The Dunk Tank

Tomorrow, people will be able to dunk me in water for fun. I'm excited.

Tomorrow, I’m going to spend an awful lot of time perched on a particularly uncomfortable seat, hoping against hope that the people in front of me have more accuracy issues than the National Enquirer. I’m going to sit there, thinking about the water beneath me, and the people before me, and ask myself if risking hypothermia is really worth the effort.

And I’m going to conclude, at the end of the day, that yes. Yes it was.

See, tomorrow is Grayson Day and my big idea for my church’s festival booth was to have a Dunk Tank. And naturally, I volunteered to be the first one it, mainly because I’m an idiot, but also because I believe it’s good leadership and even better witness.

Allow me to explain.

I’ve been reading a lot about leadership lately. What it means. What it looks like. Why it inspires. How it best functions. And in almost every single book that I’ve read, be it the Bible or any of the 100 billion books in print, one constant principle emerges: a leader has to be willing to go first. Get his hands dirty. Show his people that the vision and the price are worth the effort. It’s an inescapable reality.

Being a youth pastor, I lead (or try to lead) a group of students who are more than willing (most days) to do just about anything I ask. Part of the reason is that they are good kids; but I’d like to think that some of it has to do with the fact that I’m willing to do these things with them. I don’t just order them to go and do something and then sit back and sip on a cold Coke. I try my best to get into the muck and mire and messiness of life and show them that what I teach, I live by.

And if that means that my boxers get soaked to the point that I have a perpetual wedgie for a day and a half, so be it.

Because if that’s what it takes to inspire a group of kids to serve, to think of others ahead of themselves, to live as Jesus lived (though, to be honest, his sacrifice is LOT more majestic), then I’m willing to embrace one of the most confounding teachings of Christ: that if we want to lead, we must first serve.

However, that’s not the only reason I’m doing this.

The thought didn’t occur to me until I was doing some reading last night for a sermon I’m preaching on May 6th (6 PM if you’re interested): the dunk tank isn’t just for those wanting to have a good time. It’s for anyone with a gripe against God.

Now, before that gets conflated beyond all reason, let me tell you a story, one that I found moving. It comes from a book called Blue Like Jazz, by a man named Donald Miller. Miller tells how he and some Christian friends set up a confessional booth during a festival at Reed College, and then dressed up like monks and priests and manned the confessional throughout the entire party. The twist was, that when other people came into the confessional, it was the Christians who confessed – to those historical errors on the part of the church.

Miller recounts that it was a life-changing night for him. And for many on the campus.

I’m not suggesting that a Dunk Tank will be as moving, especially since we’re not requiring anyone to say anything. We’re not gonna put up posters saying, “Take Out Your Anger At Christians Here!” In fact, beyond this blog post, it’s not going to be mentioned at all. As far as I’ll know, you’ll simply want to see a moron go splash or test your throwing arm.

But if you, as an individual, have ever wanted the opportunity to let out your grievances against religion, or God, or heck, me personally, this is the opportunity. All you have to do is wind up and let it go.

Will there be people who find this idea offensive? Certainly. Will there be people who think that I’ve lost my mind? Yup.

Doesn’t matter.

Come on out to Grayson Day tomorrow and enjoy yourself. Our booth will be located near Rosebud Road, just next to the storm drain. We’ll have facepainting and giveaways, and you won’t be able to miss me (or one of my students) sitting in the Dunk Tank. Come by, take a couple of tosses, and enjoy the day. And if you somehow find yourself walking away with a different mindset, so be it. We’re just happy to serve.

Even to the point of wearing soggy drawers.

The Rest of Us

This morning, I read, as I always do whenever he posts, Kris Parker’s blog “It’s the People, Not the Labels That Really Matter.” I loved it, as it summed up beautifully the importance of seeing people for what they are: people. Regardless of whether they agree with us, think like us, talk like us, or believe like us, people are worthy of respect. And some of them are even good to get to know.

After I finished reading the post, I felt genuinely good about the day. As if perhaps, somewhere in this bizarre world, a corner had been turned. Not to overstate the impact of Kris’ blog, but it’s just nice when you can start out your day with a bit of refreshing reflection. Having started my day thus, I went on about my work, which consists largely of being a minister.

Now, some people don’t put a high value on what I do (or, as some people see it, don’t do), but being a minister is exactly what Kris wrote about this morning: people. Not trying to force someone to believe what I believe, but at the same time not avoiding the discussions that come about when I talk about what I believe. So, as one might surmise, I spend a lot of my time either talking to people, exchanging online with people (Facebook and Twitter and emails), or writing about the topics and things that I spend most of my time thinking about.

