“Dust” or “Soil”?

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My friend Sam has quickly become one my favorite people. He is a UCC pastor that I met at the Just Food conference back in 2016. He lives not too far from me and serves a traditional UCC church. He is also the founder of a ministry called Keep & Till. K&T’s vision is “To See Rural Renewal Through Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Responsibility Informed by Radical Christian Faith”.  Reading that, you can probably see why it is I like Sam. I generally categorize myself as a “fan” of K&T and have hung around the periphery of some of their work.

Sam posted a question on Facebook the other day that has been swimming around in my head all week:

Is there a difference “You are dust…” and “You are soil…”?

Let’s back up here for a second.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. Most of my readers know that, but should you have just stumbled upon this blog due to random interweb hijinx, I’ll remind you that for Christians (not just Catholics) Lent is the season leading up to Easter that, a forty day journey of spiritual discovery that mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Oftentimes, during the imposition of ashes (when the holy person smudges dirt on your face) the words “remember that you are dust, to dust you shall return” are uttered. Many ministers like to add something else hopeful there, but I like to leave it like that. There’s nothing wrong with sitting with your own mortality for a night, or even a whole day.

So back to the question: would it be different for you if this Ash Wednesday you heard “remember that you are soil” instead of “dust”?

Sam’s friends, many of whom are likely also agrarian-minded, generally commented that the word “soil” gives the connotation of life (or at least the possibility of life), while “dust” hints at barrenness and death. I generally agree with those connotations.

Then, I did a little digging… see what I did there?

A very quick word study shows “apar” as the Hebrew word for dust while “adamah” is the word for soil. All well and good except that Genesis 2:7 uses both words back to back:

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust (apar) of the ground (adamah), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 

Here we get God’s breath turning the “apar” into… wait for it… “adam”, the soil person.

The intuition is correct then that dust is soil minus the God-given breath of life. But we aren’t dust. We’re adam made from adamah.

For me, change in verbiage does a couple of important things. First and foremost, it reminds me more vividly of the natural cycles. The circle of life, if you will. We die and we become a part of the soil that nourishes new life. As far as we might try to separate ourselves from that reality, we can’t avoid it. To say that we are soil reminds us of our rightful place in the natural world and should create in us some humility.

More fun with words, “humility” comes from the same root as “humus” and “human”. Humility is recognizing your humanity… which is that you are humus.

The second thing that this change of wording does for me is that it elevates the status of soil to the level of humanity. In other words, soil, like humans, should be cared for. As I talk to friends like Sam and learn more about organic food movements, one of the common refrains that is repeated is soil health. I’m learning about how corporate agriculture degrades soil quality making chemicals more necessary that also hurt the soil as well as the consumers. I’m learning about how monoculture drains the soil of nutrients and leads to soil erosion (dust). I’m learning about the practices, most of which are ancient and widely known, that can lead to soil health like fallow seasons and crop rotation. Soil health has everything to do with how and what we eat. Soil health then is human health.

My lenten discipline this year is to eat as local as possible and to at least eat organic when I can’t eat local. This will mean spending a bit more on food, likely eating less meat, and all but eliminating the drive thru which has sadly become a staple of my diet. Fortunately, both Baltimore and Arlington give me a lot of good local and organic food options, but as I prayerfully move through the season, I’ll be thinking about why good food is harder to access and ways to bring the health that I have the luxury and privilege to pursue to more people.

I can’t not mention the proposed changes to SNAP that the administration is suggesting. Simply put, I think they are evil. It is dehumanizing to tell people what they must eat and not give them the option to eat more healthily. It deprives people of choice. It deprives people of dignity. It may deprive people of needed calories to get through their day. It may also deprive people of the joy that eating should be, sometimes the only joy that people living in poverty know. This is a move to further stigmatize poverty and it should infuriate people.

Back to our question… the final thing that changing “dust” into “soil” does for me is give me hope, a thing which is in short supply these days. “Dust” gives the sense of annihilation or oblivion. “Soil”… well, maybe it’s because I’m a gardener, but soil is hopeful. Soil says “possibility”. Soil says “potential”. Soil says “not the end”.

