Monday, August 22, 2016

Dance: Part of my masculine journey

Those of you who know me know that over the last seven years I’ve gotten involved in the local social dance scene. And I’m growing as a man as a result.

In fact, in the process I’ve found a piece of me that had long gone undiscovered until then — it seems as though everything I am and have can be wrapped up in dance of late. I’m a former basketball player who retired a decade ago from competitive sports, primarily basketball, and have also been a musician since I started taking piano at age 7. Basically, not only can I hear and feel the music but I can move to it as well.

So what does this have to do with the masculine journey that my favorite Christian author, John Eldredge, often refers to? Several things.

One, it’s a skill that needs to, and can, be learned, which means you need someone to teach you; fortunately, at least in my case, my teachers have been good and patient and will tell me exactly what I do right and where I can improve. I’ve been taking lessons in West Coast Swing, my favorite dance, for about two years, and last month the instructor was showing us how to get out of a certain position. I did something different than what he was demonstrating, but he told me that what I did was simply another way to do it. (In WCS there’s a lot of leeway.)

Two, done properly dance is elegant, with elegance being one of my weaknesses, so to speak, and I’ve come to appreciate watching couples on the floor who’ve been at it for a while. At some point I’d like to develop a routine with a regular partner; while I don’t see myself as a competitor it’s something to look forward to. Eldredge has consistently said that appreciating beauty is part of the journey.

Three — and I’m seeing this more and more — it really is a way to impress women, who appreciate a man who knows how to take the lead. While attending a birthday party in November I spotted a woman squirming in her seat to the Earth, Wind & Fire song “September” so, seeing an opportunity, I offered my hand, lifted her to her feet and led her in some basic WCS steps. At the end she grabbed my arm and, nearly in tears, said to me, because I knew how to dance with a partner, “You made my day!” (And in photos I saw later I saw the delight on her face.) Thinking about it now, I’ve always been attracted to dancers — during my first romantic relationship, in the summer of 1988, when I was visiting her at her apartment my girlfriend often wore ballet slippers, which I found incredibly sexy.

Indeed, many of my fondest memories of late have involved dance. Last month I wrote a tune inspired by another regular at an East Coast Swing (jitterbug) dance, and after I presented her with the lead sheet she was moved to tears. She even told me that not only did she want to hear the tune performed by the 16-piece band that plays there — I also do arranging — but that she wanted to dance with me when it’s played. (Needless to say, I’m working on that now.)

Here in Pittsburgh ballroom dancing has become quite popular, and while I’m not nearly as accomplished as I am with swing dancing it has a similar effect on me. Learning gives a sense of accomplishment, and I hope to keep doing it as long as I live. Which is the point.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Democratic Derangement Syndrome?

I must admit that I’ve always been mystified by the pure hatred displayed over the years toward Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I really am, especially now.

At this point it can’t simply be about policies, especially since current Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump isn’t, and never has pretended to be by anyone’s standards, a true conservative. Indeed, a number of evangelical Christians have pretty much ignored his flip-flops on abortion and embrace (at last publicly) of gay rights. It can’t be about “truthfulness,” since Obama and the Clintons don’t lie more than anyone else.

It seems to me that the situation comes about because, and only because, a Democrat targeted for defeat just won’t go down. And that’s juvenile.

In 1999 Bill Clinton of course beat the impeachment rap not simply because the charges were bogus, which they were, but also because he was able to talk his way back into the good graces of much of the public. Of course, Obama would have been impeached were his enemies in Washington able to find charges to do so — but they couldn’t.

And with Hillary Clinton, she’s had eight hearings on “Benghazi,” the last one going 11 hours. What’s worse from the perspective of her enemies, she seemed to be the only one standing after they tried to punch her lights out (figuratively); if anything, she’s emerged stronger than ever. And except for a choice few words, she’s pretty much ignored Trump, who’s called her “Hillary Rotten Clinton” and “the devil.” (And Trump’s base eats up those epithets.)

I’m forced to conclude that their critics want only someone to hate. Trouble is, such a hunger can never be sated because it’s all-consuming — even at the cost of their souls.

That’s what concerns me about this election, that if Hillary is elected, and at this point the odds strongly favor her, we’ll see four more years of sabotage. I don’t suspect that the people who don’t want her back in the White House will suddenly call off the dogs and accept her — I see them fighting her at every turn. And she has to know that as well. This appears personal, not just political — and won’t stand.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

What will we talk about on Nov. 9?

This general election season, especially with Hillary Clinton running against Donald Trump for the presidency, has promised to be to be entertaining and it’s certainly been that.

