Proceed With Caution: National Division, President Trump, and Bull Run

bullrun3It is not lost on me this week that I live but a few miles from the site of the first battle of our civil war. No doubt the creek I stare at each day from my kitchen windows was once trod by both the blue and the gray; men who shared the kinship of country and yet also the enmity of war.

We like to think our current world is too refined, too developed, and too safe to see such sights again in this land. The violence that once tore this country apart and cost the lives of at least 1 million Americans is a mere memory and tale of the past.

But I can’t shake the image of those men and women of Washington society who packed up their picknicks one morning and headed out for a country carriage ride to watch what they assumed was just a mostly harmless chapter in the political debates of their age. What were they thinking that morning? What were they seeking?

An entertaining diversion? A laugh? An easy answer to the country’s problems? A sense of satisfying superiority against the other side?

One thing I know they weren’t expecting was the extent of the destruction, division, death, and chaos that followed.

There, on the very dawn of the bloodiest conflict that this nation has ever known, was just a group of refined men and women who thought they could have a little fun witnessing a skirmish of partisans and then go on with their lives unchanged. To them, on that morning, the reality of what that conflict so infamously became was foreign and unthinkable.

I believe we must be very careful in these times. Perhaps open war is still a distant or unlikely reality, but the nature of our divisions is stark and alarming. We must be on guard for the ways that we are increasingly coarsened to the callings of our common life, our common good, and our common virtue.

I see little point in trying to convince each other about our differences right now. What language can we even use with one another when we have our own sets of facts, our own headlines and news outlets, our own moralities, and our own truths?

There is no clear right in these confusing political times. At least not in the choices before us within this temporal kingdom. And if someone tells you they know for sure which side is best beware them most of all.

But what we can do in the midst of our conflict is choose empathy. What we can do is choose to see the inante dignity of all men and women, most especially within each person with whom we disagree. What we can do is choose first to listen and then, when the time is right and the message vital, we can choose to speak truth with love.

We can choose a path of caution. Caution with our protests and caution with our accolades. Caution with the battles we seek to wage and the swords we choose to draw. Caution with our words and our memes and our thoughts and our actions.

Lest one morning we wake up to laugh at twitter or duel on facebook or demonstrate in our streets only to find that our war of words has turned into something all the more darker, something all the more painful, something we can’t just take back, something we will all regret.

Originally published here on Facebook, January 19th, 2017.

How We Mourn: Grieving in a World of Division, Gossip, and Calls for Action

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Late last Fall I was watching Gretchen Carlson’s show on FoxNews one afternoon (a choice by default due to nap times) when a segment came on about the tragic murder of Amanda Blackburn and her unborn child.  I had heard about the case through a mutual friend on Facebook and prayed for her and the Blackburn family while she was in the hospital fighting for her life.  Naturally, I was interested in what they would say.  Carlson, a Woman of Faith guest speaker who is very open about her Christian faith, interviewed a fellow FoxNews legal analyst about the investigation.

The two, completely unprompted by any shred of known evidence, proceeded to besmirch the name of Davey Blackburn, Amanda’s husband and pastor of a local Indiana church.  They called into question the nature of his testimony as shared in a few national interviews.  They then suggested that his ability to publicly profess a calm hope in the midst of heartbreak was suspicious.

In fact, Carlson, who noted her Christianity in the segment as a sign of her understanding, went on to say that she couldn’t fathom how Davey could honestly have such peace in the face of overwhelming tragedy.  She suggested that his words of hope and perceived lack of emotion called into question the truth of his statements.  In the minds of these “Experts” this was reason enough to suspect him of involvement in his own wife’s murder.

Never mind that the police had already issued a statement publicly ruling him out of suspicion, never mind that less than a week after this segment aired the real killers were taken into custody and confessed.  To them, Davey Blackburn was a suspect of pure evil because his story was too good to believe.  Moreover, they had the audacity to suggest that we, as the general public, ought to think so too.