I don’t mind considering my mortality, I really don’t. I probably think about more than I should. But when I do think about death, I don’t like to think of it as an ending, but rather as a transition. My life ends in its current form and life then takes a new form.

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I love things like The Living Urn that take human remains and use them as the medium in which to grow a plant or a tree. I love the idea that what’s left of me could be used to nourish a plant that could provide food or shade for others. My theology is such that death is not an end. New life can and does happen. That gives me hope!

Remember that you are soil and to soil you will return.

 

 

#NoKaepNoNFL: What did we learn?

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The NFL season has come to an end. With the exception of the regular season game between the Steelers and the Patriots and bits and pieces of the Super Bowl, I did not watch the league this year. I did this for one reason and one reason only: the league clearly colluded to keep Colin Kaepernick, a player who silently protested the violence that African Americans experience at the hands of law enforcement, from being able to play the game that gave him his platform. For me, that was it. Protest is a vital part of a thriving democracy. That lesser players were allowed positions on teams while he, a player who very recently lead a team to the Super Bowl, was left to languish was a clear sign that the league was actively trying to silence the predominantly black voices speaking up for justice in their communities. This was unconscionable to me and still is.

Our bloviating commander-in-chief inserted himself into this conversation, which lead to league-wide protests and demonstrations. A “problem” that had been centered around one player became a movement, one that unwittingly caught up those who may not have had sympathy for Kaepernick’s cause, but weren’t willing to let the president dictate how they ran their business. Trump’s interference also shifted the attention of the protests away from its original purpose to the point where many players had to defend that they weren’t dishonoring the flag or the armed forces. It was a skillful misdirection by a man who thrives on division.

All the while, Colin Kapernick was being recognized for the awareness and money that he raised for numerous causes both domestically and internationally. He has been cast in the light of athletes such as Muhammad Ali who walked away from boxing at the prime of his career to protest the Vietnam War. Kaepernick’s quiet, dignified act of defiance turned into a movement. Whether because of the boycott initiated by Kaep or that instigated by Trump, the NFL’s viewership was down significantly this year. More importantly, players continued to kneel or protest in other ways throughout the season.

The NFL, to its credit, is beginning to take the issues that Kaep raised seriously. The league is dedicating funds to community-based programs in consultation with the players. They also opted against playing a Super Bowl commercial from the American Veterans Association that would have aired before the anthem imploring viewers to “Please stand”. Perhaps it took all season, but the league seems to be learning that silencing players on voices for justice is not a good move.

Personally, this was a difficult undertaking. I never really expected that Kaepernick would go all season without landing on a roster. Still, I think what my wife and I did this season was important, not because we personally changed anything, but because we sacrificed something we love for the sake of principles and values. So… what did I  learn?

  1. I love Football. Specifically, I love NFL football. We watched some college, but we were never into it as much as get into NFL games. I can’t emphasize enough that at no point did this get easy. Every week felt like missing out. American Football is now and likely always will be my favorite sport.
  2. Boycotts can matter. As I mentioned when I started this project, I have been boycotting Wendy’s because of their treatment of their farmworkers. Oh, what’s that? You haven’t heard anything about that and Wendy’s doesn’t seem to be losing any sleep over my not getting a baconator a week? Yes, I noticed that too. Boycotts can work, but they have to have high profile and high impact. Kaepernick’s national profile and influence are what made this work. The importance is to protest from places of privilege and power. This is also why the MVP of this season is Jemele Hill.
  3. Our Country is Deeply Divided. Clearly I didn’t need the NFL to learn this, but our national divides were on full display during this ordeal. The sad thing is that are divisions are clearly rooted in people who have historically had power not being willing to reckon with their privilege. That the players have been singled out for causing division is willful ignorance of facts. If not being willing to tolerate injustice is divisive, then count me #TeamDivision
  4. I Don’t Care About Non-Football Fans’ opinions on football: The most obnoxious part of the boycott were the “well, I’ve been boycotting the league for 20 years because of its blah, blah blah and floopity joop joop”. Shut up! I don’t care. This is a byproduct of a smug culture that has to have a hot take on everything. I care about my friend Brooke who has been struggling through this season with me and, as a fellow lifelong NFL fan, has also had to do some soul searching this year. I care about my son who is just coming into his fandom. If the NFL is going to get better, and I want it to get better because I don’t think it’s going anywhere, it will be fans who push it to get better. Not a fan? Great! Stay in your lane. If you refer to it as “sportsball” just find something else to talk about with me. I have lots of interests.
  5. Whiteness gonna White: Look, a lot of what’s been wrong this season has been the national “revenge of whiteness” parade that’s been marching through the country. White people refuse to understand what is happening in black communities and therefore can’t understand why black people would be so upset. They also can’t seem to understand that inviting Justin Timberlake back to the Super Bowl without extending the same invitation to Janet Jackson was wildly disrespectful. Or that JT coming out on stage to the song that got Ms. Jackson banned was terribly inappropriate, or that JT using a Prince hologram was just stupid. Or… (breathe) that MLK’S “DRUM MAJOR INSTINCT” SPEECH SHOULD NOT BE USED TO SELL FUCKING TRUCKS!!!!! But hey… whiteness gonna white.

