Now What?

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which changed the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans from slave to free. While it was signed in the midst of the split and struggle of the United States Civil War, the legislation did nothing to change the hearts of Southerners who persisted in their rebellion against the Union. The Civil War continued for another nearly 3 years until Lee surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. 

Slavery, by legislation, had been vanquished, but racism continued.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Jim Crow laws were put into place, mandating racial segregation in public in the states that had formerly comprised the Confederate States of America. These laws remained in place until the 1950s when the groundbreaking and landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. the Board of Education was passed in 1954.

Ten years later, the Civil Rights act of 1964 was passed, followed a year later by the Voting Rights Act. It took one hundred years from the end of the Civil War to legally vanquish what had been put in place by those who had insisted that black and brown people were less than and needed to be treated as such.

Racism, by legislation, had been vanquished, but the hearts of men are rarely changed with the simple passing of laws.

Construction on the Stonewall Jackson monument in Richmond, Virginia began with the laying of the cornerstone on June 3, 1915, during the period which had been defined by the Jim Crow laws which had sought to keep black and brown men and women confined, constrained, and restricted by law. The statue was officially unveiled on October 11, 1919.

For over one hundred years, the statue stood on Monument Avenue in Richmond, an avenue dedicated mostly to Confederate personalities, one of many lingering reminders that regardless of the legislation passed and the progression of certain aspects of our society, there still remained some who chose not to see equality as something to be achieved and attained by everyone, no matter what the founding documents of our country might say.

On July 1, 2020, by order of Mayor Stoney, the Stonewall Jackson monument was removed from its pedestal. In the days and weeks following, additional monuments were removed along that same stretch of road on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

As the Jackson monument came down, live news broadcast the events into homes across the country and the interwebs allowed for a global participation of the deconstruction that was taking place. As the cloudy skies gave way to periods of heavy rain, the crowd of onlookers remained committed to their stance of waiting until the monument was finally removed. As the last connections of the statue to its base were removed, the statue was lifted by a crane to the cheers of onlookers, both black and white, as the rain poured down.

Once again, legislation had removed something that had been offensive and oppressive.

As I watched the live broadcast on my computer, I was reminded of the events of the more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question, “Now what?” Laws were passed, statues were removed, but we still struggled with the evil that lurks within the hearts of men.

Over the last few years, I’ve worked hard to fill the gaps of history that were a result of my education. I grew up in privilege in a town where few minorities lived. The only black and brown students at my school were ones who had been part of a program through a local church that housed these students for the year, removing them from their urban settings in New York City to essentially provide them what I can only assume would be labeled a “better education.”

I refuse to stoop to the level of so many who claim that the removal of statues means the removal of history. I spent more than 30 years of my life having never seen a confederate statue and somehow or another, I was still educated and familiar with the history of our country. If history and our understanding of it is simply promulgated by statues, then most of us have wasted our time and efforts in the classroom.

But what happens after the laws are passed, after the statues come down? What do we do now?

My fear is that too many white folks will see this as the end of the journey, a completion of sorts, that allows them to put their care and concern away until another powderkeg moment occurs and we all rally or protest or demonstrate. That somehow the removal of the symbols of racism signifies the removal of the ideology that put those symbols there to begin with.

Instead, I believe that we need to see this as the beginning of our own journey. Or the convergence of our journey, an on-ramp of sorts, with the journeys of black and brown men and women who have been on this journey their entire lives. Just because we’re finally  informed or woke doesn’t mean that we have somehow arrived, especially if we don’t do anything with what has woken us.

A long obedience in the same direction. That’s the way that Eugene Peterson describes the journey of faith. It’s a phrase that can easily describe so many of the journeys in our lives and I think that it well describes this journey too. Now begins the arduous and somewhat intricate work of moving forward. It isn’t glamorous, it isn’t easy, but I’m pretty sure it pales in comparison to the journey that our black and brown brothers and sisters have been on for decades.

Are we reading? Are we being educated? Are we stretching ourselves and letting ourselves be stretched by others in the context of relationships? Are we seeking relationships that we have never had before? Are we journeying along with others who are different than we are?

The persistent work required for the way forward is not sexy or trendy, it’s difficult. There will be more setbacks. There will be frustrations. There will be pain. There will be awkwardness. But if we expect a walk in the park, we’d best simply stick to cheering for the statues as they come down and then go back to our comfortable and insulated lives.