That also means that I spend time each day looking for stories or blogs or articles that will expand my knowledge – either socially, theologically, scientifically, philosophically or whatever.

Which is how I came across the story of Aikan Chaifetz.

It’s not local. Once you click on the YouTube video, the accent tells you that. But it does echo what Kris was writing about. About the value of human life. About the dignity we should afford anyone around us, regardless of our differences. About the horrifying truth that we, all too often, act less than human to others.

In case you don’t have time to follow the link, here’s the rundown: Aikan Chaifetz is an autistic 10 year-old boy who was getting in trouble at school for attacking his teacher and his teacher’s aide. His father, Stuart, was concerned about the behavior because Aikan didn’t act out anywhere else; in fact, Aikan had no history of violent outbursts. So Stuart did what any parent did: he called a meeting with teachers and administrators at the school, Horace Mann Elementary.

After a round of meetings, Stuart was told that Aikan’s behavior defied explanation. He left unsatisfied.

So much so that he sent his son to school wearing a wire. The resulting six and a half hours of audio made his blood boil.

Now, I have a special place in my heart for autistic children. My first real adult job was a paraprofessional position in an autistic Pre-K class at Partee Elementary. Autism is a confounding disorder; it limits social interaction, social awareness, and makes life in a classroom especially difficult. Most of the kids I worked with were between the ages of 4-6, and almost none of them were potty trained. Half of them couldn’t speak. They were sensitive to touch, sound, and invasions of personal space. As a young man, it was almost heartbreaking to go to work.

I’ll admit there were days when your temper grew short. You wanted so badly to have a breakthrough, or to have just one day where you didn’t have to wipe the messy bottom of a kid “who is big enough to know better.” But then it hits you: it’s not the kid’s fault. It’s not his or her choice to be the way they are. They just are.

So when I listened to the recorded audio that Stuart Chaifetz collected, I wanted to vomit. I wanted to lash out at someone. I wanted to get indignant and light my torch and stop by Home Depot for a new, freshly sharpened pitchfork.

Why? Some of the things on the tape:

  • the teachers discussing their over-indulgence of wine the night before
  • the teachers discussing their marital problems, including a discussion about considering sterilization
  • the teacher’s aide rudely telling Aikan to “shut your mouth!”
  • the teacher’s aide taunting Aikan
  • the teacher’s aide telling Aikan that he wouldn’t be able to see his father after his weekend visitation with his mom
  • the teacher’s aide calling Aikan “a bastard”

Chaifetz turned his tape over to the Cherry Hill school board, and the teacher’s aide was summarily dismissed from her position. The teacher was reassigned to another department. Chaifetz goes on to say in his YouTube clip that all he wants is a public apology from the teacher and the aide:

“I want an apology, not for me, but so one day I can play this video back for my son and say Akian, you didn’t deserve anything that happened to you. I’m not going to sue anybody. I’m not going to file a lawsuit. It’s not about money. It’s about dignity. This is to reclaim my son’s dignity.”

Honestly, I read this story and all I could think about was Kris’ post. About how we, as human beings, can be so vicious and brutal towards one another because we are different, or because someone else is. My original intent was to lambaste the teachers of that little boy and hold them up to scorn and derision; to point my finger at them and say, “See! See! That’s what’s wrong with the world! There are your scapegoats!”

But I had to stop and remind myself: those teachers, as despicable as their actions toward Aikan Chaifetz were, are human too. They deserve to be seen as more than just scapegoats for a larger societal ill.

That’s hard for me to type. I want there to be a bad guy. Heck, we as a society need there to be a bad guy. The problem is, and here’s where things so often get messy and uncivil, we’re ALL the bad guy. Every one of us.

Now, not everyone acts like a jerk; not everyone berates autistic children, or shoots unarmed teenagers, or wears their evil out on their sleeve for everyone to see. But we all have evil within us. It litters the history of the human race. It follows us from the ancient myths down through our modern squabbles between Bill O’Reilly and The Simpsons.

We are not capable of just living in peace. At least, not for very long.

And so we perpetually rub up against one another, we perpetually get on one another’s nerves; we irritate, frustrate, infuriate, and in some instances eradicate those people with whom we most vehemently disagree. Living here in America, we do most of this by conversation, or – if we want to get down and dirty – via the permanent human memory bank that is the Internet (a la Mr. Chaifetz). In other countries, their tolerance is not so tolerant; in other countries, dissenters are often tortured, jailed or killed.

And so no matter how much we may push for reconciliation between ourselves (and that is something we MUST do, always), we’ll never have true reconciliation because we are, at core, broken.

