Whatever Happened to Compassion?

Maybe it’s just because I’m from Pittsburgh, but I’ve been following the case of Antwon Rose Jr. pretty closely. Rose, 17,  was gunned down by a rookie police officer as he and another young man fled from a jitney (look it up!). This morning, the other young man was arrested and there is reason to believe that the two young men may have been involved in an attempted drive-by shooting. All of the facts have yet to emerge.

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Last week, KDKA, Pittsburgh’s CBS affiliate released on a story on Facebook saying that there was video of Rose’s involvement in the nearby shooting in question and that gun shot residue was found on his body. KDKA would go on to share a report from the police that there was no such video and that no residue was found on Rose’s body. Still, the damage was done. This was the justification that people needed to say that the boy had it coming. Actual quotes from KDKA’s Facebook page included:

“If he was innocent, he wouldn’t have been running”

“He got what he deserved!”

“Why keep showing his 14 year old picture? He was a 17 year old criminal!”

Ummm… 17 year olds are, last I heard, still minors. A 17 year old is a kid. Antwon Rose Jr., all accounts, was a good kid. And maybe in recent months he fell in with a bad crowd, facts aren’t all in, but does that mean he deserves to be dead?

I have a pretty solid “don’t read the comments” policy, but I couldn’t look away from the inhumanity I was seeing. It was mean-spirited. it was racist. It was dehumanizing.

And at the end of the day, a 17 year old boy is still dead.

It’s not just that I have been a 17 year old who did stupid things. I did. It’s also that I am raising people who will be 17 one day and might eventually do stupid things. They will. A mother, a family, and a community are grieving. What gives people the gall to go online and call this young man a criminal? How does a 17 year old deserve to be executed at the hands of the state for something they are suspected of having done? How is “the cop was just doing his job” justification for the loss of a life full of potential?

Where is the compassion?

Without getting too deep into etymology, “compassion” literally means “to suffer with”. In our culture, we go to great lengths to avoid suffering, let alone suffering alongside another. It is so much easier to vilify, demean, and dehumanize. We don’t want to sit in the same space as the heartbroken family or the enraged community that is tired of watching boys be snuffed out before they reach manhood. It’s easier to be hardhearted. The pain of others is inconvenient. I have enough of my own suffering. Besides, who even cares about “those people”.

Have you noticed lately how our administration has been doubling down on dehumanizing language when it comes to immigration? The members of the gang MS-13 have repeatedly been referred to as “animals”. It’s an old tactic. Black people have been continually compared to beasts in this country to ensure that we are kept in our proper place. But dehumanizing actions follow dehumanizing language. Always. Children being separated from their parents mimics the practices of factory farming. Children being herded into cages is fairly self explanatory. We see them as less than and therefore can justify our treatment of them.

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And yet…

What atrocity would make me feel my home country? Don’t get wrong, I think more and more about leaving all the time, but what horror would I have to experience to actually pack up my children and move to an unknown land? How desperate would I have to be? How could that be seen as anything but a last resort? We have lumped all immigrants together with the criminal element represented by the few. The idea of the United States as a place where people could come in search of a better life is one of our foundational myths, and yet, more and more, we have decided that there is no longer enough of what this country has to offer to share with everyone.

Where is our compassion?

The Supreme Court decided this morning to uphold the administration’s travel ban from predominantly Muslim countries. In the name of national security, we’ve closed the door on people from nations that our policies helped to destabilize. It’s beyond compassion-less, it is cruel.

When it’s all said and done, I believe compassion to be the most Christ-like of virtues. I don’t know how a nation calls itself “Christian” without a base level of empathy and understanding for both those who suffer within and those who suffer beyond our borders. The recent calls for “civility” in our public life ring hollow in the ears of people tired of watching those in power use what they have to make the lives of the weak even more miserable. Civility is not a Christian value. Compassion most certainly is.

We can not continue on like this. The pain of grieving mothers, detained children, and separated families must become our pain. There is no room for apathy, no space to turn a blind eye. We must continue to cultivate warm, pliable hearts that break at those things that break God’s heart, namely the mistreatment and abuse of our fellow human beings. Daily we need to choose to soft hearted in a world designed to make our hearts hard. Daily we need to choose to be open in a world that tries to close us off from one another. Daily we need to choose to suffer with our brothers and sisters in a world that encourages looking out for “me and mine”.

Daily, we need to choose compassion.

 

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What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?

Can I admit something?

I’m not doing well.

The last couple of months have taken their toll on me and it’s all just beginning to hit me.

