Saturday, November 26, 2016

On the 2016 Baylor Football Season

This blog will not be my usual religious and/or political thought, movie review, or philosophical meandering. It is instead a commentary on a situation that will only matter to a select subset of the readers of my blog.

I am a Baylor football fan.

I watched my Baylor Bears play a terrible football game yesterday. It was their second terrible performance in a row, their third awful performance in the last four, and their fifth loss in a row. They are very likely to lose a sixth in a row to conclude the season next week; I hope it is not with another terrible performance.

The background story is well-known - certainly to the subset of my blog readers who are still reading this one - so I will not belabor it. Instead, I want to offer thoughts.

Back in May, the day after Art Briles was fired, I wrote the following on my Facebook post:

Baylor - The Day After
Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I love the Lord, love my family, love practicing law, love writing, love Baylor University, and love Baylor sports. I try very hard to keep it in that order.
I do not have any inside information. I have precisely the same facts and data that anyone else who cares to read the Pepper Hamilton report and do some basic Googling has or can have. I have withheld judgment because I knew I did not have all the facts, and I understood the University's reluctance to discuss too much private information publicly. Now, however, we have the findings of the law firm, and the time for withholding judgment is past.
Here are my thoughts at the moment. They are still developing.
1. I have a daughter at Baylor. I have female students at Baylor. I have any number of friends with daughters at Baylor. I know many Baylor coeds through my kids. Baylor simply must be a safe place.
2. That multiple sexual assaults occurred is awful and inexcusable. My heart breaks for the victims.
3. That the football program did not comply with the law is inexcusable. That the football program did not comply with Baylor policy - such as it was - is inexcusable.
4. The university's policies in place for dealing with the reality of college students - football players or otherwise - in the 21st century were naive. Those policies have evolved, and the Regents' action indicates a push for them to continue to evolve to the very cutting edge. We can debate the politics of Title IX and "in loco parentis" and government regulation all we want, but the University has legal responsibilities here, and it is now stepping up to them in what appears to me to be a first rate way.
5. The critics who say "why didn't Baylor act sooner" of course have a point, but hiring a preeminent national law firm with no ties to Baylor, giving that firm complete access, waiting for that firm to compile evidence and report, digesting that report, and then acting on it seem to me to be reasonable steps under these circumstances.
6. Self-congratulatory Facebook posts of "look how brilliantly and clearly we responded" are offset by the brutal attacks I am reading and hearing to the effect, to quote the Houston Chronicle, of "no school deserves it more." Neither extreme is credible.
7. Baylor is much more than the sum of its parts. I have barely met Coach Briles, know Judge Starr only slightly better, and have no contact at all with McCaw, but I am confident in saying that they are people who work, or worked, for Baylor but do not constitute the Baylor I know. I know Baylor too well. The Regents are also not Baylor, but they appear to be trying to reach for Baylor's truest vision and purpose, and for that they deserve some appreciation.
8. I am justifiably ashamed that these events happened on and around the campus that has meant and still means so much to me.
9. I am justifiably proud that Baylor has stepped up - as no university that I know of has - to make clear the priority of student safety, following the law, and doing the right thing over winning football games.
10. Complaints about the overreach of Title IX, "why did those girls get in those situations," "when you win they are all out to get you," "this happens everywhere," and "the media/ESPN caused an overreaction" are all irrelevant, or at least not important in the moment, whether they are true or not. The law is the law, and it must be followed unless and until it is changed. Victim-blaming is always tenuous but is completely out of place when your process does not allow for victims to be treated with fairness and respect in the first place. The sports-page analysis is so secondary to the issues here that it can be addressed months from now.
I am sure we will learn more - both good and bad - in the coming weeks. The NCAA will do whatever the NCAA will do.
I am so sorry for the victims - the assaulted, the innocent caught up in the shrapnel, and the many who do so much good for, in, and through Baylor whose name and reputation will be affected by the actions of the few.
With great power comes great responsibility. With money and exposure and fame and adulation comes even greater responsibility. Regardless of from where the attacks have come - and here they have come more from within than from without - Baylor is better than this.
It is time to take our medicine.
Sometimes the way to light the ways of time is to stand up and be responsible for what you have done, or allowed, or encouraged.
I will still go to the football games and fling my green and gold afar. I believe we can win the right way and don't need criminals on the team to do it. I guess we will see.