But I guess what I learned above all else is the power of one man shouldn’t be overstated. yes, Kaep’s name was on the protest, but it was a collective action that made what he did a national story. It was the other players who knelt with him. It was the journalists, many of them black, who took him seriously. It was the community that watched and said collectively “this is unacceptable”. We so easily get caught up in the greatness and courage of the individual and forget that it takes a community to make a movement. I am incredibly grateful for Colin Kaepernick. He has a lifelong fan in me. He was the catalyst. But we need to remember that no great thing was ever accomplished without community.

 

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How Do You Like Our Shithole Country?

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We hadn’t been in Cuba for 24 hours before someone asked us:

So… how do you like our shithole country?

The question, of course, was a reference to Orange Julius’ statements regarding immigration. It was embarrassing. Still, it is a question that should be answered.

So… to my Cuban brothers and sisters I say “I love your shithole country!”

Last week was my second visit to Cuba. My wife’s presbytery has a decades old relationship with the country. Apparently, back in the day, church members doubled as international agents of espionage as they pulled off some pretty badass cloak and dagger to get into the country. Now, it’s a little easier, though Darth Cheeto seems to be threatening to undo the progress made by the Obama administration, a recurring theme.

This trip was a pastor’s retreat, connecting pastors in Baltimore and Central Florida with Presbyterian clergy in Cuba. I’ll leave others to tell the story of the retreat, as it’s not my story to tell, but I do want to talk about the beautiful country and how visiting it seems to recalibrate my brain.

I should say that before my 2016 visit to Cuba, my only other international trip was to Haiti in 2011. (Sorry, Canada! You don’t count!) The Haiti trip was profoundly life-changing, but also a bit traumatic. Haiti is a rough place in parts and seeing poverty on that level shook me. To the extent that Haiti is a “shithole country” it is because of the effect of U.S. policies and the unfortunate frequency of devastating natural disasters. It was only during my trip to Cuba that I began to deal with some of the trauma that I had experienced in Haiti.

That first trip to Cuba was a bit of a personal revelation. We spent time in the town of Cabaiguan and then went on a hike in a joint venture between the young adults of Shannon’s church and those of the Presbyterian church in the town. The people and the country were beautiful! The hospitality was like nothing I have ever experienced before. We ate like royalty that week! I also have a great fondness for the Cuban pace of life. Why the siesta has not taken hold as a norm for all of humanity is baffling to me!

Parts of Cuba feel like stepping back in time. It is not uncommon to see people being carried back and forth by horse drawn carriages. I was reminded on this trip how overwhelming the smell of diesel fuel can be when it hangs in the air. The streets of Cabaiguan are populated with cars from the 60’s and 70’s. Veradero, where we stayed last week, has a few more modern cars. Still, there was a quaintness to seeing chickens running up and down the streets. Shannon commented that it was first time that she had literally seen a chicken crossing the road.