He was “analyzed” because the lies they wove and the gossip they created in this segment was more sensational and thereby more newsworthy than the goodness of God in response to evil articulated by Davey Blackburn. They didn’t care about truth or about the hope and peace offered by this courageous and faithful man.  They cared about themselves and their ratings.  With that recognition, I was done.  The TV went off and I never tuned into FoxNews again.

For those of you struggling to understand how to respond in the face of tragedy, for those of you questioning how to express hope in the midst of our dismal public discourse, for those of you tired of politicization and gossip who just want room to grieve and pray, this one is for you.

All people matter.∗  On one hand I think I shouldn’t have to say this.  Of course all people matter.  But if we are honest about ourselves, and honest about our sub-culture of choice, that is rarely how we act or speak.  People matter when we like them, when we agree with them, and when we understand them.  People matter when we can sympathize with them or when we look up to them.  People often do not matter to us when they look different than us, when they believe different things than us, or when they do or say something we cannot understand or condone.

Yes, someone may choose to do a terrible thing and they – like us all – will have a price to pay for their evil deeds.  These costs and consequences come in many forms, both temporal and eternal.  But the existence of justice does not change the fact that even our enemies, even the criminals who shoot and maim and kill, are people who matter.

God loves them all.  His grief is not just for the victims.  God’s grief is also for the tragedy of the perpetrators.  He grieves that their life’s purpose turned so contrary to His plan for their story.  He grieves the many ways that we hurt and wound one another as creations made in His image. God does not hate any soul and neither should we.

We may hate the evil in the world, we may grieve for the destruction left in its wake, we may need to enforce a painful consequence against another, but we are not to hate anyone.  Just like God, we grieve for all who are involved in the man-made tragedies of this life, the innocent and guilty alike. All people matter.

Human dignity demands respect for truth.  In the era of 24-hour cable news and internet reporting there is little room for patience in how we interpret tragedies.  Given that most of our news outlets have dismissed reporting in favor of endless analysis, the tendency toward rumors, slander, and gossip (like the FoxNews story on Davey and Amanda Blackburn) runs rampant. It brings us all to low places in our thoughts and words.  I think gossip is one of the most undiscussed yet pervasively  destructive sins in our culture today.

Gossip is not only talking about others without their knowledge or using information about others and their circumstances for our personal gain, but it is about projecting motives or thoughts upon others in a way that transcends our personal knowledge of the situation.  Gossip is talking in an underhanded or unkind way about people we know or about total strangers, often with the intention to wound or suppress.

Because gossip distorts truth and has the potential to hurt and ruin lives, it undermines the innate dignity of humanity.  So much of the way we take in, receive, and relay information about news, be it personal or public, quickly devolves to this low level.

Therefore, when in doubt stay silent.  This is hard to do given the reactionary platform of social media that most of us carry in our pockets and purses everywhere we go. But the fact remains that we don’t need to have an opinion on everything, and we certainly don’t need to publicly express those opinions every time we encounter an opportunity to do so.

I know some charge that silence in the face of tragedy is a sign of disrespect or lack of engagement in the world’s atrocities.  But I suppose the question to ask is, what kind of silence is it? Sometimes the wisest course of action when met with tragedy, apart from prayer and offering condolence, is to remain quiet and leave room for those impacted to grieve. Truth takes time to be revealed in this messy world, and often special or personal knowledge is required for an event or a choice to be correctly understood.

We each encounter many situations in life where we will never know all the facts required in order to speak with authority and certainty about another person or their actions.  We should be cautious in our response to pain and controversy.  Because all people matter, the way we talk and think about them matters too.  Human dignity demands respect for truth.

No one is defined by how they die. It is easy in this world that glorifies the gruesome to view how someone dies as an integral part of their identity.  To do so belittles our personhood and ignores the truth Christians claim regarding the eternal nature of all human life.  Everything that comes before and everything that comes after death is what matters most.  Our deaths, and particularly their means, are mere footnotes to our entire glorious story.

I am not defined by either my most embarrassing failure or my most amazing triumph.  Our eternal beings are a totality of life in both this world and the next.  While it can be hard to remember this perspective, and it is certainly not our place to render the eternal judgement reserved only for God, I think we are each called to look to the entirety of a person’s existence, as best as we know and understand.