I have a few pastor friends who have already shared with me the fallout that they have experienced as they have stood their ground on racial issues, holding to the ideology that Black lives do matter, and everyone really IS equal regardless of their skin color. They have braved the accusations and vitriol that have been hurled at them and have continued to press on. I am grateful to associate myself with these friends who are committed to the long haul, not just the moment.

The task seems overwhelming, but the best way to eat an elephant, as the adage says, is one bite at a time. What bites can you take? Those bites can be small, but progress is progress. We can’t change the hearts of others, but we can certainly allow for our hearts to be changed. Now is the time to be the change that you want to see in the world.

Colorblind?

When I was in kindergarten, my art teacher scolded me for coloring the ocean purple. It wasn’t because I was a JMU fan or because I liked the color purple. I honestly picked up the purple crayon thinking that it was blue, I couldn’t tell the difference. I discovered that I had trouble distinguishing certain colors. I am color blind.

Over the years, it’s been a major source of frustration for me. People make fun of me all the time, including my own family. I get the same dumb questions from people, they hold up obvious colors to me and ask whether or not I can see them. Usually, I just glare at them, but occasionally, I’ll make some random color up just to return the favor.

It’s not that I only see the world in black and white, I see colors, just not different shades. I don’t walk around looking at people and seeing the world in some sepia tone. There is a certain point where colors all look the same to me and it gets tiring to try to figure out the difference, so I just give up and go with the closest thing that it looks like to me. I wish I could see things as they are rather than the skewed way my eyes have allowed.

I’ve heard a lot of well-meaning people proclaim that they are color blind, they don’t see color in people. I think I understand what they’re trying to get at, but the problem is, that’s not the way it was intended to be. There are differences for a reason. Colors give us uniqueness and individuality.

When God created the world, he did so with variety, with diversity, with difference. Not every animal was the same. Not every leaf’s shape looked like every other. There were differences because difference shows creativity. We serve a creative God who has shown his creativity in those differences. Yet the thing that holds us all together, that connects us, is that we were ALL created in the image of God, the image Dei. Our value comes from that image in which we were created, our variety comes from what surrounds that.

As I’ve heard from my black and brown friends, they have expressed that they want to be seen, they want to be heard, they don’t want their colors overlooked. We’ve seen and continue to see what happens when people see color and begin to treat others in an inferior way because of that color. That is a tragedy and can be labeled as nothing less than racism.

At the same time, not seeing color can be just as bad. We can’t get caught up in this either/or, thinking somehow if we don’t treat others differently because of it that somehow it’s better to just dismiss it, ignore it, pretend that it doesn’t exist. While we shouldn’t treat others differently because of skin color, neither should we simply dismiss that skin color, pretending that it doesn’t matter, acting as if we don’t see it.

There have been so many days of my life that I just wish I could see colors the way they are. I wish I could see the uniqueness in certain flowers or leaves or plants. I wish I could look at paintings and appreciate the vividness of the individual colors that are spread across the canvas.

What if we looked at skin color as the uniqueness that God made it to be? What if we didn’t treat others differently because of their skin color but if we appreciated how unique they were because of it? What if the uniqueness, diversity, and variety are the very thing that we SHOULD be seeing?

Let’s start seeing and celebrating that difference in hue and color, thank God for that uniqueness, and appreciate and value that person because of their uniqueness rather than in spite of it.

Reborn – A Book Review

When people meet Jesus, something happens, they are never the same. Jesus heals. Jesus restores. Through Jesus, we experience a rebirth. It’s not the kind of rebirth that requires us to go back into the womb, it’s a spiritual rebirth.

In Clayton King’s latest book “Reborn,” he takes the reader through stories of those who have experienced this rebirth, both from the pages of the Bible as well as through his own experiences. King doesn’t only address belief and rebirth, he also addresses issues like doubt, trials, and suffering.  As he writes, “We grow deeply when we suffer greatly, because we see Jesus more clearly in the hardest moments of life.” King has the heart of an evangelist, and his stories reflect that heart, as he shares from his travels around the world, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone he encounters.

Whether you’ve read these stories in the pages of Scripture before or if you’re experiencing them for the first time, King has an engaging writing style and he draws in his readers as he tells stories of his experiences. I would recommend this book for those who may be new in their faith or who are seeking Jesus. “Reborn” is an evangelistic book, sharing how people are changed when they meet Jesus. If you have someone in your life who has yet to be reborn, as King describes it, this book would be a helpful read for them.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge by Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There!