My therapist once famously told me, “You don’t have the infrastructure for emotions”. That was early in our therapeutic relationship. Since then, I think I’ve at least developed a dirt road and perhaps an aqueduct for my emotions. But what she was getting at is that I’m really bad at feeling things. I’m bad at feeling good things like love and happiness. I’m bad at feeling “bad” things like anger and sadness. Because of that, the “bad” things often turn into depression and the good into… well… seeming underwhelmed.

On the receiving end of my denomination not restoring me to good standing, my job “accepting my resignation” (a euphemism that I’m really growing to hate), and wrestling with the realities of job hunting including being rejected for things for which I am overqualified and realizing that I don’t have another paycheck coming my way anytime soon, I’m starting to realize that I have gone back into my old survival mode of numbing. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had some outbursts. I cried violently on the night my “resignation was accepted”. But my general mode of operation in the world right now is numbness. Numb enough to survive. Numb enough to make the kids lunch or dinner. Numb enough to water plants without really taking care of the garden. Numb enough to submit resumes without writing cover letters.

Numb isn’t my best look.

The thing is, I’m choosing numb over anger. Because the truth is, I’m furious right now. I’m mad at people, mad at God, and of course, mad at myself. Really mad at myself for letting my life get to this point. Again.

And I’m bad with anger. Really bad. I’ve never wanted to be the “angry black guy”, despite the fact that I often am and with every right. I push anger down until explodes. I’ve gotten better at that, but the last couple of months have been so extreme that a lot of my old bad habits have picked in like auxiliary batteries. Default settings: suppress emotions.

My wife is doing a sermon series on Mr. Rogers and as I was thinking about what I wanted to write, this song came into my head:

I wish I knew what to do with the mad that I feel. In the past, I’ve dealt with my anger in some really unhealthy ways. I know I need to do something, but I’m not really sure what that is. I know I can’t keep it bottled inside of me. I see what that’s doing and it’s not good. Maybe the answer is just to throw myself more into my garden. Maybe I need to be writing more. Maybe I need a more physical outlet. I don’t know.

What I do know is… I’m not doing well. And I need to do something with all of this mad…

Really, NFL???

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To read it on the NFL’s website, the league made a grand compromise in creating their 2018 national anthem policy? The agreement? Any player who kneels during the anthem will cost their team a fine. Not the player, the team! And what did the players get? Well if they really want to protest, they can just stay off the field while the anthem is being played.

Really???

To be sure, this is no compromise. This is the NFL ownership reminder the players that they sign their paychecks. The only person who can really make a difference on this issue now is an owner with integrity enough to pay the fine incurred by a protesting player without punishing said player…

… yeah, you won’t catch me holding my breath waiting for that one!

In sports, there is no greater insult that can hurled than that you’re “hurting the team”. That’s the psychology being used here. A player’s actions will now reflect as a mark on the team instead of being an individual act of free speech. Players who violate the policy will be labeled as “selfish”. It’s the one thing no one wants to be called in the ultimate team sport.

What really pisses me off about this is that Trump will play this as a win. And he’ll be right. His interference was likely the catalyst that got this issue to move. In reality, this should make everyone angry. It should anger those of us who care about free speech, speaking truth to power, and protest, and it should anger those pro-business folks that the highest office in the nation can be used to manipulate a private company’s policy. Sure, that kind of thing is okay in Mother Russia, but… I’ve said too much…

So that’s it, sports fans! The NFL has likely succeeded in silencing their players in this particular way. I doubt we’ll see much kneeling this season and the players who decide to stay off of the field will be ignored.

But players are smarter than they are given credit for. The ones who care about what is happening on our streets and in their communities will continue to set up foundations and non-profits, speak up in interviews, and find other ways to make their presence felt.

And Colin Kaepernick is still out there. This latest move by the NFL functionally ends his career. To many in the NFL, he is a martyr and the symbolism of his martyrdom shouldn’t be overlooked. There will be others who strike out from within the league to speak for justice. There will be others willing to face career suicide because he went before them.

And let’s not forget the fans. The assumption that the NFL was made was that their ratings were down because of players protesting. This ignored the downward trend that ratings had been on several years before Kaepernick became a household name for what he did off the field. I think the league is in for a rude awakening. This move will ostracize far more fans than kneeling players did and they aren’t the type of fans who are likely to come back. They’re the type who are tired of being silenced and seeing others silenced. They’re the type who will find their entertainment elsewhere. They’re the type whose values go beyond paying lip service respect to country and service. The league may soon learn how costly it is to double down on intolerance…

Update: Well, I’ll be damned! The chairman of the New York Jets has come out publicly and said that he will pay his player’s fines if they decide to protest. Christopher Johson had this to say: “If somebody [on the Jets] takes a knee, that fine will be borne by the organization, by me, not the players. I never want to put restrictions on the speech of our players. Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand if they felt the need to protest. There are some big, complicated issues that we’re all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines. I don’t want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won’t. There will be no club fines or suspensions or any sort of repercussions. If the team gets fined, that’s just something I’ll have to bear.”

