Monthly Archives: February 2018

How many kinds of people do you see?

How many kinds of people do you see?

I notice that a lot of people see two kinds of people: Good People and Evil People.

Some people see only one kind of people: We are all basically the same, even though our background and experiences shape us a little and our choices can shape our future.

Some people see lots of kinds of people: we separate people out by their gender, race, class, region, religion, sexual orientation, age…all of these make us significantly different, so if you build out a grid, you get lots of different kinds of people.

But maybe there are no kinds of people.

No matter how you split out identities into kinds, you’ll always find people who don’t fit their “kind,” and plenty of people sorta fit their kind and sorta don’t. That’s why we shouldn’t put people in boxes.

But I also think it oversimplifies things to say that there’s really only one kind of people. Usually, that “lowest common denominator” humanity that we all share looks like the culturally dominant model of life – like white male privilege or whatever. Where we come from isn’t everything, but it isn’t nothing, either.

But mostly, I have to reject the “two kinds of people” approach. When I was in high school, we learned about the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which argued that an all-knowing and all-powerful God who exists beyond time already knew who would be saved and who would be damned, before any of us ever got started. And my reaction was, I would give that theology credence if I ever met people who both believed in predestination and believed they were not among the elect.

It’s sorta the same with the Good People vs. Evil People. I have yet to meet someone who thinks of themselves, truly, as evil. And people I respect who work with folks that the rest of us would call EVIL says constantly that he has never met anyone who is evil; just despairing, or damaged, or mentally ill. And in most cases we can’t decide on who is Evil and who is Good – it almost depends on who we agree with and who we don’t.

There are extreme cases. In the week since the Parkland shooting, I have seen the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, referred to as an “animal” and “a monster” by victimized families (who I don’t blame) and elected officials (who I do). Undoubtedly, what Cruz did was evil. Full stop.

But I was talking to a friend I greatly respect who lives in Coral Springs, whose son is a hear away from attending Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, whose husband knows well the police officers who responded to the scene knowing they had their own children inside. And what she said to me through tears was this: There were not 17 victims that day. There were 18. 

If we want to say that Cruz was a monster or an animal or an Evil Person, well, certainly his last heinous acts make that case. But my friend’s point, with which I could not agree more, is that if Cruz is a monster, he was made so by the rest of us. We didn’t surround his adopted family with enough support. We let him slip through the holes of our non-system of mental health and social support. We didn’t react to the signs of distress; not only law enforcement, but all of those who could have reached out. And we created a culture in which violence was an easier choice than it could have been. What he did was Evil, exponentially so. But that isn’t enough to make the rest of us Good.

So I’m going to stick with “no kinds of people.” Let’s understand that we all have Evil and Good within us, and we all create Evil and Good around us, and as much as we want to grade on a curve, the scale is really absolute. Let’s understand that we all have a past that shapes us and all have a future we can shape, and we’re not all the same, but we’re also not irrevocably different. And let’s understand that the future we shape is an interconnected one. I heard about a conference whose theme was “The Power of One,” and my thought was The power of one was evidenced by Nikolas Cruz, killing and destroying. The power of creating and sustaining takes not one, but all.

That’s how many kinds of people I see. How about you?

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Come Alive?