I live in the city that was once the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. We have a road that runs right smack through the city called Monument Avenue. It is what it sounds like, an avenue that contains monuments, most of which are commemorating personalities and figures of the Confederacy, save for the lone monument commemorating the city’s native son, Arthur Ashe.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave or have quarantined yourself from any news channel like you have COVID-19, you’ve seen our “little” statues in the national (and probably international) news. There is major controversy, debate, and outrage over these monuments and whether or not they deserve a place in public.

Those in favor of the monuments continue to claim that tearing them down is erasing history. In my mind, that is a whole other post altogether. Last time that I checked, history was marked by more than monuments prevalently displayed in very public areas. Museums. Parks. Books. I don’t know, seems there are plenty of ways to preserve history….but I digress.

A few years ago, I attended a conference in Richmond put on by an organization that does great work towards racial reconciliation with action and education. It was a wake-up call for me. I’d had my head in the sand for far too long. I transformed myself into an intellectual sponge and have been reading a lot since then.

It’s been a journey and continues to be such, a process of transformation and change, and learning and unlearning, as a friend so eloquently put it.

I have been privileged to have friends of color and to be invited into spaces where honest dialogue can be had. When I’m in doubt or questioning or genuinely confused, I have been grateful to have friends, colleagues, and mentors whom I can call. I trust them. I respect them. I am blessed to be on a journey with them as guides and teachers.

When I’m uncertain, I become far more quiet than I am used to being. In fact, when I come to a place of uncertainty, people who don’t know me would most likely label me an introvert.

I’ve not always been this way. I’m far from perfect, but I’ve done a LOT of work to get to where I am today. It’s been painful, I’ve screwed up far too often, and I can easily slip back into my own biases and preconceived notions.

Last week, during a conversation at a meeting I was attending, the conversation turned towards current events, specifically protests and demonstrations. As we talked through all that was happening around us, one of my African American colleagues and ministry partners said, “They don’t speak for me.” His words have been reverberating in my head since he said them.

I keep hearing those words over and over in my head as I watch so many people rising up to take a stand, but as one friend described it, it’s a flashpan moment – a big flash and then…….nothing.

I watched a video last week of a time when Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and head of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer, spoke as well.

In the course of Keller’s talk, he said that justice always requires sacrifice. I can’t stop thinking of that.

When I put those two deep thoughts together, I keep asking myself what I am sacrificing so that my black and brown brothers and sisters have a voice. If I speak for them, I still maintain control and power, but if I let them speak for themselves, I relinquish power and control to them. If I give them authority, then their voice gets louder and louder, that authority becomes a megaphone for their voice.

I’m not saying that protests and demonstrations aren’t worthwhile, but I am asking the question of what happens when the dust settles and it’s all over? What is left?

Just like the end of the Civil War didn’t stop racism nor did the Emancipation Proclamation, protests and demonstrations won’t either.

Again, please hear what I’m NOT saying here. I am NOT saying that there isn’t a place for protests and demonstrations, but what am I doing ALONG with protesting and demonstrating? Am I getting dirty? Am I sacrificing for justice?

It’s a convicting and vulnerable question to ask if we really let it unpeel us. As much headway as I feel I have personally made, I’ve still got such a long way to go. My own Christian faith tells me that it’s more of a journey than an arrival, a process rather than a destination.

Two dear friends who have been part of my faith community went to a park in Richmond the other day. They had set aside the day for themselves and were enjoying the weather in this park.

While in the park, they met two young African American men. They started a conversation with them, asking them questions, listening, and hearing about how they are feeling in the midst of all that is happening around them. In the words of my friends, “It was a blessing.” At the end of their time together, despite our current pandemic, they shook hands (I’m sure they all disinfected afterwards).

That handshake, to me, represented something so significant and special. Despite the current pandemic, that handshake said, “I see you, I hear you, I value you.”

In my growing experience, I am realizing that it is the slow and deliberate work of relationships that makes the most difference. I can’t change you. You can’t change me. But I can change me and you can change you. Sometimes, when we allow ourselves to be changed, others can see the change and are stirred and moved by it. It’s an evangelism of sorts, it’s bearing witness.

So, I’ll still take part in protests and demonstrations, I’ll still speak up and stand up, but when I hang up my signs and take off my protesting shoes, what am I doing in the regular places of my life to ensure that I am pursuing justice? Am I making sacrifices for justice? If not, I had better ask myself if I really want justice as badly as I say I do.

Can We Talk?

When it comes to COVID-19, everyone keeps using the word “unprecedented” to describe what we’re facing. Not sure I’ve heard people use that word to describe the rest of what we’re facing in our culture and country.