I am shocked! I’m not pleasantly surprised very often, but this definitely counts. Good for Mr. Johnson. I hope that other team officials will follow suit.

 

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What’s wrong with me?

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I’ve been asking myself that question since Saturday…

“What’s wrong with me?”

On Saturday I resigned from my position. I won’t here go in to detail as to what made it feel necessary. I didn’t actually think it would come to this. I was as surprised as anyone.

I cried on Saturday night. It was the long, ugly cry that I had been waiting for since finding out that I would not be renewed to good standing. I’ll confess that it was an alcohol-fueled cry. I thought finally crying would be cathartic. It wasn’t. All it did was bring all the layers of pain that I have been feeling to the surface. I felt rejected and abandoned. I felt worthless and replaceable. I felt a little crazy. I still do.

I don’t actually feel like I know how to be in the world right now. I don’t know what if anything I have to offer. I know I have family and friends who love me. I know have kids who need me and that keeps me from doing anything rash… but I don’t know what my place is. I don’t know if I have a place.

Why can’t I just get my shit together?

Why did I have to fuck everything up in the first place?

When do I get to stop feeling like such a failure?

I ask all of those questions rhetorically. They don’t have real answers, not ones that would satisfy me anyway. What I have right now is a deep sense of my own inadequacy. There are some who will say “that’s a good thing”. Such a person might go on to tell me how God’s strength is perfected in my weakness. Such a person can go kick rocks! I don’t believe in a God who wants me to feel what I am feeling right now.

I feel lost and I have for a solid month now. I feel completely disoriented. My whole world has been built around the church for so long. I see people having milestones in their ministries and I hate them for it. I can’t be around church talk for long before I get agitated. I want to rage at the systems and people that are making me feel this way.

But then… I come back to my original question.

See, no one is “making” me feel this way. I feel this way. Because I’m not spiritually mature enough? Because I’m not integrated enough? Whatever… it’s because I’m deficient. That has been the clear message of the last month. I am not enough.

Of course, I don’t believe that. Not fully, anyway. It’s taken so much work to differentiate myself from my professional identity, to realize that my worth is not in what I do. But that gets harder to believe when no one seems to want you to do what you do around them.

And yes, maybe that means I need to find a new thing to do. But I used to be really good at what I did. Or at least I felt like I was. People told me I was. I’ve lost that too.

Please don’t read this as wallowing. I will pick myself up. I have to. I have four little people that need me to do so. In some ways, I am stronger than I have ever been. One day these feelings will be distant images in the rearview.

Right now? Right now I’m tired. I’m angry. I’m sad…

…and I’m wondering what’s wrong with me…

What Do I Do Now?

The first thing I ever wanted to be was a pastor.

That’s weird, right?

Not a fireman, not an astronaut, not a kangaroo.

A pastor.

Though that ambition changed over time, when I came back to it in my twenties, it was in one of those moments when I audibly heard the voice of God asking me “what was the first thing you ever wanted to do?”. From that point on, a path seemed clear.

Yesterday, Pittsburgh Presbytery decided that they would not restore me to good standing. While not outright stripping me of my ordination, it returns me to a state of limbo where I could one day seek restoration again if I so chose to subject myself to this process again.

I know what I did was wrong. I had a relationship with a parishioner, one of the cardinal no-no’s in ministry. And it cost me. It cost me my family, my dream job, my reputation. And it hurt lots of people. People in the church, my family, people at my work.

But from the time I self reported until yesterday there was always talk about grace, restoration, “God’s not done with you yet”-language. There was always hope. Yesterday that hope was dashed. Even my ex-wife, the person hurt most by my actions, was saddened by the news.

I’m glad that I don’t believe the things about myself that were written in the discernment committee’s report. They painted this picture of this unrepentant monster, who lives blissfully unaware of the lives impacted by his decisions. They took shots at my character and my family. They used my honesty against me and questioned my spiritual maturity. Most importantly, they ignored the recommendations of people who know me best and made decisions based on their subjective impressions instead of on the objective steps I’ve taken to get my life back in order. It was among the most hurtful experiences of my life. I don’t understand how this presbytery, which at the last GA made a public stand on doing ministry to black men could so callously throw me away. I mean… I do understand… it just hurts.