This song comes early in the film during the get-the-gang-together scene. Barnum knows he needs live acts to make his idea work, so he starts recruiting for “oddities.” (This moment of recruiting the team is a favorite part of leadership for me, and it’s also why Oceans Eleven is one of my favorite movies).
There’s another way to look at this, though. The message he sends isn’t just for the “freaks and weirdos.” What he describes at the outset applies to a lot of us:
You stumble through your days
Got your head hung low
Your skies’ a shade of grey
Like a zombie in a maze
You’re asleep inside
But you can shake away
And his pitch sounds like a call to conversion, with phrases like:
But you can flip the switch and brighten up your darkest day
Sun is up and the color’s blinding
Take the world and redefine it
Leave behind your narrow mind
You’ll never be the same
Come alive, come alive
Or
When the world becomes a fantasy
And you’re more than you could ever be
‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open
And you know you can’t go back again
To the world that you were living in
‘Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open
So, come alive!
One of the things that Christian media and leaders have found very attractive in Showman is this sense of conversion and transformation. The theme of pulling out people who have been ignored by society and transforming them into stars runs deep in the American psyche – Bad News Bears, anyone? – and it also aligns with a motif that’s woven throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Some day, when I have the time, I’d like to develop a project called “God of the Losers,” because pretty much everyone who gets a feature role in the Old and New Testament is somebody who doesn’t quite fit in with the cool kids. Abraham was too old. David was too young. Moses had a speech impediment. Solomon was illegitimate. You get the picture.
But if you go back to that opening quote about sleepwalking, you can see pretty quickly that it doesn’t just apply to the outcasts. All of us can get lulled into this mindset pretty easily, weighed down by the anxieties of daily life, just trying to make it through the day. Maybe you know this feeling.
In the show, Barnum is targeting the audience of misfits, but Christians might say his message is the call we all receive to be transformed by His love. We would also say that the “flip the switch” moment Barnum sings about is instituted sacramentally in Baptism. What we profess is that in baptism, God comes into our being in a different way than was present before, and that through our baptism we are empowered to live entirely different lives, fueled by the Holy Spirit to “come alive” and “dream with our eyes wide open.”
Though it isn’t an effect they used in the movie, it wouldn’t be hard to envision this song beginning in a black-and-white world and then snapping into full color as Barnum turns toward the chorus. There are examples of real lives of Christians whose transformation has been that dramatic. The apostle Paul comes to mind. St. Augustine’s life was like that. I have friends who could tell similar night-and-day stories.
But it’s not true for everyone. I’ll be the first to say that my life has been more like the rising or ebbing of a tide than a sudden Shazam. Most of my friends would say the same. Perhaps as a result, it’s hard to see ourselves in this narrative, and that makes it hard for us to speak to the power of Baptism.
I already talked at length about the transformative power of ritual, in which you transcend this mundane reality to experience an ecstatic spiritual realm. What I described there and is enacted in “The Greatest Show” is described in “Come Alive.” This ritual of initiation is, for Christians, Baptism. We should come out of the waters “never the same,” empowered by the Holy Spirit to “become more than we could ever be.” We profess this. Do we believe it?
One of the too-many divisions among Christians is whether infants and children should be baptized. There is evidence that the earliest Christians baptized entire households, which would presumably include babies. As Christianity became common, and since Baptism was linked to salvation of the soul for eternity, parents began to baptize their children in greater numbers, in hopes that, should they die young (which in the Middle Ages, many did), they would escape Hell and go to Heaven to spend eternity. Others pushed back, saying that accepting Baptism requires a free will that is yet undeveloped in a child. Many evangelical churches stick to an understanding of Baptism that requires the subject to be old enough to understand what Baptism is and have the will to actively seek it. I’m really not interested in arguing either side of this.
But what I am interested in is this: Either way, do we really believe it works?
If Baptism means what we think it means, shouldn’t we be radically different that those who aren’t baptized? Or at least radically different than we would have been had we not been baptized? That latter one is hard to parse out, for those of us baptized as infants, and it’s not that hard to find “nones” who were baptized as infants but have since wandered away from the life of faith.
I have great friends who don’t believe in any religion (including both those who just don’t spend time contemplating questions of faith and those who actively claim a secular worldview that precludes the supernatural). Life would be easier as a Christian if all the people who didn’t believe were heels, sad and lonely, miserable, conniving wretches who smelled funny.
But that’s not real. What’s real is, there are non-believers who are great people, doing great things for society, in loving relationships.
If I believe what I profess, Baptism (and the sacramental life overall) should give me such a power through God’s in dwelling in my life that I am capable of being exponentially better than anyone who doesn’t have that head start. We today talk about privilege and have exercises to help us realize the head start that those with privilege enjoy. In the moral and spiritual life, the gifts of the sacraments are the ultimate privilege.
So when it comes to loving others, the second of the two great commandments, I shouldn’t just be on par with the best unbelievers. I should be remarkably more loving than they are. And joyful, peaceful, kind, patient, generous, and self-controlled. Those are the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). If you don’t have sacramental access to those fruits, how chould you possibly keep up?
So, that’s not what it looks like today. Don’t count on non-Christians to all get wretched. We who profess Christ need to step up.

Made for Joy

We were made for joy.

If you watch children at all, you know that. Laughter, skipping, a silly verve for life are such a part of childhood that even in war-torn countries and refugee camps you can find children playing.

Of course, we drive it out of them as soon as we can. In school, joy can be disruptive, so we wall it off to the courtyard of play-time, which gets curtailed as soon as we can fill their days of scheduled after-school activities and homework, where coaches and teachers further underscore that the point is to get serious and settle down.

We do this, basically, to get people ready for adulthood, where joy is not really a public phenomenon. In the last week, I surreptitiously polled two groups – one in person, and one on Facebook – about what gives them joy. Family (including furry family and families of choice), hobbies, and nature were almost all of the responses. A few people (less than 5) talked about the impact of their (usually volunteer) work. Again, joy is a private, rather than a public phenomenon. But everyone who responded should count themselves lucky – at least they had an answer top of mind.