What is the answer?

I’m going to hack people off here because I know what I’m about to type is unpopular; it’s going to be divisive; it’s going to perpetuate exactly what I’ve been blogging about, but it’s the answer that I’ve found that makes sense of the world and gives me hope. I’m okay with people disagreeing. I’m not asking you to spontaneously convert to my way of thinking.

The answer is found in the idea that we are broken beings who cannot restore ourselves. We cannot make ourselves whole. We cannot fix things. We must have someone from outside our race, someone who transcends it, to come and make things new.

As a Christian, I believe that person is Jesus Christ, the God-man. And as an individual, I’ve found that my ability to live a life that makes sense is rooted in the historical and theological teachings of Christ. Doesn’t mean that those who claim Him have been history’s best citizens (in fact, in several cases it’s been the opposite), but what He taught and offered in Himself is the antidote for the fallen state of humanity.

I’ll end with this: as I neared the end of my year with the autistic class, I was assigned to go and watch one of my students at his day care center. I can’t tell you the boy’s real name, so I’ll call him Davis; every afternoon, Davis went to a standard day care center until his mom could come and pick him up. He was often at the center for over 4 hours because his mom worked in downtown Atlanta, so this meant that he had plenty of time to be around kids who were far more advanced socially than Davis.

It also meant that he was around kids who had no clue what autism was.

I had to sit in a room and watch through the blinds as a little boy of whom I’d become very fond navigated the cruel world of the playground. He was ignored. Called stupid. One girl spit on him. And Davis just drifted through, his eyes glazed over and his mouth slightly open.

Watching that, my heart broke. I wanted to throw open the door and avenge him. I wanted, to be honest, to initiate some corporal punishment. But I couldn’t. I was resigned to merely watching and hurting and hating the entire affair. I was powerless.

And when I reported my observations to the day care’s owner, she seemed to share my grief for Davis.

“The only way it’ll ever get better,” she told me, “is if someone walks with that boy everyday for the rest of his life. He needs his own personal savior.”

Just like the rest of us.

Mary’s Little Lamb

Mary's little lamb, Lovie.

I suppose there’s a great cosmic harmony to the fact that my daughter, Mary Ella, has a lamb as her favorite stuffed animal. It’s been her favorite since she was two years old. When she was three, she went through a program at our church called Cubbies (part of the AWANA Clubs), and she learned about a character named Luv E. Lamb; it wasn’t too long after that her stuffie was christened as “Lovie.”

For a while, everywhere that Ella went that lamb was sure to go.

Now, Lovie spends most of its time in Ella’s bed. No longer a necessary companion for car rides, field trips or over-nighters, the little lamb is still a requirement for the bedtime ritual. Of course, Ella has over 8 stuffies that sleep in the bed with her, usually including Hello Kitty, a camel, a skunk, Jesse the Yodeling Cowgirl, a lizard, Kitty Cat, and maybe one or two rotational friends. But only Lovie gets the prime place next to Ella; when she pulls the covers up over her head, only Lovie is nestled in her arms.

And when I go in to wake her up in the morning, only Lovie is there still.

It took me a while to notice this particular truth – the truly special place that Lovie occupies – but for some reason it’s been abundantly clear to me as of late. I walk into her room and turn on her bedside lamp and there is this tiny little person sleeping, her face looking much the same as when she was just a few months old. I see her in repose and marvel at how quickly she’s grown, how quickly she is growing still, and I wonder where the time is going.

Sometimes I sit down on the bed and put my hand on her shoulder, or on her forehead, and almost inevitably she’ll put her hand on mine. I’ll stare at it for a solid five minutes, the tiny little fingers, the softness of her skin, the flawlessness of her nails. She holds my hand in her sleep and the size difference that thirty years brings seems as massive as the difference between a Matchbox car and the one in my garage.

Then I’ll look down and see Lovie Lamb, tucked safely away beneath her elbow, or pulled gently into the crook of her neck. My eyes will lock onto the soft glossy black eyes of that stuffed toy and I’ll feel an almost irresistible urge to cry. Because this lamb, this silly little collection of cotton and fabric and stitches, represents the innocence of my daughter so well. I look at this tiny artifact and realize that one day all I will have left of “my girl” is the little lamb she loved so much.

I mentioned these observations to my wife this morning while we were out running errands. How I know that, when it comes time to clear away the trappings of Ella’s childhood, Lovie Lamb will be the one thing that I keep as a memento. That I’ll put that cherished, ragged stuffie inside our closet and bring it out on those days when Ella’s impending adulthood is all too real. That I’ll look at that lamb and remember when Ella shared so much in common with it: small, innocent, guileless, free from worry and hurt.