Now, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, six months later, I add these thoughts.

1. To Those Who Criticize the Board of Regents - How can you possibly have enough information to know that what they did was wrong? The information presented was devastating and damning. I know we don't know everything. I know that many of you are crying out for the university to pay the law firm to write up a tell-all for the world to read. To what end? Are you so distrustful that you believe that Coach Briles was innocent and that the Regents are hiding something that will prove their own fault? Really? Are you suddenly an expert in how to run a multi-million dollar enterprise like Baylor? Are you an expert in how to delegate responsibility to a university administration, especially one run by a non-educator who believes (perhaps rightly) that he is one of the smartest men on the planet? Did you ever seek "full disclosure" of information upon which the Regents acted before, whether it was in the firing of a president or the building of a stadium or the addition of a degree or the determination of campus rules? Calls for "transparency" and "reform" are ringing through cyberspace with no detail at all. What do you really want? Why are you in a rush to "drain the swamp" as though the Board of Regents were Tammany Hall?

(Footnote - the number of my Facebook friends who publish these criticisms who also publish or published multiple pro-Donald Trump messages is interesting.)

I understand the seeking of a scapegoat, but I ask you to consider what the Regents did. They reacted in the name of campus safety, Christian values, and the good name of the university.

Is winning football games really more important?

I am not naive. I know that winning games has helped Baylor's image. I know that Coach Briles is largely responsible for that new stadium. I know he deserves a lot of credit for increased applications, enrollments, and giving - although I give Robert Griffin at least as much credit. But Baylor is Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana, not Pro Football.

Do you believe that Coach Briles got a raw deal? Really? After all we know now, are you still willing to say that criminal acts by multiple football players are not at some level the responsibility of the head man, the man who intentionally brought to campus players with a sketchy history because he (admirably) thought he could help them find the straight and narrow? After all we know about the choices made and the messages sent to complaining students?

Was firing the coach going too far? Maybe. Maybe a one-year suspension without pay would have been the right answer. But if so, we are now arguing about the fine points of personnel policy, and if those of us with extremely limited information are going to start micro-managing those decisions, that is the beginning of the end.

I do not know many of the Regents, but the ones I do know are honorable and smart - some brilliant - people who have the best interests of Baylor and the cause of Christ as their goals. If they made mistakes, they did so honestly and with the best of intentions. It is time for folks to get off their backs.

2. To Those Who Criticize the University for Continuing to Play Football - Why punish the innocent? I have Facebook friends - some of whom are alumni and close friends of mine - who have jumped on the Paul Finebaum bandwagon, thrown up their hands in disgust, and declared by all that's holy that the only decent thing to do is to self-impose the Death Penalty in some glorious penitential conflagration. From the Finebaums and others who don't know or who hate Baylor - including graduates of other nearby schools - these pleas come across not as well-thought-out analyses but rather as gleeful chances to point fingers and dance in the ashes. When they come from alums, they sound like embarrassment and disaffection. Either way, they make no sense to me. Baylor has taken more steps in the face of these events than any major-college-football university in history - the head coach, athletic director, and president are gone; signees were voluntarily released from their letters of intent (I don't see UT, LSU, or anybody else with a coaching change doing that); and the university has very publicly stated that football prowess takes a back seat at Baylor to safety and doing the right thing.

Are you really so caught up in the politically correct media-approved response that you would throw the Bears out with the bathwater?

(Footnote - the number of my Facebook friends who publish these criticisms who also publish or published multiple pro-Hillary Clinton messages is interesting.)

3. To the Assistant Coaches - You should be ashamed of yourselves. I do not know any of you, and I am assuming that you are all upstanding, honorable men. I am happy to dismiss the two very unfortunate social media posts by one coach's wife as the frustrations of a good person whose father, husband, and brother are all central players in this. You have been asked to work with and for Coach Grobe, who by all accounts is a good guy thrown into an impossible situation, but you did not sign up for him and did not know him, so of course that was tough for you too. Your loyalty to Coach Briles is commendable and to be expected.

I don't know how much responsibility, if any, any of you bears with regard to the criminal situation. The Regents blamed the non-football side of the house that reported to Coach Briles, and you were spared. So I am not willing to assume you knew more and did nothing, or worse, you helped to shush the victims ... although those accusations are certainly out there.