I don’t know what to do now. My life as a Presbyterian minister is likely over. I could switch denominations, but that’s not a move I consider lightly. Also, I’m disgusted with the institution right now, and I don’t know how I feel about exchanging one set of hypocrites for another. I don’t know what I’m gonna do…

The first thing I ever wanted to be was a pastor.

I spent most of the last two decades working toward that end in some form or another.

Now it’s all gone.

What am I supposed to do now?

Is this fast sustainable?: Seven things I observed this Lent.

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This year for Lent I knew I wanted to do something revolving around food. A few years back I gave up meat for Lent and I considered doing that again. I also considered giving up, sugar, alcohol. processed food, and fast food. After careful consideration, I decided that I wasn’t so much seeking a discipline of what I eat, but of how I eat. i wanted to think more deeply about the sources of my food and the impact that my eating had on the community that surrounds me. So, I did a Lenten discipline of eating locally sourced food when I could and when not possible, to make sure that what I was eating was organic.

  1. Fast food is out! Most major chains were eliminated as well. Chipotle was the only big chain that has much reliable information about how they source their food. Baja Fresh and Panera Bread were also reasonable options, but I virtually had no options with a drive thru window. Though not surprising, it did give me pause to think about where these chains that serve millions of people get their produce and meat and the scale of agricultural businesses required to provide for that kind of demand. It’s frightening to think about.
  2. Cha-ching! My options were primarily limited by what I was willing to pay for. I suppose that’s always true, but it was interesting to note that very few things were off the table. Locally, we have MOM’s organic market. Not only is it a great source of local vegetables and meats, it has a wide range of organic, fair trade, and locally sourced snacks, frozen foods, and value added items. The major difference between shopping at MOM’s and any other grocery store was the price tag. Everything was just a bit more expensive which added up when you finally got to the cash register. Still, I can’t really argue that I was deprived of anything.
  3. Drink up! During Lent I also endeavored to keep my beverages local and/or organic. For coffee, seeing as how Baltimore is in no way tropical, that meant going organic. Again, only a hardship at the cash register. But for my adult beverages, I can’t say that I made much of a sacrifice. It seems like there are hundreds of breweries within a fifty mile radius of me and more than a few distilleries. I probably could have done a bit more sleuthing about how my local booze providers sourced their ingredients, but I contented myself with keeping money circulating in the local economy on my end.
  4. Alienation. There were two moments early in Lent that were more than a little isolating. The first was when I made a pot of spaghetti for the kids then a second pot of “organic” spaghetti for me. By the time mine was finished, the kids were ready to run away from the dinner table. Organic spaghetti for one, please! The second was similar, a taco night when I had different shells, meat, and cheese than the rest off the tribe. As Lent went on, more and more of the family’s everyday products became organic and I didn’t have to feel like I was on a “special” diet, but it did make me think of how lonely it can feel to not eat what everyone else is eating.
  5. Finding Farmers. When Lent began, I had grand aspirations about going to visit farms, getting to know the animals I was going to eat, and making lifetime friendships with the people who work so hard to food on our tables. It didn’t seem all that ambitious at the time, but it never materialized. In part, I blame the weather. Our Lenten weeks were among our coldest and grayest of the year. I confess to losing motivation to visit farms during the wind and snow. The other thing is that farmers are generally invisible when it’s not farmers’ market season. Now “invisible” is often more about what you choose to see, but in my normal day to day, I don’t pass many farms. Now that we are actually entering farmers’ market season (THANK GOD!!!!), I do plan on being a bit more diligent about my grand ambitions to make friends with farmers.
  6. Pretentious? More often than feeling like I was making a sacrifice, I often just felt like I was being bougee. (boujee? bougie? whatever). Let’s face it, the food I ate during this period was better quality, more expensive, and harder to find. There is an air of class superiority in places like MOM’s that I think goes unspoken but is very real. Again, this is part of why I want to see the healthier side of our food system more democratized. You shouldn’t have to pay extra to make sure your beef isn’t pumped with antibiotics or that your broccoli hasn’t been doused in pesticides.
  7. Read the signs. The final thing I will say about eating “organic” is that not all organic is created equal. The USDA is continually easing the restrictions on what is considered “organic”, so much so that Wal-Mart is the largest supplier of organic meat and vegetables in the country. At the same time, many local farmers who use organic and sustainable practices aren’t willing to pay the expense for the official USDA certification. If given the chance, I would rather buy from a farmer I know than to buy a certified organic tomato that had to be transported 2000 miles to get to me, especially since transportation is where most of the fossil fuels are used in industrial agriculture.

