nature of who we are. I firmly believe that I am who I am because of how others have helped me tend to that spark of identity, expressing well my God given nature and identity.

Part 1 was about the “Founding Fathers” of my faith. In Part 2 was about the “Author” of my faith. Here in Part 3, I want to look at Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt created and set aside a great number of national parks and sacred spaces within our country that were left protected for future generations to explore. On one occasion while camping with the great conservationist John Muir in Yosemite, Roosevelt remarked, “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”

There’s a beauty and a connectivity with God that occurs in the wide open spaces. The freedom to wander, unencumbered and explore the vastness of who God is and how He interacts and plays and smiles and truly enjoys our company. There is a real freedom in Christ… and unfortunately we have all too often forgotten this and instead traded our freedom for the chains of legalism or traditionalism or fundamentalism. It’s constraining. It’s a yoke that Jesus never intended (“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”) For many of us, freedom is an afterthought, it is a pipe dream. We’re simply unable to find the wide open spaces, let alone be let loose in there. This is a process. It is a process that requires someone who can guide us and take us into the plains and valleys, someone who knows the terrain and can help us become more and more unencumbered as we go and truly live in the joy of relationship with Jesus–in the vastness of the wide open spaces.

**Just a side note, but an important one I think–the Hebrew word for salvation, which not coincidentally is the root of Jesus’ name, literally means to bring us into wide open spaces. Sort of brings a beautiful new idea to our understanding of Psalm 23 and others like it!

You see, we need someone who can introduce us to the vastness, the space; someone who can guide us and take us into the plains and valleys, the places where true awe occurs. For me, that guide was Dr. John Castelein.

Dr. Castelein was my advisor for my Masters program. We talked a lot about postmodernism, postmodern theology, the Emerging Church, LOST–yeah it was a big deal at the time! He guided my thinking into the vastness of what is and could be possible, never chiding or deriding any thought but encouraging me to think differently, think deeper, to go beyond and think graciously about myself and all that could be possible. Dr. Castelein showed me a different side of God, a God that was free from constraint–and perhaps most importantly that constraint was not synonymous with holiness.

Dr. Castelein sparked within me an insatiable curiosity teaching me that this was okay–and to be gracious in my curiosity with others, something I’m still learning to do well. He showed me that it was okay to ask questions about God–and gave me permission to do so–but even more so to ask questions of God. To talk to Him with doubts, fears, uncertainties, questions, and everything else under the sun. And that this is all okay. And in doing this, Dr. Castelein ushered me into the wide open spaces, far vaster and more beautiful than anything I had ever experienced… and there I saw God.

Mourning Our Collective Lack of Imagination

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Dream
What happened to our collective imagination?

I’ve read some remarkable stories of the Church being the Church throughout history, taking risks, and changing the world they inhabit. I’ve read of churches standing up to their elected and un-elected officials to challenge and thwart injustice. I’ve read of churches being secretive and subversive in atheistic countries working to not only reveal the God who is already present but to care for people and love their neighbors in beautifully sacrificial ways. I’ve read of churches working against the status quo to topple the entities that perpetuate a standard of evil no one has before noticed; who, with a spark of imagination, stepped up to ignite movements that not only announced the Kingdom but ignited something truly transformational in their context because of Jesus.

Yet somehow with the proliferation of social media as a deafening megaphone of personal success and victory, these stories feel few and far between in our present day American Church context. Why?

Have we somehow managed to short-circuit the collective imagination of the American Church? Have we somehow managed to short-circuit the collective imagination of our local communities?

Has the pendulum swung so completely to the other side that we land square in the realm of the individual versus the potential of the community? Have the egotistical needs/desires of the one truly outweighed the hopes and dreams of the many?

Robert Orben, the former speech writer for President Gerald Ford, once remarked: “We have enough people who tell it like it is, now we could use a few who tell us like it can be.” I wonder if we have lent our ear to the realist, to the deconstructionist, the devil’s advocate for a bit too long. I wonder if our collective voice has become one of pessimism and despair, pushing so hard against the grain of what is happening in the Church that doesn’t fit our personal preference/style that we we have flattened our imaginations. The Church has become the great piñata of late.

Where has our wonder gone, Church? Where has our wonder of God vanished to (or been banished to)? Have we stashed our collective imaginations and the power of the Holy Spirit working through us to accomplish all that we could ever ask or dream, off to the side in order to experience a more comfortable existence? When did safety and security become our priority? And when did the Church become the safety zone?

Our collective imagination, that imagination that once challenged us to take risks and step out in faith has been drained from our hearts and relegated to the jungle of the streets while we watch it dry up from the comfort of our seats. Why are we okay with this?

It’s past time for us to once again engage our imagination, to enlist our imaginations into what God is doing all around us and begin dreaming about what could be possible when we partner with him to bring heaven to earth.

A Long Walk With Pain | 02

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pain
*I wrote these reflections in late 2012 and early 2013 in the midst of a bout with chronic pain that ate away at me physically, mentally, and spiritually.