I am not, however, willing to dismiss the incredible destructiveness of the Friday Night Massacre before the TCU game. I am not willing to dismiss the poor taste of the money-bag-emoji Tweets after getting bowl eligibility, especially when you cannot lead the team to a single further victory. I have watched these players in every game (albeit one game on TV), and they are not under the same direction they were earlier in the year. That is on you. Nobody blames the players, at least primarily.

And if any of you dares to say a word against the school or decry how you have been treated - again, I am giving the one coach's wife a pass on her tweets - I will not be willing to dismiss your public disdain for the university, which kept you under very trying circumstances when it had absolutely no obligation to do so. For you to speak badly of Baylor now - especially in light of your lousy performance - would be beyond the pale.

4. To the Fair Weather Baylor Fans - I really do not get it. We sat through - and generally enjoyed and rooted for - years of mediocre-to-decent football punctuated by a few really good (i.e. 8-3) years under Coach Teaff, whom we consider a hero. We sat through - and rooted for, even if we did not enjoy - years after that of truly bad teams. We saw losses to UNLV and North Texas and Army. We cheered when we beat A&M in overtime or upset Texas. We struggled through years of Big XII doormat status. Now, after six bowls in a row, you suddenly have changed personalities? You now care more about how many uniform combinations and 70-point games the Bears can muster than with what kind of kids we are developing? You now are going to leave the Kansas State game at halftime trailing by a touchdown because the temperature is in the 50s?

You ought to be ashamed. If you thought you were helping to create a big-time college football powerhouse, you have a lot to learn. Watch Michigan State fans today, as their team is finishing a three win season. Watch Ole Miss fans as their team, once ranked in the Top 5, flames out and misses a bowl. See how those fans react to their teams next year.

5. Finally, to the Baylor Administration, Regents, and All Who Fancy Themselves Leaders or Influencers of Baylor - Winning is great. I love to brag about my team. But the essence of Baylor is better, and I will brag about my school as long as we stand for the right thing. You are not led by the media, by the boosters, by the BaylorFans.com editorialists, or by the Playoff Committee. Your Leader is far more important, and most of us are following the same Leader. We are marching with you.

Let's all take a deep breath, fix what is broken, and remain thankful that there is a Baylor who seeks to follow Christ and educate our students in a full-scale university that plays Big XII sports and teaches our kids how to live and lead in the world. There are plenty of Bible schools and plenty of football factories, and God bless them if that is what they want to be. We have never been either one, and I don't really think we want to start being either now.

Monday, October 3, 2016

More News for Readers of Blogarithmic Expressions - My Latest Book

My new book, Grace Always Comes: Daily Devotionals Theough the Bible, is available. I hope you will log on to my website, www.LynRobbins.com, and order it today.

From the Introduction:




Grace always comes…

As I wrote this book, I had at least three purposes in mind:
1. To help those who want to launch a yearlong daily practice of reading the Bible, front to back, by offering both a bit of motivation to keep reading every day and some explanation of stories, poems, prophecies, and hard-to-decipher items in scripture they would encounter along the way. I imagine among my readers both the committed Christ-follower who has never quite made it all the way through a Read-The-Bible-In-A-Year plan and the Christ-seeker who is encountering scripture for the first time and wondering how best to approach reading it. And if there is among the readers a true unbeliever or skeptic who is willing to pick up a Bible and see what all the fuss is about, I would be honored for this book to be used as guide for the effort.

2. To provide a daily devotional for those who do not want to tackle reading the entire Bible but who nonetheless would be intrigued by and interested in devotionals that follow the Bible story and build upon each other as scripture does.

3. To give some new perspective to the dedicated disciple who has read the Bible through many times before and is looking for a new companion piece as she reads through yet again.
However you use this book, I hope you will see, as I have discovered, the repeated them of grace throughout scripture. Grace is classically defined as the “unmerited favor” of God, and I find that favor given and displayed in virtually every chapter of the Bible.

There is, of course, Grace with a capital G. It is the “Amazing Grace” that saves us, the “marvelous, infinite, matchless Grace” that is greater than all our sin. We do not order, request, or earn saving Grace. It just comes, offered freely to all. It is up to us to respond to it.
There are many other kinds of grace, ranging from the small to the mighty, from the (almost) unnoticed to the obvious, and from the natural to the miraculous. In scripture, grace begins with the provision of a garden to the homeless and an outfit to the naked and ends with an invitation and a benediction. In between, we see grace coming to us as an ark, in the belly of a big fish, out of a rock in the desert, in hair that grows back, as flour from an empty pot, by healings, through words, and in countless other places and avenues. This grace comes often, and it comes to point the way to Grace.