Were you kind or righteous on this earth? Did you know and give love? Or did you hurt and use and abuse?  What about after death?  How will you respond when you stand before Jesus and see Him face to face?  These are the questions that matter most.  The way that we leave this world is not the be all and end all of our existence.  No one is defined by how they die.

Hope is real.  It was shocking for me to hear Gretchen Carlson, a woman supposedly so matured in the faith, unable to recognize the peace and hope God gifts to us in in the face of evil when expressed so poignantly by Davey Blackburn.  I am sure he sobbed and cried out to God in private those days following his wife’s death.  He probably still cries when grieving for his tremendous loss.

But he also knows that the pain wasn’t pointless and it wasn’t the end.  He knows what all Christians are meant to claim.  For all the unanswered questions, for all the tragedies of life, and for all horrific acts of violence this world has to offer, we have a profound reason to find peace and healing in the forgiveness and salvation of Jesus Christ.

The awesome truth of Christianity is captured in the hope of a future where there will be no more mourning and no more pain as we worship before the throne of the Lord.  Hope and faith is comprised of our assertion that a future eternity with God is real and that this reality is more beautiful than any joy or delight found on this earth.  Once reunited with our Savior, the purpose of hope and faith are fulfilled and only love remains in its fullest and most complete form. There we shall dwell together shrouded in this love for all eternity.

Some evil is just too awful for us to comprehend a response or know what to say.  That’s why God gives us His words, even when those words come out as groans and silent yearnings in the Spirit.

I believe the Holy Spirit gave me words to remember Christina Grimmie, just as he gave Davey Blackburn the words to remember his wife, so that He could point all of us to the place from whence the shadows fall.  When God uses you for such a powerfully important task, be it person to person or on national TV, it is moving, humbling, and life changing.

Testifying of His goodness in the face of darkness is a miraculous way to embody the message of the Gospel.  It is a working out of the promises God expresses to all of us each time we spot a majestic rainbow after a storm.  Hope is real.

Grieving is enough.  Our culture likes to put emphasis on doing and achieving and not quite as much on simply being.  The temptation when faced with life’s tragedies, big or small, is to feel like we have to “do something” in order to give meaning to the pain.  While calls for action in the face of evil can lead to good things, like sending flowers or donating blood, they can also distract from the heart of the matter.

When the unspeakable occurs, where there is heartbreak and sorrow, there is often very little that can be done to make it better or help the pain disappear. I think this is where our discourse goes astray.  The minute we try to fix the heartbreak in order to give a tremendous loss some kind significance, we belittle the most important calling and response available to us: grief.

Grief doesn’t have to do, it can simply be.  Grief sits beside you while you cry, often in silence.  Grief gives space and time and opportunity to feel the pain.  Grief lets us each process what has occurred in our own ways and in our own time.  Grief walks forward while still acknowledging a loss.

I understand why so many look for answers in the form of social action or public debates, especially in a world that struggles to recognize as truth messages of hope spoken in the midst of grief.  And there may be room, in time, in certain circumstances, to seek action in some way to prevent further evil.  But the immediate aftermath of any tragedy is rarely a time to fix, rather it is a time to feel.

In reality, when faced with wounds created by a great evil, no amount of fixing will ever be full enough to infuse sense into the senseless.  We shouldn’t belittle the importance of grieving, even when that grief is silent, for the sake of some greater “cause.” The cause of remembrance, fellowship, and condolence is sufficient.

Because hope is real, we can grieve with hope.  To do so, in and of itself, is a powerful and consuming act.  Grieving with hope asks us to live within the tension of the already and the not yet.  We can affirm that hope is real and yet still find the losses of today difficult to bear.  Picking ourselves up in the face of tragedy to walk onwards with hearts full of sorrow, yet choosing to remain faithful still, is one of the most powerful forms of Christian witness gifted to man.

In order to give tragedy purpose in our life or the lives of others we don’t need to do any more than what each traumatic situation begs of us in order to bring about healing.  We mourn by acknowledging that all people matter and that human dignity demands respect for truth.  We heal by proclaiming that no one is defined by how they die and that hope is real.  Grieving is enough.