Once upon a time, I don’t feel like it was that long ago, we used to be able to have conversations over differences. We didn’t throw shade at each other, we reserved our hateful thoughts for our heads and most likely never let them out. We waited until we could actually see each other face to face before we began to speculate where the other one was coming from.

When we disagreed, we would do our best to understand where the other one was coming from. Did I miss something? What did they see that I didn’t?  Maybe if we talk about it, we can come closer together and still maintain our friendship.

Those days seem to be long gone.

Friendships have never been so expendable. Conversations have never felt so elusive. Differences never seemed so immeasurable. The chasms that grow between us are insurmountable, so why should we even try to forge them?

These days, it seems, not only do we want everyone to agree with us, but we want anyone who doesn’t to be wiped from the face of the earth.

Nope, I’m not kidding. I see it every day. You don’t agree with me, then you must be just about the worst person in the world. There is no room for margin. There is no room for error. There is no room for disagreement. I’m open-minded as long as you agree with me, but if you don’t, I’m going to wipe you from the face of the earth.

I’ve had more offline conversations with friends who are struggling in these last few months, even weeks. They don’t know where they can find a place to disagree. They don’t know where they can go where they won’t be vilified and labeled racists, misogynists, bigots, sexists, and any other terms that one might throw out from their arsenal of labels.

I suppose that if I were a sociologist or philosopher, I might understand how we got here. I can assure you it didn’t happen overnight. We didn’t just wake up to this world, it was more like the frog in the boiling pot, it happened gradually over time and as the heat slowly increased, we just thought it was a nice spa treatment, only to find out we were heading for complete and total disaster.

But why? Why are we so afraid of dialogue? Why are we so afraid of difference? Whatever happened to agreeing to disagree? Why does it always have to be about who is right and who is wrong? Why does it always have to be about who is on the right or wrong side of history? Why can’t we consider the nuances of our differences rather than trying so desperately to loop everyone into Right or Wrong?

I was at a rally a few weeks ago, kneeling for an hour to make a difference. I heard the woman in front of me comment as she watched the large truck with the extra large tires drive by as the driver honked his horn and gave a thumbs up in recognition and support, “OK, thanks for realigning my bias.”

I don’t care how “woke” you think you are or how progressive that you consider yourself, you’ve still got some implicit biases in your system. When we see it, we dismiss it or excuse it away. Heck, we may even just ignore it because it doesn’t fit into the narrative that we’ve created in our mind.

On a Zoom call today with a bunch of black and white pastors, the host reminded us that it was all about the relationships. We didn’t get here overnight and we certainly weren’t getting out of it overnight either. The slow and deliberate work of relationships is the most effective way of getting informed, of breaking down those biases, of allowing ourselves to be changed and transformed.

Don’t confuse what you get on social media for a relationship. As much as it’s fun for us to maintain connections with people we haven’t seen in decades, that’s not the kind of relationship that I am talking about. Instead, I’m talking about the kind of relationship where you can say the awkward things without fear of judgment, the kind of relationship where you can say what you are really thinking and feeling without fear of condemnation.

If we don’t get back to these grassroots kinds of relationships, we’re sunk. No amount of shallowness will ever somehow materialize into something significant, no matter how much of it you have. Shallowness breeds shallowness while deep calls to deep.

So, keep throwing your shade all you want, I’ll be over here trying to console everyone that you’ve been casting aside. I’ll be over here trying to have a real conversation. I’ll be over here trying to find some semblance of hope in the midst of this fairly hopeless situation. And if we’re lucky, we’ll realize that there’s something more to these conversations and relationships and even disagreements than some people would have us think.

Just Go With It

Helpless. Stuck. Unmoving.

How do you describe what we’ve been experiencing as a world and as a country? Those words seem to come close to the emotion.

These last two weeks have been among the most emotionally draining weeks that I’ve had in a while. I’ve dealt with the politics of youth sports. I’ve dealt with substance abuse issues among couples. I’ve dealt with disappointed high school seniors. I’ve dealt with the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on our world. I’ve dealt with the ongoing impact of racism in our country and stood with my black and brown brothers and sisters.

I’m tired.

I keep hearing Dory from Finding Nemo in my head, “Just keep swimming.”

But is that what we’re really supposed to do?

When I was in college, I worked for my town’s public works department. Through my interactions with the other town, I became friendly with a number of other people in the town hall. Among the friends I made were the members of the parks and recreation department.