Veradero is more “modern” because it is a touristy beach town. We saw travelers from Russia, Canada, Finland, and China in the restaurants and markets of the town. At one point we were asked if we were Canadian by a women working at a corner store. We answered that we were American to which she replied “Cuba is better. Mas tranquilo!” She gets no argument from me!

Veradero’s beaches were beautiful! Despite temps in the high 50’s to mid 60’s, we took a couple of lovely strolls along the Caribbean Sea. A somewhat chilly walk on the beach is still a walk on the beach! Twice now I’ve seen the Caribbean Sea and I can’t imagine that water gets more beautiful than that. It’s a striking shade of blue that seems only to exist for the sake of inspiring awe.

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I’m not gonna lie to you… I had a lot of rum last week. The beer in Cuba doesn’t quite reach my beer snobby standards and Bourbon is in short supply, so I had to settle for rum cocktails. We stayed at the Presbyterian church in Veradero which conveniently has a bar right around the corner. That’s kind of the dream! This particular bar made several of my favorite Bourbon-based cocktails only with Rum. They were, like everything in Cuba, wonderful but much sweeter than I am used to. Those people sure do love their sugar!

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In my limited international travel experience, I always seek to hear what people think of the States. It was difficult to fight the urge to continually apologize for the current administration. More than once I found myself saying “I think he’s crazy too!” In the time between my two visits, the feeling went from one of hopeful optimism for our countries’ relationship to a palpable fear that we were taking a few steps backwards. It was a little heartbreaking. Art throughout the country was displayed that said “build bridges, not walls”. The Cubans seem more optimistic about the future than I am.

Cuba is fascinating for me because it is a place where Communism isn’t some far off boogie man, but a lived reality. While I still think that there is a great deal that we could learn from their national healthcare system, Cuba certainly takes some of the bloom off of the rose of socialism. Some of the talking points against socialism have merit when you look around Cuban society. Capitalism creates initiative for innovation that seems to be missing in Cuba which is a shame because the people are clearly creative and entrepreneurial at heart. There is a perceived ceiling for achievement in the country and the best you can do seems to be to pick a field a study where that ceiling is high enough to take care of your family. That said, the end results of communism and our system of crony capitalism seem to be virtually the same: money in the hands of the few and power and subsistence living for the rest. While I still believe that sectors of the economy would be better served with a socialized system, Cuba keeps me from over-romanticizing the benefits of socialism.

“This is not the real Cuba” we were told by several people throughout the week. Looking over the tourist town of Veradero with a myriad of foreign faces, I could see why they said that. Much of what was on the streets, in the markets, and on the menus was catered toward Western, white visitors. At one point we visited a Beatles Bar and I kept asking myself “what the hell is a Beatles Bar doing in Cuba?” It was also interesting to note what the government was willing to do to cater to their foreign investors. Our two translators worked in the tourism industry. They pointed out as we drove by the posh, seaside resorts that Cubans were not allowed to stay in those places, but that the jobs they created were coveted. It’s not much different from tourist towns in the states when you think about it. “Real Cuba”, I imagine is the place where people take care the people in their community, where they work and sing, and dance, and take siestas! Real Cuba is what we saw in Cabaiguan, a place that almost seems forgotten by time, but where the people struggle and live together in community. It occurs to me that “real” life can never be lived in an experience where you are made to feel inferior to others.

Of course, anyone who thinks that Cubans are inferior has clearly never spent time singing, praying, eating, and laughing with them…

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#NoKaepNoNFL: Playoffs? You kidding me, playoffs?

Jim Mora’s “playoffs” rant is one of the all time great press conference videos. This is a man who has clearly run out of fucks to give and just wants his team to suck less.

I love it!

This is usually one of my favorite times of year. I love the NFL playoffs! In a seven game series, the best team usually finds a way to win, but in a single elimination scenario, a team can get hot at the right time or just play out of their minds and win a game. Any given Sunday, as the saying goes.

Add to that the divisional round, arguably the best weekend of football in the entire year, always falls around my birthday. Four excellent games, gift wrapped for me. You shouldn’t have, NFL.

Of course, this is not a normal year. I didn’t watch the playoffs. And I’m kind of glad I didn’t. The Steelers lost a 45-42 shootout at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who then in turn got beaten by the Patriots.