——

A few months ago I began what can only be described as A Long Walk With Pain. It ended after months of physical therapy to correct one problem, and surgery to remove a kidney stone the size of a grape*. Let’s just say I’m glad that’s over with.

I’ve taken some time to reflect on the months of perpetual, seemingly endless pain and at the same time wrestle with the question: Did God do this to me; was this His plan all along?

To say ‘yes’ to these questions in the midst of excruciating pain can, in some strange way, bring about a bit of relief. To say ‘yes’ gives you a figure to blame, a figure to curse, a figure to hate. There were numerous nights that I screamed into my pillow cursing God for inflicting me with writhing pain, that I cried out in agony wondering why he would torture me and ignore my pleas for relief. Had I done something to deserve this? Was there some unrepentant sin festering within that God was trying to show me?
Sleep was fleeting but my pain, abundant.

Recently I read a sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer written in 1940. Speaking on suffering he wrote:

“We can be certain that nothing can happen to us other than that which God has foreseen, wished, and promised.”

To drive Bonhoeffer’s larger point home, he’s saying that God in all of his sovereignty not only knows the suffering we will endure, but promises us that suffering and even goes so far as to wish that suffering upon us. The foreknowledge of suffering I can buy into, that God would promise suffering leaves me a bit unsettled, but that God would wish my suffering leaves me aghast! To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “So this is what God is really like, a Cosmic Sadist.”**

In the midst of our pain God becomes the easiest object of our scorn. And who can blame us, really.

As I launched verbal assaults at God in the dark of the night, wondering why He wouldn’t ease the pain, why He wouldn’t come quickly to the rescue, why he would inflict me with so much pain that 12 Vicodin a day couldn’t ease, I began to wonder what was his ultimate purpose for meting out this pain. I mean, there had to be a purpose, right? That’s what I’ve always been told… that’s what I’ve taught on Sunday mornings and in classes, “God has a purpose for everything.” It was in that moment that something profound happened, something that changed everything.

In the stillness of the night, after I had completely worn myself out, came the sweet, gentle, still small voice of God:
“I didn’t do this to you.
I would never do this to you.”

I wept.
Not at the realization that God wasn’t inflicting such a great pain. Not in knowing that he wasn’t, in fact, this Grand Cosmic Sadist. I wept because he was present.

In the midst of my suffering, in the midst of my pain, God was there. In fact, he had always been there… present. I just didn’t see him. I was blinded by my own anger and pain.

As we sit inside or outside of our pain, too often we would rather create a nice and neat little theology that leaves us the victims of a distant and detached God’s master plan–perhaps we’re the true sadists**–suffering at his hand instead of dwelling in the mysterious tension of a loving God and the perpetual presence of pain. I think we still have a lot of Deism and deistic tendencies to purge from our minds. All of these years later, we still wrestle with the Incarnation, with the reality that God came down to dwell among us, to be present with us, and he hasn’t left. God is not somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight, nor watching us ‘from a distance’***, God is here. Present. Now.

Standing on the other side of pain, I can say that all of the theologies of pain and suffering that fail to take into account the incarnation, that instead lazily present a God who creates and inflicts pain for His purposes, simply aren’t worth your time… and neither is that “god”. The comfort, the peace, the hope of restoration that God’s presence and his presence alone brings does more than anything else to silence the theories of a Cosmic Sadist who inflicts or wishes pain for his greater good. These are not the theologies nor theories of a loving God… they are the theories of a mad man.

It’s time to trade in the Cosmic Sadist brought about by our deistic tendencies for the real, present, incarnated God who reveals himself in Jesus. May the peace of Christ be with you… and may your eyes be opened to the realities that He is here and always has been.

* I’ve had a doctor tell me before that, “A beer a day will keep the kidney stones away!” Maybe it’s time to revisit that prescription…

** Lewis calls God a Cosmic Sadist in his book ‘A Grief Observed’, a collection of Lewis’ thoughts surrounding pain and suffering after the untimely death of his wife.

*** Thank you Fievel and Bette Midler.

A Long Walk With Pain | 01

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pain
*I wrote these reflections in late 2012 and early 2013 in the midst of a bout with chronic pain that ate away at me physically, mentally, and spiritually.

——

I’m numb.

It’s been this way since November really. Numb.

I can’t really feel much… except that I do… too much sometimes. I should really be a lot more numb than I have been, but I just don’t like the way it feels. So, I grit my teeth… a lot. I clench my jaw until it goes numb or until my teeth feel like they’re about to break in half. I shift around in my seat until I can’t sit any longer… and then I walk around, or lie down… And then I give in and go numb. It’s a terrible feeling to give in. On some level it feels like a failure of sorts, to give in, but in the moment it’s all I can bear. So I go and grab the big bottle of beautiful white pills: Vicodin, the prescribed drug of choice.

Chronic pain has never been something I’ve ever experienced first hand. Sure, I’ve been in pain before, but never an uncontrollable pain that lasts days on end absent of relief, without of course the beautiful white pills. As a pastor, I’ve visited people in their hospital beds and emergency rooms. I’ve walked alongside those who are dealing with all kinds of chronic, physical pain, I’ve sat at the bedside of the dying writhing in a pain that cannot be soothed until their last breathe is passed. Until now I’ve never really been able to catch a glimpse of what they were experiencing.