As you read through scripture with the help of these individual little devotionals, it is my prayer that you see both Grace and grace. God repeatedly sends Grace our way to give us every possible chance to accept the free gift of eternal life; and grace comes every day – God’s mercies are new every morning -because the kingdom of God is at hand, and God loves us so much that He lavishes His unmerited favor on us in ways too numerous to quantify.
Grace continues to come to you and to me. We do not put in a request for it… Grace always comes.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Public Discourse

I have been invited to participate in a public debate next week. The foundation sponsoring it has started something called the Podius Debates. There will be three of them across the country this year, bringing public speakers to various locations to have serious debates about issues of national interest in a civil forum. This corporation supports high school and college debate, and I am glad they have extended their support to letting us debate has-beens have a chance to show what we can do.



We have been assigned the topic and the side. It was not my choice to enter the public arena and argue that affirmative action harms those it intends to help, but I will fulfill this assignment and happily join the process. As I have written here, here, and elsewhere, debate has taught me that there are at least two sides to everything, and to take a side and debate thoughtfully someone who is carefully taking the other side brings out the best of us.

I will admit, however, to some bit of concern about tackling this issue in today's climate. News of Charlotte and Tulsa dominates this week's TV. We are not far removed from Dallas and Flint and Trayvon Martin. We can disagree all we want on why it is happening - 24-hour news cycles or actual rise in racism or liberal news slants or conservative news slants or whatever - but only those with their heads way in the sand do not recognize the staggering rise in the rhetoric concerning race relations in America in 2016. Whatever you think about "Black Lives Matter" or Colin Kaepernick or the new incarnation of "Ghostbusters," the issues of black-vs-white or black-and-white have dominated discussions coast to coast. That is likely a good thing, but the reason I say I have a "bit of concern" is the nature of much of that discussion. I have, half-jokingly, told the others involved in the debate that I need to be shielded from the tomatoes that may be thrown from the audience because of the side of the debate I have been assigned. The debate has already been attacked on social media as lacking the necessary "human narrative" to have a legitimate discussion of this topic because neither of the debaters is black, as though qualification to discuss an issue of national importance is based on skin color. Irony abounds.

Notwithstanding what audience reaction might be, I am eager to participate, to demonstrate what reasoned public discourse on a subject of significant import can look like. To fail to do so would make me a hypocrite, as I have written too often - here and here, just as examples - of the need to participate well in the public sphere.

I was talking to a friend last night about the debate, and my tongue slipped as I said that I was doing this to add to the "public discord." I meant "public discourse," of course. It was a quick object lesson in how easy it is for a discussion of reason and civility to move to vitriol and anger, from discourse to discord.

I think the debate will be fun. If you are in the DFW area on September 29, what better way to celebrate my wife's birthday then to come to a public debate?

I think we may allow some folks to think about affirmative action in ways they have not before. I also think that if we can provide, in some small way, an example of how to discuss crucial, emotional issues without throwing tomatoes or turning over cars, we will have done a much greater service.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Cure

It is happening again. Death. Division. Revenge. Misunderstanding. Anger. Literal violence in the streets.

Black. White. Blue.

And that is just this week. Two weeks ago, the focus was not on black/white but on gay/straight. Not long before that, it was on Muslim/non-Muslim.

People groups are targeted, whether based on their race, their color, their national origin, their politics, their sexuality, their religion, their occupation, or their association with people of a given race, sexuality, political persuasion, religion, or job.

Pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote: "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

One does not have to be black, Muslim, gay, Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, or employed as a police officer to stand with those who are targeted.

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

This week, I have heard all sorts of so-called causes for our national (and international) crisis described and blamed. Those scapegoats have included gun laws, drug laws, the internet and social media, poor mental health care, tv violence, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, President Obama, the professional media, the level of debate in the country, conservatism, liberalism, and others. I believe those may all contribute, but they are at most symptoms. As I have written before, our basic problem is that we do not love each other enough.