But of course, like all campaigns, it will end in November. And then what will we do?

If recent history is any guide, people will still be fuming that their person won’t get to the White House. And that’s sad because we have only one president per country.

It also speaks to the focus on the presidential race; while certainly important, we also need to consider the “down-ballot” races, for Congress, both in the House and Senate.

And here I’ll say that the only way we’ll have any substantive change — assuming that’s what people want—is if Secretary Clinton wins. And it will have little or nothing to do with her.

Why? Because of all the candidates she’s the only one with coattails — that is to say, people voting for her will also likely vote for House and Senate Democrats. Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson don’t have that kind of pull, and numerous other Republicans are running away from Trump due to his intemperate statements. (Of course Trump supporters are already complaining that the media are giving him a raw deal. If you’re one of those, give it a rest because it isn’t true.)

I guess it reminds me just how many people wrongly put their trust in the presidency to enact substantive change. Yes, he (or, come next year, likely she) does have a lot of power but needs to work with Congress to get anything done. Trump said at the Republican National Convention said that he alone understood the system and thus could push his program through, which said plenty.

That being said, however, over the past few cycles families have been divided and friendships lost over politics, which ironically should represent compromise. It will be sad to see if we’re unable to pick up the pieces come Nov. 9.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Now that it's official ...

We now have our combatants for the presidency — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump; the former was expected but the latter wasn’t. Whatever, it will be another hard-fought campaign to become what some say it the leader of the free world.

I’m asking my fellow Christians one thing: Whatever you do, don’t trash Hillary. Oppose her policies if you must, but don’t start using nasty names — no “Hillary Rotten Clinton,” as Trump said earlier this week, and no vulgar T-shirts as were sold at the Republican National Convention last week.

I ask that for two reasons. One, it’s not going to work because she’s been through this before, with the persecution of her husband Bill during the 1990s. When she complained about the “vast right-wing conspiracy” right before he was impeached, she was telling the truth (I knew that because I’d done my own research years before). Bringing up “Benghazi” or emails won’t have any effect either, since it’s been clear from the start that it’s politically motivated.

The other is that much of the opposition to her is based purely on envy in that the focus is not so much on getting someone in the White House that folks like but simply keeping her out because they don’t. That’s no good reason because you have to have a positive — someone to vote for. Besides, hating her is bad witness in that some will say or do anything that’s against whether true or false, with most of what’s being said about her being false.

But what about the “judgment of God” on our nation? I’d first worry about the judgment of God on the church because He hasn’t executed that yet—and when He does it won’t be pretty. Indeed, He may be doing that now, with Christian influence being diminished because of our desire for power rather than our willingness to serve, essentially knocking God off His throne.

Remember, even if Hillary Clinton becomes president Jesus is still King. Remember.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A "listening tour"

In my off-hours I’m a jazz musician, and any jazz musician will tell you that if you want to sound good you need to listen to the other players around you.

That metaphor also goes for a nation, especially now that we’re so divided politically, more so at any time that I recall in my lifetime. And I think a lot of that is connected to the “siloing” of people according to race, class, culture, ideology or whatever. We don’t live in the same neighborhoods, work together, eat together, worship together — we don’t have those connections.

I know what it’s like to lose friends over politics and it does hurt; in some cases (but not in mine, fortunately) even families have been fractured. And do you know what it would take to change that?

Listening. It’s really that simple. And in doing so, not thinking that you have all the answers.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been excoriated, and rightly so I believe, for his crassness, bombast and constant badgering of those he doesn’t agree with. Why would anyone support him? Because he’s brought up issues of economic hardship in the “Rust Belt” brought on at least in part by globalization. Had people listened to his supporters then he might not be where he is today.

The group “Black Lives Matter” has been denounced as racist and anti-police, among other things. But their critics don’t understand that many, if not most, African-Americans have felt abused by police. Lately, BLM activists have held meetings and even picnics with police officers and got together in a number of cities, including Dallas, where the five cops were shot to death; and here in Pittsburgh.

That may have gone a long way toward defusing tensions. Let’s keep that going.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A true 'community of reconciliation'

In my late teens and early 20s my family attended the Community of Reconciliation, an interracial, interdenominational, left-leaning church at the edge of the city’s university district. And for me, in many ways it was a poor fit.

My previous church was conservative theologically, in that it really studied the Bible thoroughly, and before long I felt on a spiritual level that I was dying on the vine. Furthermore, COR was pro-choice on abortion and gay-affirming, stances I couldn’t accept, and I ended up leaving at the end of 1983 (by this time, my family had already broken up).