(shakes fist at the sky) Damn you, Patriots!!!

On the NFC side… something happened and now the Eagles are going to the Super Bowl.

So this year’s Super Bowl will be a repeat of Super Bowl 39, Patriots vs. Eagles.

I remember that Super Bowl very well… because I really didn’t give a fuck.

It seems apropos that the year I boycotted would end with a Super Bowl towards which I am almost completely ambivalent. The NFL is dead to me.

Of course, it’s not. This year away has reminded me of how much I truly love the game. I’ve decided that I will return to watching next year. Even knowing how problematic the league is, and it is wildly problematic, I still very much love the game and have missed watching it in a way that is really hard to explain to a non-fan.

I don’t know if I will come back to the game with the same fervor that I had before this year. A lot of this year has left a sour taste in my mouth. The prospect of Brady and Belichick winning another ring isn’t helping any. The politicizing around the national anthem and the interference of buffoonish commander-in-chief were infuriating. I don’t know if any of theses things are going away in the near future.

But the NFL is a mirror to our culture at large. All of the issues of this nation spilled on to the field of our most popular sport and we left the social commentary that should be domain of journalists, politicians, and other public thinkers to sportscasters and former athletes. Don’t get me wrong, some of them have been insightful. My admiration for Jemele Hill has gone through the roof this season. She, Bomani Jones, and other (mostly black) commentators who understand that you can’t separate sports from the lives of the athletes who play them have added more sophistication to the national conversation than it feels the average white sports fan is comfortable with, often at the risk of their jobs. Still, until we have these conversations in the nation at large, and especially in those places where people can make lasting, legislative changes, it’s unrealistic to think that what is discussed in the realm of sports will be anything more than symbolic.

None of the above means that I will let the league off the hook for its bad behavior going forward. On the contrary, I will be critical of the NFL because I am a fan. I have to confess the annoyance I feel about people who have no knowledge or interest in the game having sudden, strong opinions about something that I know and love well. If the politics of the game, both internal and external, are to change, it will be fans who make it happen. It’s because I love the NFL that I reserve my right to be critical of it.

The other piece of this, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is my son. As I checked the score of the Steelers/Jaguars divisional round game, and saw that things weren’t going the Steelers way, I thought about my boy and texted my ex to see how he was doing. He told me that he had that feeling where he felt like he might cry but he didn’t cry. Welcome to being a Steelers fan, kiddo! I love his passion for the game and I look forward to years of crashing on the couch and geeking out with him. Yes, I do hope and pray that we will cultivate other shared interests, and we do have plenty, but… well, maybe I can’t explain it to you if you haven’t seen his face light up when Antonio Brown makes a sick catch.

Sports continue to be a great way to teach life lessons which is why they are such an enduring part of American life. Thomas already has an ethic of fair play and teamwork that has been honed by watching games. He already takes losing much better than I do, a lesson that will serve him well in life because we all have to lose some time. One day, he and I will talk in depth about this year. Maybe he’ll read this blog series. I hope that he’ll understand how much he was a part of my decision to not watch as well as my decision to ultimately watch again. I hope he’ll understand that it’s about the kind of man I want to be and the kind of example that I want to set for him. I hope one day all of this makes sense…

 

 

 

What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?

The church I serve, like many, has started the tradition of choosing “star words” around epiphany. I star word is a word intended to guide and anchor you throughout the year. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s just supposed to give you a place to focus your intentions.

Last year my word was “vitality”.

Andrew Solomon in his wonderful TED talk about depression, described it as a loss of vitality. That completely resonates with my experience. So when I received “vitality” as my star word, during my interview no less, I received it as a gift. 2017 certainly had its moments where I felt filled to the brim with vitality, but in those moments where I didn’t feel so full of life, I used the word to remind me of where I wanted to be and to what I was hoping to return.

This past Sunday, we chose our new star words. The word I chose was “understanding”.

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I had some time in the car to think about what “understanding” means to me and how I might make it a focus of my year. There’s two ways that the word tends to be used: first understanding as knowledge. Understanding in this sense has always been important to me. I relish having a deep understanding of those topics on which I am passionate. It is interesting that this word would come up in a year that I will hopefully be going back to school for a bit (more on that at a later time).