That simple statement - we don't love each other enough - is profound to some and laughable to others. When I posted that message on Facebook, I got "amen" and "100% agree" comments alongside "100% disagree" comments. Those who disagree are good people; I assume they disagree because they think my sentiment is too simple, even naïve. They believe that most of us love one another and that it is just some bad apples who are the problem.

Still, I sense that many agree, or are moving to agree, with me on the true cause. For years, we have addressed these types of issues with agendas and laws. We have poured money into social programs. We have assessed special additional penalties for "hate crimes." We have mandated sensitivity training. Now, when the president suggests that the answer is a new "task force," his suggestion is met with scoffing disbelief. More and more, people are realizing that curricula and action plans cannot address problems of the heart.

So, we have identified the cause: we do not love each other enough. Does that end the story?

Of course not. Because telling people to "go out and love each other more" is not going to work.

Loving one another is not something we can just decide to do with any chance of long-term solvency. We can sing "What the World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love" all we want to, but wishing and hoping will never make it so. We are fallen, sinful, puny human beings, tossed by the winds and subject to our own natural biases, prejudices, and basic failings. Left to our own devices, no matter how much we try, we will never love fully or perfectly or permanently. If the cause is the problem of the heart, and it is, then the solution requires curing the heart. Loving others requires first receiving the love of God.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.... Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.... God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.

God is the source - the only source - of love. Jesus gave - and gives - His "new command" because Jesus is God in the flesh, showing us who God is and embodying the fullness of God so we can know what God is like.

It is incumbent on those of us who know God to demonstrate God's love to a violent and angry world, to love those who are not like us and do not look like us and do not act like we do and do not believe like we do.

But even demonstrating the love of God to everyone is not enough; it is incumbent on us to introduce others to God. We need to stop telling people how to act and how to love. In this matter, as in all things, expecting those who do not know God to act as if they did know God is fruitless and silly. We need instead to lead them to the One who can and will change their hearts and their souls. They need to know God, to experience God's love, to want to know what God has that can change their lives. That takes time and energy. Jesus did not just show up and demand that Peter and Matthew and the rest start loving their Roman oppressors. Jesus spent three intense years with his closest apostles before announcing, the night before His death, this "new command." So, we need to focus less on telling people how to act and more on introducing them to the One who can cure the heart. And along the way, we need to model that love and demonstrate clearly what it means to follow Christ.

We do not love each other enough because (1) not enough of us know God, who is love and (2) those of us who do know God are not demonstrating God's love clearly nearly often enough.

Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing... But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds.

We know the cause. And we know the cure.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Of Orlando, Presidential Elections, Baylor, Hibiscus, and Lamentations

We have this bush outside our garage. I think it is a hibiscus, but I could be wrong. I am not much of a botanist.

Gena cuts it back to almost nothing every fall. It looks like a few dead branches for months and months. Then spring comes, and it bursts forth in green sprigs that go every which way, and I sometimes wonder why we have it at all. Just yesterday, it was not blooming. It was just a mess of green.

(OK, I will get back to that bush in a minute.)

The news is not pretty these days. This morning's senseless massacre of partiers in Orlando dominates the news, pushing to the next page the lingering fallout from the sexual assaults and following actions and inactions on the campus of my alma mater.

We face a presidential election characterized with a new set of rhetoric not seen in my lifetime. Not displaying just the vitriol that I have written about before and that has been all too commonplace, this election cycle has added a whole new level of negativism and bitter sky-is-falling wailing. I know very few people who are adamantly supporting their candidate of choice; I know many more who are adamantly opposed to the other candidate at almost any cost. And I know many, like me, who have no idea for whom they will vote in November.

Discouragement is the emotion of the day. Calamity and crisis are, according to my Facebook feed, around every corner. It appears that the sky really is falling.

And then, this morning, that annoying bush had burst forth with three bright red flowers, striking and beautiful and very much in my face. Suddenly, I see buds on it everywhere, and I know that tomorrow promises more and bigger and redder blooms. I start remembering something about new mercies every morning.


While accusations and finger-pointing have continued ad nauseam in political campaigns and in the news articles about Baylor, these tendrils have grown. Literally, while victims were dying in the early morning hours, these blooms were opening.

I don't know what you do with new-every-morning reminders that God is on the throne, but I offer this: God has not given up on His world. Rain is still falling, and flowers are still growing. Caterpillars are still spinning their cocoons, and butterflies will still emerge. Earth will continue to make its revolutions around the sun.