 

∗ This is not in any way, shape, or form a reference the #AllLivesMatter vs #BlackLivesMatter media “debate”.  It is a statement of fact regarding the foundational human dignity and worth of human life that undergirds our society.

Out of a Silent Place

We live in an age where volume matters.  Speak a lot and speak often and you will be heard.  Twitter and other social media outlets might encourage brevity of thought, but they do so with a necessary reliance upon a high frequency of broadcasts.  The more you post, the more often you keep things fresh and new, the higher the likelihood that you will attract a following.  Silence spells the death of your presence, your following, and your voice.

But can this need for noise be damaging?

Perhaps you have also taken notice of the interesting twitter phenomenon of stars pledging to stop tweeting for charity.  No, you don’t get to donate money for them to shut down their accounts, as lovely of an idea that might be to some of us.  You actually are asked give your cash to some cause until X dollars are raised with the promised reward of returning the celebutante’s vapid content to the tweet stream that much faster.  Heaven help us if we don’t know what the star of E!’s latest reality TV show is thinking at hourly intervals!

As I am not one to regularly chastise philanthropic efforts, no matter how inane, oddly manipulative, or misguided the means of fundraising may be, I applaud the willingness of the stars to “use their fame” for something other than purely shameless self promotion.  But is this really what our society, our communal networking, and our “relationship” building has come to?

We are losing all sense of the need for proper silence in our culture.  As a result our journalistic integrity, our potential to produce social sages of value, and our communal ability to identify and listen to voices of true wisdom are all severely hindered and in danger of extinction.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his early work Life Together, penned:

The mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community.  Silence and speech have the same inner correspondence and difference as do solitude and community.  One does not exist without the other. Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech.

We must value such a right silence and the words of those who seek it.  It is hard to imagine what some of the greatest minds in history would have done if faced with the rapid means of communication we have today.  Perhaps some, like good ole Benjamin Franklin and his amorphisms made famous in Poor Richard’s Almanac, would be just as influential, if not more so, than they ever were in the eras of quills, print shops, and engravings.

But what concerns me is the following query: which voices might have been lost amid the chatter?  Wit and depth are not guaranteed to be one and the same and often deep thoughts take time to formulate and some length to express.

So I wonder, which of those great men and women whose shoulders we stand upon today might never have been heard if they were living in our age of 140 characters or less?   Who might have been left out if they were expected to produce something new and clever, not just every week, but every day, or even every hour, in order to be deemed “relevant”?

Certainly these issues touch on larger cultural shifts such as a lessening of our attention span and our drift into becoming what I would call a post-literate society.  But what I want you to consider, perhaps as a starting place to address these broader concerns, is where there might be room in your life and community to encourage a right silence and thereby inspire a right speech.

We cannot forget that a vital part of being active and vocal members of our communities is to, on occasion, be silent.  Sometimes this might mean being silent at the dinner table or seeking periods of solitude for prayer and reflection upon the Word of God.  Other times this might mean stepping away from the microphones of our lives; be they blogs, status updates, tweets, or perhaps for some amongst us even speeches, interviews, or leadership roles.

There can, of course, be wrong ways to be silent or approach solitude.  When I was in high school a classmate a few years ahead of me infamously pledged to not speak for a year and upon his successful completion of the task ended up on several talk shows to share his “enlightenment” from this experiment with the world.  I still wonder at whether much good came from this stunt to him or to others.  Our silence must not come out of selfish motives but from a genuine desire to be strengthened through the silence in order to build up the community that we are already a part of.  As Bonhoeffer clarified:

One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.

Silence can be just as powerful as speech, for both good or ill.  Yet this relationship between right speech and right silence is one we would do well to mind. As we live in very interesting times, we are in desperate need of voices who can offer a hurting and groaning world the right words in the right moments.

So let us not forget, even amidst the seemingly unstoppable waves of technological development and addictive reliance upon social media, that for every right speech there must also be a right silence.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak…

Ecclesiastes 3:1,7

This essay was originally posted in a slightly different version on my tumblr blog on June 25, 2011.