In the last couple of years we have begun talking about “flow”, which is sort of like joy, except you can’t smile and it has to be in service to your employer.

All of this is wrong.

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I’ll posit a definition for joy, which is one of those things that can be tough to define but you know when you see it. But let’s try this: Joy is the feeling you get when you are doing what you feel like you were meant to do, with the people you were meant to do it, in the place you were meant to be. Joy is the feeling of the soul at play. Joy is both in the journey and the destination; there is a satisfaction from accomplishment that sparks joy, but there is a joy in the process in knowing you are doing your part to its fullest to get there. Joy is infectious, as is its opposite, which I’ll label malaise. And you can choose to be open to joy; you can do the same thing with or without joy (and people can tell the difference from 50 feet away).

As I just defined it, you might think that joy needs to be reserved for something important. I think that misunderstands what I mean by “what we are meant for.” In his many books and talks, Matthew Kelly talks often about “becoming the best possible version of yourself.” That happens at a lot of different levels of what we would usually think of as “important” and acknowledges that we each have different roles to play in different arenas of our lives. Kids are meant to play. So are adults – not just at home or at the beach but everywhere.

The one thing I remember about the movie Chariots of Fire besides the slow-motion running to music was a quote by the British pastor and Olympic runner Eric Liddell. When he was asked how someone with such a serious, important role could spend his time on something as trivial as running, his response was “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” While God did not make me fast, there are times when I swim that I feel God’s pleasure. That’s what joy is.

I have seen joy in unlikely people and places. Not long ago, when the city pool where I swim was undergoing renovation of its locker rooms, the city had port-a-potties installed, and I remember several mornings leaving the pool as the guy whose job it was to service the port-a-potties was about his work. And he was joyous, in how he greeted people and how he acted. Cleaning port-a-potties before dawn. One of the people who runs the front desk at that pool is far happier than anyone should be expected to be at that early hour, anywhere, much less working a front desk. “Peace and love,” she shouts with a smile to you as you leave. They choose the joy they were made for.

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About 20 years ago, I was working at a small university in Mississippi as the sports information director and de facto public affairs officer for the school. One of the things I did was send a weekly email to everyone on campus about what sporting events were coming up. I remember one time, after seeing the school’s theater group put on a show, I put this reflection into my weekly e-mail (paraphrased; my record-keeping is worse than my memory):

There are lots of reasons to go to a sporting event or to a live musical performance, and there are lots of reasons not to. Go to one this week though, for this reason. What I saw at the show last week that grabbed my attention more than the songs themselves was the look on the faces of the performers. They said, not with their words but with the way they performed, that they had done everything they could to prepare for their role, they knew they had the talent to do it well, and they knew they were on the top of their game.

I recognized that look, because I see it in our athletes in the midst of competitioon.That look of joy is one you only really see in theater and sports. But it does us good to get to witness it. Maybe it will rub off, even.

One of the things that makes The Greatest Showman attractive is the joy with which the performers deliver it. The songs certainly have the energy to set them up for that, and the storyline is joyful even despite the challenges characters face. Since the actors are playing performers, they have not only the freedom but the mandate to depict the joy of performing as an expression of the best possible versions of themselves.

Making movies is, I bet, pretty soul-sucking, tedious work. I spent an entire 8-hour day once filming a 30-second commercial, and I was ready to crawl into a hole at the end of that day. But there are a couple of videos released by 20th Century Fox in promotion of the movie that show the joy-behind-the-joy.

Look at this one. Focus on the guy who stands up to sing the second verse, just as an example.

Do something that makes you feel like it looks like that guy feels.

Here’s another great one. I like the woman who looks like she’s standing on a table belting it out, but when Benj Pasek high-fives Hugh Jackman, you see the joy of someone who knows he’s birthed a project that’s going to get green-lit.

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What faith brings to this discussion is this: We make the claim that the highest joy you can feel, the best-possible-best-possible-version-of-yourself, is in fulfilling the role God has in mind for you to love Him and the people he puts in your path as much as you possibly can, and use what gifts you’ve been given to their fullest. What we say we believe is that there are lots of other ways to be joyful, and they are wonderful, but they exist to give us a hint of a more perfect joy that comes from soaking in the love of the divine Lover.

We say that we believe that. It’s pretty rare that we live that way, though. Instead, we spend a lot of time talking down the lesser joys, pooh-poohing and tsk-tsking silliness rather than offering an even more joyful presence to the world.

It would be great, instead, if we worked on choosing the joy before us and striving for the joy we were made for.