Two things came from that, however: One, a member of the choir was on the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — and it’s because of him that I work there today.

The other is that COR got the race thing exactly right.

I don’t recall any discussions of “white privilege” — this was well over 30 years ago — but when it came to such relationships nothing was off the table. By definition the leadership was split down the middle between black and white. (There weren’t enough Native Americans, Hispanics or Asians in Pittsburgh, let alone in the church, to make a difference.) I recall no attempt to “spare” the feelings of white members but, by contrast, no resentment toward the white race from its black members.

For the longest time I wished for an evangelical congregation that had a similar commitment to racial reconciliation because the Gospel, as I have come to understand it, is all about reconciliation. One obstacle to that, however, is the “individualistic” way in which American evangelicals often read the Scripture, focusing on “fire insurance,” personal holiness and cultural issues.

But while we’re “saved” individually, we’re saved into a Body — the Body of Christ, that is — and as such we belong to one another. As I Corinthians reads, “But God has put the body together … so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (v. 24b-26).

That passage should have an impact on race relations in the church, but sadly it often doesn’t. In fact, racial reconciliation has been an issue in the evangelical church only in the last quarter-century and largely because Bill McCartney of the Promise Keepers men’s ministry made it one — and hurt the ministry financially in the process because folks didn’t want to hear about what he called a “spirit of racism,” which he personally witnessed in his previous life as a college football coach.

Thing is, he was right.

Now, people may say, “I never owned slaves. I didn’t live in the South. I really don’t see color.”

All true, perhaps, but the effects of racism still exist especially in or near most major cities, where many of your black “brothers and sisters” live. They may be stopped by the police for no good reason. They may have trouble finding jobs, in part because the people doing the hiring don’t live in their neighborhoods.

In other words, the effects of past racist practices have yet to be overcome. I hope people can hear that and not complain that African-Americans are simply whining.

By the way, I eventually located an evangelical church that is committed to building bridges — right here in Pittsburgh. I’m honored to say that I’ve attended that church for nearly 18 years, and I knew that God called me there because I was at first resistant as I thought it might be too good to be true.

I’ve met people who aren’t really on board with it, but that’s OK. It has the potential to be a true “community of reconciliation,” where differences aren’t emphasized or papered over but transcended. Moreover, other churches in the area are doing the same.

Remember the old chorus “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love.”


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Admitting America’s — and the church's — race problem

About 20 years ago Steelers linebacker Gregg Lloyd wore a T-shirt in training camp with the slogan "Real Men Are Black." In that day it was a takeoff on the Oakland Raiders' saying "Real Men Wear Black."

But Lloyd's T-shirt caused consternation because others interpreted the saying as racist, which didn’t make sense to me. And only recently did I understand why.

A number of people of late have denounced the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and the group behind it that protests police abuse of African-American citizens. They seem to believe that it means “Only Black Lives Matter” when it’s really saying “Black Lives Also Matter.”

And the reality is that black lives often don’t matter, which is their point. (I’m not endorsing the movement, by the way.) That was also Lloyd's point.

I’m writing primarily to a Christian audience, and it pains me to say that we do have a race problem even in the church that, if we don’t address it, will compromise our witness for Christ (and in fact has already done so at times). Trouble is, most of us won’t see it because doing so might make people uncomfortable.

But isn’t that what we do when we tell people about coming to Jesus? Indeed, too often we complain that non-believers persecute us because we make them uncomfortable.

I have experience in such. In the early 1980s I was asked to leave an otherwise all-white campus fellowship and attend a black one that the umbrella ministry offered; I told the staff person making the request that I wouldn’t do that. Fifteen years ago I broke off a relationship with a woman who wanted to marry me in part because her church, which she didn’t want to leave, had literature that I learned later came from what used to be the White Citizens Council, still listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I refused to go there.

That being said, we Christians need to confront ourselves and our own attitudes. Too many of us have this idea that mere “conversion” would suffice; if that were the case I wouldn’t be writing this. Indeed, far from being divisive, I'm only exposing the divisiveness that already exists and for which we share the blame.

Keep in mind that Billy Graham, committed to an anti-racist viewpoint, was threatened with the pulling of financial support for putting an African-American man on staff. And Martin Luther King Jr. was denounced as an outside agitator during the 1963 campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala.

More to the point, we who follow Christ need a dose of humility and recognize that perhaps our views aren’t the only ones that matter. For this reason we need to build relationships across racial, economic and cultural lines and be willing to confess our own myopia.

I know — I’ve been doing just that since the 1970s.