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…

#NoKaepNoNFL, weeks 12 & 13

Week 12: More than a game…

Going into the first week of December, I was mentally preparing myself for the anniversary of the death of my friend Harold.

Harold passed away early last December after a hard battle with cancer. He left behind his lovely wife, three boys, and friends and family who thought the world of him.

I remember the first time I saw Harold.  We attended seminary together and e was walking up the hill to attend a chapel service. He caught my attention because he was wearing a Steelers sweatshirt. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Football was the foundation of our friendship. We watched Super Bowl 40 together with a group of friends in seminary. Later, after we had both graduated, he came to visit Pittsburgh and I took him to Jerome Bettis’ restaurant. Later still, after I have moved to Ohio, he and I connected to go see the Steelers play the Broncos at Invesco Field outside of Denver. It was an awesome game, the Steelers won, and by the end the place sounded like Heinz Field. We Steelers fans travel well.

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By the time football season rolled around last year, Harold was already pretty sick. The last time that I saw him, I went to hang out with him during one of his treatments, then we watched a preseason game against the Saints. On the day of his funeral, the Steelers beat the Bills on a snow covered field. I think Harold would have loved that!

Football was the foundation of our friendship, but church was the substance of it. He loved the church and served it faithfully. Even in the midst of his struggles, he couldn’t help himself but be a pastor. the first time I went to visit him after I learned about his illness, he took the time out to talk to me about my situation and my relationship with the church. I told him I didn’t know if I was still called to the church, still called to ministry. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that he knew that I still had a call, but that maybe it wouldn’t look like what I expected. He never lost his faith in God’s ability to use me for good. I keep a picture of Harold on my nightstand. When things feel rough, I look at and remind myself that I still have more to offer.

While I was emotionally prepping myself for Harold’s death, my friend Elizabeth died. To be honest, I’m still pretty stunned. Liz and I knew each other first from church. Her dad was my pastor through junior and senior high and there were times when she and I were the youth group in total. We got to know each other better when I made the inexplicable decision to join marching band during my senior year. We butted heads a lot. I was more arrogant in those days and she called me out on it. A lot!

Southwestern PA is one of those towns where high school football is a big deal. Maybe not quite Texas big, but a big deal nonetheless. Unfortunately, my high school didn’t field a very competitive team. I remember during games being one of the few band members who actually watched the games. I remember Liz making a joke about my being the only person to ever go from playing football to being in the marching band. Though I doubt she was right, it certainly wasn’t an upwardly mobile move in terms of high school hierarchy.

But football was the backdrop for that friendship as well. There may have been as many people in the stands to see the band as the football team. Marching band is one of those things that forms lasting friendships at best or, at the very least, grudging respect. By the end of that school year, Liz and I were pretty good friends, and we spent a lot of time together as we both had difficulties adjusting to college life in our freshmen years. It was interesting to hear at her funeral service that people loved the things about her that I did: her love of living things, her creative spirit, and her wicked sense of humor.

It’s strange for me to think about how football was a part of the connective tissue of both of those relationships. It wasn’t the heart of either, but in some ways, neither happens without it. As I’ve struggled through this boycott, a big part of it has been that I have so many good memories connected to watching football and the game has brought me in contact with amazing people. No matter what happens to my relationship to the NFL after this year, I will always cherish the role the game has played in my life.

 

Week 13: A Violent Game

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It used to be that the Ravens/Steelers rivalry was the one that was known throughout the league for its brutality. In recent years, the shift has been made to the Bengals/Steelers rivalry. Going back just a couple of seasons, the games took on a new intensity. At the center of a lot of this was Vontaze Burfict, the Bengal linebacker who seemed to relish in injuring other players. His excessive play almost single handedly cost the Bengals a playoff game two years ago.

While I didn’t watch, it seems Monday night’s game was another ugly game between the two AFC North teams. I say “ugly” because, while I enjoy physical football, these teams push the barrier when they play each other. The penalties go through the roof and slow the game down. It looks personal and not all professional. It’s not good football.

That my team is at the center of many of these ugly games is yet another disheartening aspect of my fandom. I love my team, yet they are often in the middle of controversy for playing in an unsportsmanlike fashion. It’s not fun to feel like I’m rooting for the bad guys.

That said, the picture above makes me smile. Rookie wide receiver sensation JuJu Shuster-Smith laid out Vontaze Burfict while blocking for Le’Veon Bell. It didn’t look like a cheap shot to me (I saw replays in bars… I probably spend too much time in bars). I know I’m biased. I also know that one of our players went out in a stretcher earlier in the game and the emotions were probably off the charts. Yes, I take some satisfaction in seeing Burfict knocked on his ass by a smaller wideout and I love that the Steelers receivers aren’t prima donnas afraid of blocking.

If it sounds like I’m waffling between two different emotions, I am. As a lifelong Steelers fan, I take pride in our team playing in a physical manner. And a lot of times, it feels like we win because we’re the tougher team. Growing up with guys like Jack Lambert and “Mean” Joe Greene as the icons teaches you that there is a way that the game is supposed to be played and that way is physical, violent even.

On the other hand…

Hi, I’m Derrick. I’m a pacifist.

Yeah, it’s weird. The internal conflict that this game has created for me over the years is kinda ridiculous. Being away from watching the games brings some clarity to that feeling, but also additional confusion.

How does a peace-loving me justify watching, and loving, such a violent game?