As Americans, we’re addicted to cheap food. We spend the smallest percentage of our income on food of any developed country in the world. And, generally speaking, we get what we’ve paid for: diabetes, obesity, hypertension, bland strawberries flown in from South America, and pineapples in places where they are not native. The bottom line for me is that we could eat in ways that are better for our health, better for our communities, and better for the planet if we were just willing to pay a bit more. My faith asks me to love my neighbor, and if loving my neighbor means paying a bit extra for produce, isn’t that worth it?

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Do I Have a Green Thumb?

Over the weekend, I was presenting a paper. Surprising no one, that paper was on creation care and the importance of growing our own food. I think it was fairly well received and the group that was assembled had a robust conversation abut it as we did with all the papers that were shared. I didn’t get much push back on the content of my paper, but one of the places I did get some resistance caught me off guard. I made the assertion that everyone can grow something. Some of us tend to overwater; maybe start with tomatoes. Some of us tend to under-water. Try oregano. Everyone can grow something, I said somewhat confidently.

Wrong!

At least that’s what I was told. A lot of people take a murdered a houseplant or an unproductive zucchini as a sign that we just can’t grow anything. The accompanying assumption, then, is that those of us who can and do maintain gardens have a magical ability, colloquially referred to as a “green thumb”. For some reason, this idea really rubs me the wrong way.

The assertion that I have a green thumb has been made by several of my friends who have seen pictures of my garden on social media. I think I can safely say that it is always meant as a compliment. Accompanying that compliment to me though is an unspoken admission that they can’t do what I do. Actually, it’s not always unspoken. Some people explicitly state their inability to grow things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “I kill everything” by people around me.

Besides generally wanting to avoid people who “kill everything”, I take issue with the idea that there is some special ability that some of us have to make things grow. I’ll admit, I’ve fallen prey to this line of thinking. When I think of “green thumbs”, I think of my grandmother. She had this E.T.-like quality to resurrect seemingly dead flowers. She also had a special batch of side-eye ready for you when she returned the revived plant to health. But what my Granny had wasn’t magic. It was knowledge.

Part of why I hate the idea of having a green thumb is that I hate the idea that being able to grow things makes me special. There was a time in human history where the inability to grow things was a death sentence. We’ve accepted, as a matter of progress in fact, that that knowledge is no longer a thing we need to possess. I think that is incredibly tragic!

I’ve likely killed as many plants as I’ve grown. I’ve also grown plenty of things that haven’t produced fruit. The thing is that with every attempt to grow something, I learn something. As kids we’re taught that plants need water and sunlight. What we’re not told is that certain plants need more water than others and certain need more sun than others. Some need lots of fertilizer. Some grow well together and some don’t. This isn’t stuff I know intuitively by virtue of my noble bloodline. It’s knowledge I gained through study, trial and error, and luck.

Yeah, luck is a part of it. As a gardener, some things are out of our control. Two years ago, I couldn’t keep up with all the zucchini that was growing in my garden. Last year, I couldn’t grow a zucchini to save my life, but I had tons of tomatoes. Turns out the heavy rainfall that was making my tomato plants so happy was likely rotting the roots of the summer squash. Things I don’t control include rainfall.

As I write this, the merger of Monsanto and Bayer continues to move forward. It’s been approved by the European Union and was recently approved by the U.S. justice department. I think it is incredibly dangerous that one company will have so much power over both our food supply and the drugs that care for numerous ailments, many of which are diet-based. I believe that democratization of our food system is a major way that we can counter industrial agriculture dictating what goes into our bodies. By giving up on our ability to grow things, we are giving up a bit of control concerning our own health. Restoring democratization in our food system might help us to restore democratization in other things… like our democracy.

I don’t expect everyone to be into gardening as much as I am. Some people simply don’t enjoy it. I get that. But I reject the notion that not everyone can do it. Because of that I reject the notion that lack of a green thumb is a legitimate excuse for not getting your hands in the dirt. Everyone can grow things.  In fact, I think it is our birthright. We’re meant to grow things. As I write this, I’m looking forward to this weekend, the first weekend of this spring where I’ll be able to spend a significant amount of time working in my garden bed. This will my fourth summer growing in this spot and I’ll take everything I’ve learned from the previous years and apply it the best I can to this year. Plus, I’ll try out a few new thing! That’s how I learn. Trust me, there’s nothing I would love more than to say that I have some sort of magic touch, but it just ain’t so. So put away your excuses and go get your hands dirty!

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