I do not mean to be simple. In fact, I mean just the opposite.

There is a lot to mourn, and God mourns with us. There is a lot to address and to fix, and God works with us. There is a lot to be ashamed of and to confess, and God hears us and forgives.

But try as we might, we cannot take over. We cannot affect the cycles of the world. That darn flower is going to bloom in spite of us.

In some very old-fashioned words, it is said this way: I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning: Great is Thy Faithfulness.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Notes on Notes from Susie

(A version of this post - the actual letter I wrote to Mark, edited only slightly to remove a couple of very personal references - has already appeared on the website www.notesfromsusie.com. Here, I have edited that letter more carefully for my readers who do not know Mark, Susie, or the story of her last years.)

I have just had quite a weekend. The Susie Edwards Memorial Concert was Saturday night, held in conjunction with the release of the new book Notes from Susie. You can read about and order the book here.

Without rehashing the history that has led to the book, let me say briefly that it is a compilation, primarily, of a running diary kept by Mark and Susie Edwards during Susie's two-year bout with cancer that ended with her death in March of 2015. This diary took the form of almost nightly Facebook posts on a group site established by the Edwards' daughter Weslee Edwards Hill.

This blog is not really meant to be an advertisement for the book. They have a good marketing campaign already. Instead, I want to see if I can articulate my reaction to having read the book on the heals of having sung in the thrilling concert, which you can see here. There are some spoilers about how the book ends in this blog, but since I have already said in the previous paragraph that Susie died last year, I don't think any of the spoilers really matters.

I began reading the book the night of the concert. I sat up late reading, but I had to give up a little after midnight, 100 pages or so in. Rehearsals were long and the concert was intense, and I was exhausted.

I picked up reading again on the flight home. I expect the tattooed gentleman sitting next to me drinking his scotch on the rocks wondered why I was getting weepy reading a paperback, but he did not ask. The plane landed just as I reached the point where Susie chooses to forgo further treatment and Mark calls in hospice. We got our bags, drove home, and spent some time with my daughter, and then I came upstairs, turned on the video of the concert, and finished reading.

Reading the book with the concert playing in the background created what I would call coincidences... if I believed in coincidences. For instance, as I got to the page on which Mark records Susie's actual death, speaking of how she "turned and looked straight into the Light," I was listening to "Be Thou My Vision."

Having read most of the words in Notes from Susie the first time as they were posted on Facebook, I went into reading the book with an expectation of being reminded, and I suppose I was, but that is far and away not the primary experience ... or even in the Top 5, of what the book meant to me. Reading this book was not about reminders. Reading the book was an almost entirely new, and profound, event.

So, if being reminded was not the primary impact of the book, what was?

First, I heard Susie's voice so clearly. As I told Gena on the drive home from the airport, I do not know that I ever thought of Susie's speaking voice as being particularly unique, but it is distinct to me now. I read all the time, and I suppose I conjure up voices in my imagination for characters in books, but never before has it happened to me like this... where I read the words of someone and hear her particular voice enunciating every syllable as though she were sitting next to me carrying on a conversation. I don't really know what to make of that yet, except to say the book is entirely personal. I did not hear her voice in that same way when I was reading the posts on Facebook; this was different in kind. So perhaps there is something to the idea that Susie was somehow with me, sitting next to me, writing me a note and reading it out loud to make sure it was just right before she sealed the envelope, as I read. My theology does not entirely know what to do with that, but I know what I experienced.

Second, I am overwhelmed by the lists of things for which Susie is grateful as she walks through the shadow... even at times expressing thankfulness for her health.

Third, I found myself rooting for her as I read. Of course, I knew the ending. I knew that she is not going to make it. But as I turned pages, especially early on, I found myself hoping against hope that the next infusion will be the magic elixir that will kill the dreaded disease and mean decades more of life for her. Illogical? Yes, since I just sang in her memorial concert. And yet, the struggle is on, and as in any good book, I was fighting right along with the hero.