One day, we were talking and they were mentioning the need to train some of their life guards. They wanted to stage a drowning to try to simulate a real life emergency for the young lifeguards at the beach. I quickly volunteered.

I remember going to the beach that day and realizing that the lifeguard was a guy I went to high school with. This was going to be humiliating. I was a little bigger than he was too, so I figured that it would be mildly amusing as well.

I went out to neck deep water and began to feign struggle. It took the lifeguards a while to figure out what was going on, so I was glad that I wasn’t really drowning. When the lifeguard got to me, I could tell he knew what was going on. I let myself become like a sack of potatoes and at one point, swimming back to the shore, the lifeguard looked at me and said, “You could help.”

I got a good laugh out of that and I thought back to so many movies, videos, and classes I had sat through that talked about how so many people struggle when drowning, which ends up making it harder for them to stay afloat and even harder for the one who is trying to rescue them.

Thinking about it now, I can’t help but think about the spiritual implications of that. How often we find ourselves in a place where we are “drowning” in something or other and we just struggle. We kick and we scream and we wave our arms around, trying desperately to do anything to stay afloat, all the while, God just wants us to let go, to just go with it.

It doesn’t mean we stop trying or doing anything, but it does mean that we stop struggling, swinging our arms, making such a ruckus. We don’t become passive mannequins just waiting, but we don’t pretend we really don’t need help either.

Letting go doesn’t mean passivity, there is still an active waiting in which we find ourselves while we’re in the struggle. But one of the key ways that we find ourselves out of the struggle is by admitting we’re actually in it and admitting that we’re mostly powerless to get ourselves out of it.

I don’t know where you are today. Maybe you’re not struggling and everything is going fine. God bless you if that’s where you are.

If you’re struggling today and flailing your arms, kicking your legs, and trying desperately to stay afloat, know that you are not alone. Know that there are others out here, you don’t have to keep pretending. You don’t have to struggle alone. There is a lifeguard who wants to save you, but you’ve got to let go in some ways and trust that he’s really going to save you.

I hope you can stop struggling just like I hope that I can too. We can get through this, but we’ve got to come to grips with how, and that might not be easy for some of us.

God Is Not A Prop

As I watch the national and international news play out on my computer screen day after day, I think it’s important to stay connected to God’s Word. I believe that it is God’s revelation of himself and that as the written word, it also affirms the Living Word, Jesus Christ, as the way, the truth, the life.

I consider myself to be an evangelical Christian. I believe that that term has been severely distorted by some who have been trying to use it for personal gain, advancement, and political manipulation. The word “evangelical” derives from the Greek word euangelion which simply means “good news.” By definition, evangelical Christians are ones who should be proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to those around them. Although this term has been hijacked, I personally believe that it’s better to try to redeem the term than continue to allow others to distort it.

Days ago, I wrote about my growth and understanding of the protests in our country. You can read that here. Regardless of my growth and understanding in regards to these protests, I still believe that it’s a tragedy what is happening amidst the looting, destruction, and violence in our country. While I understand the outrage being expressed by many over the senseless murder of George Floyd and far too many African Americans, there are many businesses that have been built by innocent people that are being destroyed as some of the crowds move beyond protest to destruction.

St. John’s Church, an historic Episcopal church attended by presidents for hundreds of years, was damaged by fire and graffiti. The fact that a church would be damaged during all this was tragic and disheartening. While some may consider it to be collateral damage for the greater good of these protests and the awareness of the deeper pandemic of racism in our country, it’s still disappointing.

Recently, there was news that the President of the United States cleared a crowd during protests to make his way in front of St. John’s Church to have his photo taken with a Bible. The news headlines have been plentiful with reports and opinions of many people’s thoughts about not only the photo op but the means used to attain that photo op.

I’ve been going through the Book of Acts with a few men from my church. Although I’ve read it many times before, I am constantly amazed at how the Bible speaks to me in a clear and fresh way every time that I read it. Regardless of the number of times I may have read a certain passage, God’s Word continues to be what it says, “living and active.”

When I saw this recent story develop in the media, I was reminded of an account in Acts 8 of a sorcerer who wanted to use the power of the Holy Spirit for personal gain.

18 When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! 21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. 23 For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

24 Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”

Simon the sorcerer had seen the impact when Peter and the other apostles had laid their hands on people. Great signs and miracles were the result and having been a man who had used this sort of thing to his benefit in the past, he saw the potential for personal gain from what Peter and the apostles had to offer.