It was October when the pain began. November before I saw my first doctor. December before I saw a specialist. And now January I sit in wait hoping for just a bit of good news. Three months of pain that doesn’t take much of a break, except for the moments when I give in and grab the bottle of beautiful white pills. Unfortunately those moments are growing more and more frequent and I’m quickly watching the bottle dwindle.

I now understand how people get addicted to pain killers.

Pain has a way of wearing you down.
For a while I was able to ignore the pain. I sort of got used to it as a constant companion, a passenger in my daily routine. I did my best to “manage the pain”, but it doesn’t really ever go away. It’s always there, persistently eating away at you physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Days of incessant pain has a way of changing you. Frustration becomes your default attitude. Anger replaces your normal disposition. Patience is a distant memory and grace nothing more than a fairy tale. I’m pretty sure I’m not the easiest person to live with.

The mental fortitude required to live in pain is remarkable. It’s like running a marathon every day. The grind getting more and more unbearable with each passing moment. Which wears you down emotionally creating a rhythmic tide of highs and lows to ride throughout the day. It leaves you yelling at God, crying with God, wondering what God is trying to teach you throughout this whole thing… sapping every ounce of spiritual strength leaving you completely exhausted with nothing left to give. And when you have nothing left to give because the battle is so hard, your relationships suffer immensely. You long for sleep, the only place you can find peace. You long for more of the beautiful white pills, because at least they can take off the edge. But when your perpetual disposition is anger and frustration, not to many people want to be around you. The lonely prison of pain is only exacerbated.

I understand how people get addicted to pain killers.

Chronic pain is a seemingly unending cycle that grinds you into powder. I’m just hoping the wind doesn’t pick up.

The past 4 months have been a difficult run, it feels like my very own personal Job moment.. I’m thankful nothing has happened to my wife and daughter, that they have been spared the same fate as Job’s family–and I spared from that inconsolable of griefs, but I’m ready to move on.

I’m looking forward to emerging on the other side with a new perspective and a fresh outlook for what this life has in store.

One: A Dad Reflects on His Daughters First Year of Life

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First Year of Life

She turns one today. My little Elliot Grace is all grows’d up and she’s all grows’d up. I can’t believe her first year of life has already passed us by.

One year ago today, Elliot Grace entered the world and shattered my naiveté about fatherhood. Sure, I’d been brought up to speed about the untold sleepless nights, the endless crying, the difficulties of feeding, the moments when you simply cannot console your child. I’d been told the horror stories of tantrums and wails in the public square accompanied by the judgmental stares of strangers perched in their towers of superiority. Diaper blowouts at the grocery store that leave you in a lurch looking for the closest bathroom in which to hose her down, massive amounts of spontaneous spit-up that run down your freshly pressed shirt just as you’re about to head out the door, the first moment of defiance as she throws food in your face because she’s tired of eating pureed peas, the adjustment in friendships as you focus inward on your family for a season while attempting to discover this new rhythm of life; I was prepped for all of these moments and more.*

I was one of the privileged few fathers able to experience the joy and agony as a stay-at-home dad–sometimes both joy and agony occurred simultaneously, I think most stay-at-home parents can identify with this seemingly contradictory emotional state. I will never forget those first 10-months** but during that time I was confronted with something unexpected: myself. No one ever told me that day-in and day-out, as a parent, you would be continually confronted with yourself, with your own selfishness, with your own unmet desires and unfulfilled wishes, with the fact that you are continually forced to choose: her or me. Parenthood is a perpetual cycle of self-sacrifice and every day, if you pay close attention, you die just a little bit more to yourself as you give more and more of yourself to your child. It’s actually a beautiful image of the gospel taking root in your life.

There is nothing that I wouldn’t give for this little girl. There is nothing that I would not sacrifice to make sure that she is okay, that she feels safe, that she knows she is loved. There is nothing that I would not do to prevent her pain, to protect her, to make sure that she has everything she needs. And perhaps that has been the steepest learning curve: I do have the capacity to love another person more than myself.

In her short year of life, this little girl has changed my world teaching me more than I ever expected possible. She continually brings joy wherever she goes and has this tremendous ability to make people smile making friends with anyone and everyone—especially strangers who are instantly captured in her web of joy. She has such a vigor and excitement for life and an inherent love and concern for people. I look forward to watching her blossom into an amazing woman whom I have no doubt will leave this world a better place than before she graced us with her presence, for she has already changed mine.

* I was able to handle some of these moments with more grace than others… but I maintain that the older gentleman at the Whole Foods who stared at me over his glasses with such an air of arrogance and superiority while squawking, “could you please keep your child quiet?” totally deserved the over-the-top sarcastic-laden scolding I gave him. I will admit, watching him walk away deflated with his tail between his legs was quite satisfying. (Elliot approved too. She wasn’t even crying when the man entered into his momentary ignorance, she was just really exuberant and excited to be at Whole Foods learning about fresh produce.)

** I believe those 10-months solidified her as a daddy’s girl!