Fourth, I found myself asking hard questions, questions with painful answers. Since I knew the ending, and the timing of the ending, I reacted viscerally as the days wear on and the details become more and more painful. I started yelling (in my head - I did not want to disturb my seatmate's scotch) at Susie not to have that next infusion, not to put herself through another dose of poison that I knew is not going to work. I found myself asking, "Is it worth it?" And before that awful question was even fully formed, the answers came flooding in. Whether the medicine gave her another week or another month is not for me to know, but what I do know is the implausible, incredible, oh-so-real impact Susie's (and Mark's) experiences had and are having on hundreds, yea thousands, of people every single day. What God did with the choices, hurts, hopes, dealing with the ups and downs of a losing battle, and of course faith of Mark and Susie goes beyond the depths of comprehension, passing all understanding. As their daughter Weslee explains near the book's conclusion, Mark and Susie's story has had and continues to have a modern fish-and-loaves impact. As the diary progresses, Mark and Susie make every choice based on the best advice from doctors, taking each other's wishes into account, and grounded in faith in God; and the outcome is what the outcome is. In the meantime - in the middle of the journey - they each, individually and together, evidence what most people only sniff around the edges, if they have any real sense of it at all. I do not for a minute suggest that this two-year free-fall was "necessary" or was "God's plan;" but I know beyond all doubt that God did and is doing a marvelous thing with Susie's last two years. And just as God needed Antonio to build a Stradivarius violin, he needed Mark and Susie to pen these words. During the daily readings of the postings as they appeared on Facebook in 2013 and 2014 and 2015, I had no perspective to understand the importance of the project; at that point, I was simply praying and hoping and waiting for what would happen next. Now, in reading the book when I know the ending... and simultaneously regretting every pain and miserable moment Susie has and Mark shares... I cannot but rejoice.

Fifth, I am humbled by Mark's faith. I have known Mark a long time. I sang under his baton for years. We did shows together. We played softball together. Mark ministered to my wife in many personal and powerful ways. He and I were charter members of the Tuesday morning Bible study group he discusses in the book and still attends. I have always known Mark as a man of faith... but this dark night of the soul gave him a whole new way to follow, a demonstration of faith beyond the comfort of the podium and the notes-and-rests for which he is professionally and vocationally trained. And I suspect Mark would admit - and agree with me - that these struggles grew his faith. Mark Edwards - musician, minister, composer, arranger - discovered a new song in the night, a new hymn-tune to which to set words he had known for years. In concluding the book, Mark demonstrates vulnerability and questioning without once betraying a failing of faith, and for that he is a role model to me and to all who read this book. Like Jacob, Mark had to wrestle with God, and he emerges walking with a pronounced limp; but he leaves as Israel, the chosen of God.

I have other reactions to the book, but they are more personal, for Mark and his precious family are close to my heart. Some of my reactions remain between me and them.

And after all that... yes, I was reminded of the privilege I had - as countless others had - to share a little part of the journey with you both.

I thank my God in all my remembrance of Susie, and of Mark.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Loneliness of the Middle

Very few people who know me would describe me as being in "the middle."

My liberal friends will scoff at the very idea, for my politics and economics are, to them, very conservative. I am a member of a Baptist church. My personal ethics and morality are straight arrow.

My conservative friends, on the other hand, shake their heads that I do not join their causes. I do not boycott, retweet, or rally. I don't think that either President Obama or Secretary Clinton is evil. I don't think we are on the brink of socialism in America. I don't think most people in America even have much of a clue what socialism is.

It is well-documented that the extremes are controlling the political debate in our nation. That is also true in our churches. To say that I am in the Middle does not define me as classically "middle of the road" on any issue, nor does it mean that I do not hold strong and well thought-out convictions. It simply means that I do not identify with either extreme.

I entitle this blog "The Loneliness of the Middle" not because I think I am alone there. I fully believe that a vast majority of Americans, of the church, and of my friends are right there with me. The reason it is a Lonely Middle is that majority stays largely silent to avoid the barbs and arrows that will invariably rain down on them from both sides if they speak.

It is lonely when your friends on one side lead with fear, distrust, and suspicion. They do not, by and large, (and despite what my friends on the other extreme say) actually preach hatred. But they are loudly offended, and they believe that the end is near - whether because of economics, crime, immigration, blanket acceptance of behaviors that are unthinkable to them, or terrorism. In their response - often without their intent or even their understanding - they are offensive, narrow, and off-putting. Their language is foreign to much of the rest of the world, and so they are not understood as anything but reactionary.