Acts 8:18-24

But Peter would have none of that. As Peter says in verse 21, “…your heart is not right before God.” There was nothing wrong with Simon’s desire for this power, it’s just that he didn’t want that power for the right reason. He didn’t want to bring glory to God, he wanted it for his own selfish gain, which was why Peter chastised him.

I don’t believe that God is a prop. We don’t conveniently pull him out when it suits our own personal gain or benefit. We don’t stick him in our back pocket or shove him back in a lamp like a genie, waiting again to rub that lamp until the time comes for us to seek for our next wish to be granted.

We are all imperfect people, we fall short, that’s why we need a savior. The Bible tells us that we all fall short of the glory of God. We make mistakes. At what point do our repeated mistakes move from forgivable miscues to inexcusable and blatant disobedience. While God forgives, repentance is a turning away from our wrongdoing, not a constant repeat of the things we’ve confessed. Grace is free, but in the words of the Apostle Paul, we don’t continue our disobedient acts just so that grace may abound.

My heart is heavy with the tragedy of what has happened in our country. I am grieved over the racism that is continually denied by so many. To me, it’s hard to deny the pandemic of racism based on what we are seeing with the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. I am angered and saddened by those who also seem to be seeking to inflame and divide rather than unite and seek healing.

I believe that the only way we can experience true peace is through Jesus Christ. I get that not everyone believes that, but that’s my conviction and I hold unswervingly to that. I also expect that anyone who claims that will follow through with their actions and their lives, moving beyond simple and cheap gimmicks that suit them for the moment. God is not a prop and I think that it’s time that those of us who claim that he is who he says he is stop using him as such and begin to demonstrate that the Good News we claim and proclaim goes beyond photo ops to real life change and peace that passes all understanding.

Albums That Influenced Me – Part III

First time experiences are always things to cherish and hold onto. First time driving a car. First time spending the night at a friend’s house. First time going on vacation without your parents. First kiss. And on and on and on.

Although I don’t remember exactly the first time that I heard Eric Clapton, the combination of hearing him with the stage of life that I was at and a good friend and mentor together all added up to a love of Mr. Slowhand and his music to this day. It was probably “Wonderful Tonight” that I heard all those years ago, which is funny considering how that song shows only one side of him.

When I was in middle school, a post-college young man came to my church. He was the brother of my youth pastor and was versed in secular music like no one else I had known in my short handful of years. Having been raised in the 60s and 70s, he was a fan of what I knew then as Classic Rock. The perfect combination came together as I looked up to this guy, he played guitar, and he didn’t ignore me like my older brother generally did.

As we spent time together, his love of guitar began to rub off on me. My birthday came around and I got my first guitar. Like Bryan Adams sang, “Got my first real six string….played it ‘til my fingers bled.” I looked to my friend to lead and guide me in all things guitar since I had no one around who could lead me that way. At least, no one who my parents actually trusted.

These were the days before CDs. Vinyl records were still big and it wasn’t uncommon for people to record their albums onto tapes so that they could bring them with and listen to them wherever they went. They were the days when albums meant something, when there was intentionality in how songs were put together. Listening to albums in their entirety was common, or at least one side of the albums.

At my request, my friend recorded all of his Clapton albums for me. As I talk to him today, we differ in our remembrance as he tells me that I guilted him into making those recordings for me. The irony of it all these years later is that I now have a lot of those albums on vinyl and he doesn’t.

I immersed myself in Clapton. It was like a whole new world for me. Just to be able to recognize music while I was out in public was a revelation for me. No longer was I simply resigned to recognizing the Carpenters, Simon and Garfunkel, and Andy Williams. My palette had expanded, and even if it was only slightly, it made a huge difference for my well-being.

I jumped in headfirst and wore out these tapes once my friend made them for me. As I learned guitar, I learned Clapton songs as well. Badge. Wonderful Tonight. Sunshine of Your Love. Everything that he released from that point on, I was watching and waiting for.

Whether it was the first album that my friend made a top of or not, Clapton’s album “Backless” just hit me. From the opening drum hits of “Walk Out in the Rain” to “Tell Me That You Love Me,” this was new ground to me and I drank it in like a thirsty hiker finally reaching his checkpoint.

In an effort to shield me from the worldliness of this “heathen” music, my friend refused to record some of the songs that were deemed inappropriate like “I’ll Make Love To You Anytime” and “Cocaine.” And prohibition just adds to the mystique, so you can be that the moment that I actually was allowed to get the albums on CD years later, I would wear those songs out. Guiding by prohibition is not always the most effective way to teach.