Of course, there is the second understanding of… understanding… and that is as empathy or compassion. A portion of the famous prayer of St. Francis comes to mind:

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love

So much of the last few years has been about my desire to be understood (and to understand myself) and in the process, I have likely not sought to understand as much as I should. This seems to me to be the greater challenge.

These two concepts overlap for me at the place of inquiry. To gain better understanding of a subject or of a person is to ask the right questions.

I’ve been struggling lately with my writing. There are so many things to read, so many “hot takes” on subjects and I struggle with wondering what value my voice adds to the cacophony of thinkpieces and commentaries produced from by much wiser people than myself. Or if not wiser, than at least funnier.

What I believe I may have to contribute in this season of my life is asking the right questions, not giving the right answers, the assumption that there are “right” answers being the source of so many of our problems these days.

In thinking about this word, I also couldn’t help but think of the primary text from my theology classes. Daniel Migliore derived the title of his text from Anselm who rifted on Augustine:

“This definition, with numerous variations, has a long and rich tradition. In the writings of Augustine it takes the form, “I believe in order that I may understand.” According to Augustine, knowledge of God not only presupposed faith, but faith also restlessly seeks deeper understanding. Christians want to understand what they believe, what they can hope for, and what they ought to love. Writing in a different era, Anselm, who is credited with coining the phrase “faith seeking understanding,” agrees with Augustine that believers inquire “not for the sake of attaining to faith by means of reason but that they may be gladdened by understanding and meditating on those things that they believe.” For Anselm, faith seeks understanding, and understanding brings joy. […] Standing in the tradition of Augustine and Anselm, Karl Barth contends that theology has the task of reconsidering the faith and practice of the community, ‘testing and rethinking it in the light of its enduring foundation, object, and content… What distinguishes theology from blind assent is just its special character as ‘faith seeking understanding’.”
(Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology) 

The work of theology, a work I feel I have somewhat neglected in recent years, is faith seeking understanding, not for the sake of power over others, but for the sake of building up community and finding joy in the Divine Life that we all share. In doing ministry, I think so many of us get caught up in tasks of budgets and maintenance that we forget that our work is primarily theological in nature. When we do own that part of our call, we sometimes see that our responsibility is to give answers. But theology is faith seeking understanding, not faith with understanding. It’s the seeking, the journeying, the quest that should energize us. I’ll admit, when I think of trying to come up with answers to the issues that surround me, I get overwhelmed and exhausted. But when I ask myself whether or not I am asking the right questions, then I find myself focused and alive.

Like Common and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) said, “It’s the questions, y’all”.

Reorienting my writing around questions is part of the equation. Finding the right questions to ask to seek a better understanding of my neighbor is another piece. I also know, that for me, teaching is a part of understanding as well. I fully believe that you don’t know something unless you can teach it to someone else. And you really don’t know it unless you can teach it to a six year old. When our church did a recent spiritual gift inventory, I was reminded that teaching has always emerged as one of my primary gifts.

So how do I teach emphasizing questions over answers? Good question…

More importantly, how do I teach in a way that allows me to gain empathy and compassion for the people around me? Even better question!

As I have sat with this word for a couple of days, I can’t shake Elvis Costello’s song from a head, a song that come along with its own set of probing questions:

As I walk through
This wicked world
Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity.

I ask myself
Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?

And each time I feel like this inside,
There’s one thing I wanna know:
What’s so funny ’bout peace love & understanding? Ohhhh
What’s so funny ’bout peace love & understanding?

 

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#NoKaepNoNFL: Patriot Games

A couple of weeks ago, I was given an ultimatum: hang out with my son and watch the Steelers play the Patriots, or don’t hang out with my son. There was negotiating. He was going to watch this game.

I made the only sensible choice. I watched the game.

And immediately felt guilt.

First, I had broken my boycott. Yes, I could have taken the time to explain all of the politics behind what I’m doing, but I don’t think he was going to hear me. He’s in love with football. He’s in love with the Steelers.