I have a Facebook friend who often decries that those of us who bemoan the violence of the world are also the ones who love violence in our entertainment. I’ll be honest, it annoys the hell out of me every time he brings it up. I confess that some of that annoyance is conviction. Can I enjoy a violent sport, violent movies, or violent video games and still “preach” what I do with authenticity?

While I could easily sum this up with my favorite Walt Whitman quote:

Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes. 

But there is more to it than that and here I might lose some of you:

I think we need violence in our cultural images, even though it is a slippery slope.

The Apostle Paul uses the image of the armor of God, one of the earliest images I learned in Sunday School. The idea is that we are in a spiritual struggle, but that our “weapons” are things like faith, truth, and righteousness. As prevalent as violence is in our culture, it was more so in Paul’s.

I think Paul wrote this language to remind his audience that life is a struggle and more so when you are striving to live a good and upright life. I think we need stories of good vs. evil to inspire us in our daily lives to resist evil wherever it may appear in our lives. I think what’s important is to relegate weapons like swords and guns to our fantasy lives and fight with the weapons that Paul prescribes in our real lives.

Am I stretching here? Maybe. Perhaps I’m simply justifying my vices. If that’s what you believe, see the above quote from Mr. Whitman. But I look at my team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who came to prominence during the 70’s when the city’s major industry was beginning to collapse. As men were being laid off from the steel mills, a thankless job to begin with, they would watch their team battle on Sunday afternoons and be inspired to keep fighting for their families. I grew up hearing stories of how the games lifted up an entire city that felt like it was in a downward spiral. The toughness of the players was the toughness of the city. Maybe I’m giving too much credit here, but I think this mentality is a big reason why Pittsburgh has been able to reinvent itself.

What can’t be ignored, though, is that football is not a work of fiction. It’s a real sport played by real men who can do real damage to themselves and their opponents. It can’t be ignored that players risk paralysis, brain damage, and lifelong pain and debilitation. Some see it as a foolish risk, but for many of the players involved, it is a testament to their manhood.

And I think this speaks to one of the real struggles that we are having in our culture right now: what does real strength look like? And what does strength look like for men in an age when the cultural norms of what is appropriate for men is changing so rapidly?

A friend of mine shared this video, the thesis of which is that we men need new definitions of toughness. We need the strength to go inside of ourselves, explore our emotions, and tackle our demons. If you ask most men, they’d rather get hit by a linebacker than do that kind of work. Justin Baldoni challenges men to be more sensitive, more vulnerable, and more in touch with our inner workings. As someone who has put in this kind of work in therapy, I know how exhausting this process can be. Looking inside is hard. Being vulnerable is hard. Admitting weakness is hard, especially when we are told over and over again that what we see in the NFL (or in the military) is what is supposed to be the gold standard of masculinity. The epitome of strength. I encourage you to share this video with the men that you know and have a conversation about what it means to learn new scripts as men.

 

Grief on top of grief

“Grief on top of grief”

That’s how my therapist described what I’m feeling right now.

I had spent the early part of this week mentally and spiritually preparing myself for the anniversary of my friend Harold’s death. Harold was a seminary friend who succumbed to cancer last year. I sat with him several time during and after treatments. I watched him wither away. He continued to encourage me, even as his own life was fading. It was hard to watch this big personality become something small and frail. Harold’s death knocked the wind out of me last winter and I was planning on spending this anniversary, quietly, away from the world, in reflection.

Then on Wednesday, I got the message that Liz had died.

Liz and I were incredibly close during our senior year of college and freshman year of high school. Her dad was my pastor throughout junior and senior high and it was he who told me of his daughter’s passing. Not only am I dealing with the loss of my friend, but the hurt of seeing a mentor grieve and not really knowing how to be there for him other than to literally be there, which I will tomorrow.

Liz, I should mention, is the second person from my graduating class to pass away this week. What the entire hell???

When I described my relationship with Liz to my therapist, she called her my “joy person”. I probably have several of those, but it was an accurate description. Whether it was writing, Star Wars, or pro wrestling, Liz was the person I could talk to about whatever I was into at the moment and she almost always had the same amount of enthusiasm for it as I did. Years after high school, when Facebook reunited us, I discovered that she had married another friend from high school who owned a family farm. As adults, we were able to share our love of growing things. She never let me romanticize about making a living as a farmer. She let me know how hard she and her husband worked. At the same time, she encouraged my green thumb and it always felt a little extra special to get a “like” from her on something I posted related to my garden.

Harold left behind a wife and three boys. Liz leaves behind a husband and two boys, slightly older than my oldest. I’m trying not to center my own grief, knowing that there are people hurting more than I am.

I don’t grieve well. I’m not a crier. Right now, I wish that I were. Crying would feel like a huge release.

I’m heartbroken. There is part of me that feels like I’m too young to be burying friends. I know that isn’t based in reality and I know that as I get older this will only become more common, but damn.

I don’t know what else to write. I’m overwhelmed. I was already having a kinda rough week and then I got blindsided by waves of emotions. You all know how I hate to feel things! Tomorrow I will go to Pittsburgh and say “goodbye” to my friend. And I will set aside a little space to remember my other friend. And I will not beat myself up for “grieving wrong”.

I am sad. One of the first sentences that I ever learned to write and yet it is as profoundly true now as when I was first learning my letters.

I am sad.