Nowadays, when I listen to “Backless,” I am so used to the song order that when one song ends, I wait in anticipation for the next one to start right behind it. It makes for a mildly entertaining scenario in my head whenever I’m listening to songs on shuffle.

My one regret when it comes to Clapton is that I was never able to see him in concert. The pinnacle of the concert experience would have been seeing him with his old friend Steve Winwood. Sadly, when the duo went through Madison Square Garden, I was long gone from New England and the ability to take the train to NYC at a moment’s notice.

After his “Unplugged” album, I tapered off a little from my listening as my musical tastes continued to broaden and take me to other places. A few years back, I read his autobiography which inspired me to once again delve back into the vast catalogue of EC. While there were a couple albums that fell flat, I think he finally reached that age where he realized he had such a resume behind him that he could just make the kind of music that HE wanted to make rather than worrying about what anyone else was thinking.

And of course, when I finally got my first electric guitar, the one that I had saved for years to buy, it was a Fender Stratocaster. I observed early on that if you were a Clapton fan, that was your axe of choice. If you were mostly a Jimmy Paige guy, you preferred Les Pauls.

I Think I Get It and I’m Sorry

I have to admit something. When I first heard about Colin Kaepernick, I didn’t get it. It wasn’t that I was believing everything I was hearing from one political side and not the other. It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought it through. It’s just that there are sometimes in my life when I am more slow on the uptake than others.

If you’re looking around and watching the images on the evening news, wondering how we got here, I hope that my story can shed some light on this. Not too long ago, I was there too. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about.

This period in our world and nation has been hard for lots of reasons, but COVID-19 hasn’t helped at all. Emotions run high. Patience seems to run low. When will it end, we wonder? When can we go back to normalcy, we ask?

During this time, I have been privileged to have had a space outside of my home where I can go to work. Not only is it a privilege to have a job, but it’s a privilege to not have to work from home all the time. I love my family, but my concentration is easily jolted when I see and hear the buzz of activity all around me. Focus is not one of my top strengths and it’s been abundantly clear to me during this time.

Trying to be a good husband, I will check in with my wife throughout the day when I am working away from the house. Texts. Phone calls. Midday lunch visits. I never wanted her to feel alone during this, as if she was the only one who was raising our kids and doing this learn from home stuff.

Multiple times during this period, I witnessed firsthand what she had to endure throughout the day. She would ask our kids to do something or to stop doing something and there was no response. She would ask again. No response. Sometimes she would ask again (my wife is WAY more patient than I am). No response. Finally, after multiple asks, “Crazy Mommy” would come out, she would raise her voice, lose her temper, and all my kids sat there looking at her wondering, “Where did that come from?”

The thing is, I get it now. After watching my wife deal with our kids during this time, I think I’m beginning to understand, and I have to genuinely say to my black brothers and sisters, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I was slow to get it. I’m sorry that I was missing it. I am with you and I want to do whatever I can.

You see, it started with something so simple as a kneel during the National Anthem, and a lot of us didn’t get it. We thought it was unpatriotic. We thought it was disrespectful of those who had given their lives for our country. We thought it was distasteful. Fill in the blanks, but a lot of us didn’t like it. But did we really ask and search and wonder why? Did we really try to understand why our fellow humans were mad?

Just like my wife with our children, our African American brothers and sisters have asked and asked and asked and asked until finally, what looks like the “Crazy Black Man” comes out, and we’re appalled, wondering, just like my kids, where that came from.

In the 1970s, there was a film called “Network.” It was about all the goings on behind the scenes at a news network. Among the famous scenes from the film is an older news anchor who kind of loses it on air and rants about not wanting to take it anymore. He instructs everyone to go to their windows, open them, and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Friends, I think that’s where our black brothers and sisters are now. They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take this anymore.

Hear me in this, I am not condoning the looting and damage that is taking place. I’m not surprised by the looting and the damage either though, just like my kids shouldn’t have been surprised when “Crazy Mommy” reared her ugly head to them. When we ignore something for so long, it takes something more extreme every subsequent time to try to get our attention. Kneeling did nothing. Marching did nothing. Demonstrating did nothing. Our history continues to be lined with the dead bodies of black and brown men and women and we’re wondering why this is happening? We’d better wake up smell what we’re shoveling.

In the upcoming days, I will be having some conversations with my black friends. I will be listening to them. I will be apologizing to them. I will be doing what I can to find out what it is that I can do to move us away from this awful rut that we have found ourselves in as a nation.