Second, they lost. Look, it’s the Patriots. I’ve seen the Steelers lose to the Pats more than I care to admit. It always sucks though. Always.

Third, Antonio Brown got hurt!

All of a sudden, a single phrase echoed across the Steel City:

There goes the season!

I was fully convinced after the game that I had jinxed my team.

Because, you know, I have that kind of power. Because the world revolves around me, dontchaknow.

Those things aside, I’m glad I did it. My son and I had a blast! We yelled at the TV together. He introduced me to the new players I’ve missed from not watching this year. We consoled each other after what was a tough loss after a very good game.

I doubt that after this year I will ever be as fanatical as I once was, but I don’t think I’ll be able to give up football for good. If I could find something else that bound me to my son as strongly I would go for it. I’m sure that reads like an excuse and maybe it is, but I wouldn’t trade that three hours on the couch for anything.

I will say, however, that watching this game brought up a very familiar frustration. It’s not just about watching the Steelers lose. It’s watching them lose to the Patriots.

In my adult life, no team has been a bigger thorn in my side. They’ve beaten us in so many AFC championship games and other big games throughout the seasons that I’ve developed a bit of a complex around it. It’s no coincidence that the three most recent Super Bowl appearances that the Steelers have made have happened in years when they didn’t have to play the Pats in the playoffs. They are the monkey on our back.

But it’s not just that…

It’s their pretty boy quarterback.

Tom Brady is the guy who doesn’t have to steal your lunch money because he’s got guys to do that for him. Tom Brady stole your girlfriend. Tom Brady got your promotion. Tom Brady got that parking spot.

My hatred for Tom Brady is only amplified by the fact that he is so damn good. There is a legitimate argument to be made that he is the greatest quarterback any of us have ever seen. And I hate his stupid, pretty face.

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And then there is Bill Belichick, AKA Darth Hoodie.

Belichick famously gives the most dry, least compelling press conferences in the world. He’s not the stereotypical, yelling his head off on the sideline guy. Belichick looks like a Bond villain on the sidelines.

Bill Belichick is your dad disapproving of your poor financial decisions. He is your supervisor questioning the whereabouts of your TPS reports. He is the auto mechanic who emasculates you for not being able to handle your own car problems.

He’s arguably the best coach of all time. His teams are consistently in the championship conversation. He is incredible at getting the best out of “washed up” or “no name” players. He’s known for being meticulous about every detail.

And it looks like it takes herculean effort for him to smile.

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I know that there are a lot of people who have similar feelings about the Steelers. It’s just that most of those people live in Ohio, so who cares? (I kid!) It would be different if the Steelers were a lesser team, but it’s the frustration of always coming SO close and then being knocked down by the same team over and over again.

Perpetual second place.

Lifetime silver medal winners.

Always Solange, never Beyonce.

Of course, then there’s this:

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With all of the “these guys should stick to football” talk that has come up this year, there was never any commentary about Tommy having a MAGA hat in his locker or paling around with Trump at events. That’s just what successful (“white”) men do. The MAGA crowd loved The Patriots Super Bowl win last year as the team with whitest receiver corp in the league made a comeback against Atlanta, a notoriously black city. The tweets after the game were… charming.

There’s also the aura of dishonesty that hovers around the team: calls that tend to go their way, spygate where they stole opposing team’s signals during practices, and of course deflategate. Deflategate at least lead to the sports announcer’s gold mine of sixth grade humor as they got to discuss in detail how Tom Brady likes his balls.

And this:

This is probably overstating, but to me the Patriots feel like the team of empire. They even have the appeal to nationalism built right into their name. It almost felt scripted that they were the team to win the Super Bowl right after 9/11. There’s a “win at any cost” ethos that I’m sure other teams have as well, but no team seems to flaunt so flagrantly.

Maybe I’m just being a typical bitter Steelers fan. It’s hard not to when you see your teams all time sack leader in a Patriots uniform. 6_8002212.png

Really, James?

But this is what the Patriots do, take the discarded players from other teams, plug them into their system, and magically, those players have a new life.

Yes, I am a bitter Steelers fan.