It is lonely when your friends on the other extreme lead with open intolerance, mockery, and disdain. They preach broadminded acceptance but show no forbearance or patience with those on the other extreme, not simply disagreeing but labeling with brickbats and ostracism. In their response - often apparently intentionally - they are rude and dismissive. They appear uncaring and uninterested in other points of view, and so they are not understood as anything but high-handed and, ironically, bigoted. They cannot imagine that they are so viewed by anyone with any bit of discernment, but they are.

Freedom of course must mean that we allow what we do not like, what offends us, and that with which we do not agree. As we become freer and freer, more and more behaviors, attitudes, speech, and ideas become more and more prevalent. To want to squash what grows freely is no doubt contradictory, hypocritical, and wrong.

Having an opinion or a standard that says that any behavior is somehow wrong has become the equivalent, in the loudest circles, of small-minded hatred. "Love the sinner but hate the sin," a watchword for many of us growing up, has somehow become a byword, a badge of condescension and scorn. The idea of absolute truth knowable to human beings is, in our post-modern conceit, somewhere between an afterthought and a punchline.

I have friends on one side sermonizing with a message that sounds like anything but love for neighbor and faith that God will bring us through. I understand the reaction to what are believed to be dangerous actions, but expecting everyone to behave like you want them to, or like people used to, or like you imagine would be perfect is a fruitless - and, more importantly, dangerous - daydream. I understand concern that the Left is leading us down a path of no return - whether the issue is economic, political, religious, or behavioral; but understanding it does not mean that I agree with it. And while I understand the concern, I do not understand the lack of faith that truth and right and grace - and yes, God - will not only survive but overcome.

I have friends on the other side moralizing with a message that sounds like anything but love for neighbor and faith that God has brought us safe thus far. I understand the reaction to what is believed to be opinionated and unjustifiable prejudice, but expecting everyone to agree that anything goes and that long-held standards have become passé is a fool's errand. I understand concern that the Right is callous and dogmatic; but understanding it does not mean that I agree. And while I understand the concern, I do not understand the easy intolerance for those perceived to be intolerant. The prejudice against the (perceived to be) prejudiced is self-evident and paradoxical.

There may be no better example of what I am talking about than within the church, where there are those who condemn interpretations that vary from the approved and there are others who cannot abide the idea of doctrine. The fundamentalist's unwillingness to commune with those who disagree is outgunned only by the progressive's complete intolerance of the fundamentalist.

I also have many friends who profess to be "tired" of it all. That is scary, and it is unfortunate. When those on the extreme have worn down those who do not want to engage, or do not know how to engage, or simply find better things to do than engage on the extreme arguments, we are all poorer as a result.

I find myself in the Middle. I have strong beliefs about behaviors, economics, politics, and religion; in the right setting, I am happy to debate all of them. But I do not understand the need to announce them to the world in what can only - especially in this day and age - alienate and offend far more than it can ever hope to persuade. I do not understand subjugating love and grace to the blood sport that our political (and far too often our religious) colloquy has become.

I am ok being lonely in the middle. I am not writing this asking for like-minded folks to send me an attaboy and let me know you are there with me. But I do hope that my friends on both extremes can take a deep breath and think about what is ultimately important. On the Right, is sending a message that is heard by many (even if wrongly) that you are guided by anything less than love worth it? Does announcing fear do anything to demonstrate your faith in the Spirit of Christ? On the Left, does browbeating those who hold to standards you no longer hold do anything to make the freedom you cherish more palatable? Does loudly declaring that those who disagree with you are morons really demonstrate your superiority?

Do the ends justify these means?

I end by reminding myself that I am doubtless guilty of much of what I chastise. I have unquestionably spent my time on my high horse - perhaps even in this blog. I have criticized behavior, taught scripture in a way that I am sure made me sound narrow and intolerant, and arrogantly dismissed those who have disagreed with me. I need to read my own words.

The Middle is full of lonely people who hold all sorts of views. We are liberals, conservatives, pragmatists, dreamers, believers, non-believers, nationalists, universalists, free spirits, and sticks in the mud. We diverge on many issues. But however much we disagree with each other, we circle around principles of knowable truth, freedom, reasonableness, standards, toleration, hope, love, grace, and faith.

There is much that needs to be discussed and addressed. The Left has some good points to make about freedom and self-control and growth. The Right has some good points to make about what threatens us and what deserves preservation. Those of us in the Lonely Middle - whatever edge of the Middle may be our home - are fully engaged in debating and seeking those answers. I invite my friends on both extremes to join us. We welcome you.