My honest opinion is that only Jesus can fix what is broken about us, but I know that everyone is not there. But those of us who are have to stand up and make a difference. If Jesus is really who we say he is, if he has really risen from the dead and changed our lives along the way, then we’ve got to get it, we’ve got to come to a place of understanding, and then we’ve got to get our butts in gear and model just how HE helps us move ahead.

Kill the idol of authority and power. Stop relying on a political figure to get you what you want, God told Israel that would never work, why should we be any different? Kill the idol of selfishness and look past your own privileged situation to see and hear what your black brothers and sisters are experiencing. Kill the idol of complacency, for in it, we simply become people who like ideas but fail to prove them because they do nothing to change how we live our lives.

If you’re still wondering just how we got here and if none of this makes sense, please don’t take the word of a privileged, middle class, middle aged white man, ask one of your black friends to help you understand and see. And if you don’t have any black friends, maybe you might just understand a little more why we are where we are.

Albums That Influenced Me – Part II

In the years after college, I was trying to find my place still. I had graduated with an engineering degree and was working in the field, but I probably had a major case of FOMO. I wanted to seize every possible opportunity that came across my path.

Having played guitar since I was about fourteen, I decided to try my hand at the coffeehouse scene. I could be brooding when I needed to be and when I began to focus on music, it seemed like the most melancholic part of my personality came out.

I had a key to my dad’s church and would go there late at night to play, practice, and write. It’s amazing how peaceful a church sanctuary is when no one else is around. That place literally became my sanctuary as I found myself coming of age in my 20s and dealing with all the bumps and turns of life. I guess, if I’m honest, the biggest bumps and turns were relational ones at the time, primarily with the opposite sex.

I had become close with a girl whose brother was a rising musician. He was just starting to get some exposure in the professional scene. During that time, he got connected with Vanessa Williams and he worked on her Christmas album. My friend and I even got to go to New York City for the taping of her Christmas show as my friend’s brother was the musical director for the show.

I grew to appreciate my friend’s brother and his music and it coincided with my efforts to write more music. One day, while talking with my friend, I asked her whether or not she could arrange a meeting with her brother. I wanted to learn from someone who had experience. So, he carved out time in his busy schedule and one weekend afternoon, I went over to his house. 

I had been playing around with open tuning on my guitar although everything I did was mostly by ear rather than because I actually knew what I was doing. While I knew my way around a piano keyboard, the guitar was still foreign to me (kind of still is to this day). My friend’s brother wanted to hear some of the songs that I had written.

I remember playing a Christmas song that I had written that was from the shepherd’s perspective of the birth of Jesus. At the time, my friend’s brother would do an annual Christmas concert as the two albums that he had done at the time were really focused on Christmas music. He would eventually garner the moniker “Mr. Christmas” as his annual concert and his fame grew.

It was a little nerve wracking playing my pedestrian songs for this guy. Pretty sure that he even used that word “pedestrian” when he described my songs. He saw my Christmas song as an homage to him, which was probably more true than I wanted to admit at the time. He also did his best to steer me in the right direction, throwing out a few musical suggestions to me.

Having heard his suggestions, I quickly immersed myself in them. One name was suggested for his lyrical abilities. The other two names were suggested for their chord stylings and alternate tunings. The last two were women: Joni Mitchell and Shawn Colvin. I hadn’t heart Colvin before but Mitchell was familiar only in name to me. The first name he gave me, the one known for his lyrical abilities, was Bob Dylan. The album he suggested was “Blood on the Tracks.”

These three names took me down various rabbit holes, but none as much as the rabbit hole of Bob Dylan. Up to that point, he had been a joke because of his less than stellar voice. I had never really listened to him, I mean really listened. I had heard only a gravelly and whiney voice without uncovering the magic behind it.

That would be the beginning of my love and appreciation for Bob Dylan. “Blood on the Tracks” remains one of my favorite albums of Dylan’s. The stories he would weave with simple melodies and chord structures seemed almost too easy. He seemed to do it effortlessly, playing, singing, blowing on the harmonica.

As the years went by, my collection of his music expanded. I had the chance to see him with Paul Simon in Connecticut. I named my son after him. I saw him the night before my father died (which is a whole other story that I may or may not have already written about somewhere). I even got to take that saw son to see him this year.

So I guess that Bob Dylan has become a part of me. My discovery of him was really after most of his major musical stages, but unearthing all of the gems along the way after the fact was just as rewarding and satisfying for me.