The odds are good that this year’s AFC championship game will be a repeat of last year’s. The Steelers vs. The Patriots in Gillette Stadium. And while the team that I saw a couple of weeks ago looks that the kind of team that can actually hang with the Patriots, I don’t know that it will end much differently than last year.

And my son will cry.

And that’s the worst thing about the Patriots: they make my son cry.

I don’t discourage the tears or tell him “it’s just a game”. I like that he feels things deeply. He gets that from his old man. The Cowboys made me cry during Super Bowl XXX. That Pats have made me cry many times.

He cried a little after the last game, then he rebounded. He processed, then went right back to loving his sister and mother. And it came back to being about time that we got to spend together, sharing emotions both joy and sorrow. We hugged me as I left and he thanked me for watching the game with him. Even with the a loss to the Patriots, there was no where else I would have rather been.

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Sadvent, 2017

I left my first full time call right before Advent of 2011. I didn’t want the season to be about my departure. I wanted them to have time to celebrate the season without thinking about the future of the church.

And I was pissed. It had been a disastrous call. I was burned out and angry. I felt betrayed and abandoned. And I felt like a failure.

Thus began a depression that would reshape my life.

I’ve been ordained for 8 and half years and I’ve gotten to preach three advent seasons, none where I was in a stable call. Maybe it’s hard to understand if you’re outside of the church world. It’s like being a quarterback who gets benched before the playoffs, or a pitcher who gets hurt before the world series… or an accountant who misses tax season(?)… I don’t know…

Advent, I recently told someone, is the season that has all that is beautiful about church. It has the best music, the best liturgy, and a rich theology of waiting and anticipation that I think is incredibly meaningful. It’s hard to be on the sidelines for that.

I had hoped that being engaged in the life of a church would lessen some of these feelings this year. In some ways, it has made them worse. I confess to a bit of envy in watching my colleague preach these days. She’s done a fabulous job! It’s just hard to be in the pews some mornings.

I realize, as I write this how petulant I must seem, like the whiny kid who’s been put in time out and now thinks the world is “not fair”. Yeah, it’s a bit obnoxious and I apologize. I am reminded again of the great privilege that I squandered and the collateral damage of that squandering. It’s overwhelming at times.

And yet, I can’t ignore that I have been down most of the month. Granted, my friend’s death certainly didn’t help, but that death happened over a backdrop of a season where I feel my wasted potential most profoundly. It’s hard for me to ignore that I feel love, joy, peace, and hope most profoundly when preaching about love, joy, peace, and hope and what I feel right now is their absence.

I’m writing this to make it real, because sometimes things aren’t real for me until I write them. And if it’s real, I can begin facing it. I’m hopeful that this may be the last Advent that I feel this for awhile, but I’ve also had that hope before. This is a place where I still have work to do on myself. I still have too much of my identity tied up into ministry and I need to be careful of that. I am more than a guy in a pulpit and I’m still doing important things with my life. I still have things to contribute.

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My wife made me an Advent wreath from succulents. She’s crafty, that one. It’s beautiful and I love it! She knows how much Advent means to me and has gone out of her way to make it special for me the last two years. Last year it was the Bourbon Advent calendar which ended up being surprisingly meaningful. This year, a wreath made of plants I can continue to grow through the cold winter months. As she often does, Shannon reminds me that I still matter, that I am loved, and that there is someone in the world who is fighting with and beside me every step of the way. Even when I don’t believe that I have much to offer, I believe that she believes that I have something to offer, and sometimes, that is enough.

And that is the gospel in a nutshell;  we are valuable because we are loved. We are known, even with all our faults, and still loved. That is redemptive and healing. That should make us want to fight on and make sure others know that they are loved too.

So, in this season of waiting, I wait. I wait for restoration. I wait for my community to affirm once again that I am called to service. I wait to be brought back into the fold. But I don’t wait alone. And I don’t wait passively. There is work to be done. There are people to love and there is love to receive. The latter often is the harder work.

This season is hard for me. Waiting almost always is. I am depressed. I wish it weren’t so. I wish I could get over myself enough to feel the joy and love that surround me. It will come. I believe that. For now, I wait…