Rachel quickly told me to knock it off.

But I can’t help it. Even this morning, as she burst from my car to race some of the other kids to the bus stop, I watched as her little legs carried her away from me; and I realized, as if for the first time, that life is the death of the present but the birth of memories. Each hour that passes takes me further away from the little pink bundle of love that we brought home from the hospital; each day takes me further away from Ella being my little girl. But at the same time this passing brings with it the gift of memory, the blessing of captured moments that will live forever in my head and heart.

One day, Ella won’t need her little lamb. And not too long after that, she won’t need her “daddy” either. At least, not in the same way. But when that obsolescence comes, it won’t be a bad thing. Bittersweet, certainly, but not bad, because I will have her life stored up in my heart as the best memories that anyone could ever ask for.

In a world that passes away from us all too quickly, it’s good to stop for moment and remember that, once upon a time, Mary had a little lamb. So did her dad.

Thankfully, I’ll get to hold on to both.

Potty Rock Anthem

My son is learning to go to the potty. After an ill advised attempt to potty train him over the Christmas holidays (future parents take note: attempting potty training during the Christmas season is stupid), we began the adventure anew over Spring Break. It was tough going at first, but with the help of pull-ups and some serious helicopter parenting (“Do you need to go pee? How bout now? How bout now? Now? How bout now?”) we finally made some progress.

He’s wearing big boy underwear. Stands on a big boy step stool. Makes a rainbow go splash into the bowl. Even flushes it himself. By all accounts, it’s going gangbusters, and so is he. Heck, he practically enjoys it, especially since he gets paid in M&Ms whenever he does go pee-pee in the potty.

So why am I having a nervous breakdown over this? Easy: because the boy simply refuses to completely learn to potty.

In an attempt to be delicate, I will guard my use of colorful metaphors, but as most of us know, there are two distinct things that a person can elect to do in the potty. My son has no issue with the first, often referred to as “Number One.” It’s the second thing, “Number Two,” with which he has issues. As in, he absolutely refuses to even consider “Number Two,” regardless of how much you plead with him.

At best, he’ll offer to go “Number One” again.

“I go pee-pee more, daddy,” he’ll say, his face all sweet and round and hopelessly cheerful.

“But you just went pee-pee.”

“I know. I go again.”

And the waterworks commence. Usually, this is when I sigh in frustration and try not to lose my temper. I’ll stand up, run my hands through my hair, and try to think of a salient way to communicate the human necessity of bowel evacuation with an almost three year-old. The choices are plentiful, but knowing my son – his personality and almost precocious intellect, as well as his ability to read and react to adult non-verbal cues – I have to select my words carefully to avoid making the situation into a joke.

“You need to poop,” I say. “Everybody poops. We have to poop.”

The word “poop” three times in a row is too much for the lad, and I lose him to a fit of Beavis-and-Butthead type giggling (which is hysterical to hear) followed by his repetition of the word for a solid two minutes. He’ll arch his eyebrows a la Magnum P.I. and look at me with a grin and say, “You said poop! Poooooooooooooo-p!”

And at that point, the battle is over. I am defeated. Beaten. Overcome by the stubborn will of a preschooler and the infinite comic power of the word “poop.” I’ll stand him up, get his pants resituated, and let him flush the toilet in what amounts to his vicarious victory lap as the water swirls around the bowl.

Next time, I tell myself. I’ll get him next time.

I’ve gotten him to actually poop on the potty precisely once. I’ll spare you the graphic details, but after a false start (“I pooted daddy!”) he successfully completed the task. I literally stood and clapped.

A standing ovation for poop?

Dang skippy.

Unfortunately, it has been his only performance. There has been no sequel, except at school. I would say that his penchant for pooping for his teachers is moderately to severely annoying, but I’m at least relieved that the boy goes somewhere; I would hate for him to get impacted. So something is better than nothing. But it still feels like failure for him to simply not go poop.

I realize that if you’re still reading at this point you’re either saying to yourself A) “I can’t believe this moron is actually writing about this!”; B) “He keeps using the word ‘poop’! That’s funny.”; or C) “Yes, I’m there with you! Can we start a support poop? I mean, group?”

If A, then thanks for reading my blog, it’s obviously your first time here. If B, you’re probably a member of my family. And if C, then maybe that’s something we should consider. Because it would help me to know that there are other parents out there who are desperately failing in the potty training realm.

But things like that take time to develop (not to mention sponsors and some kind of program format), so for now I’ll just content myself that my son will eventually “get it” and one day begin pottying like a normal child. I’ll remind myself that he is his own person and has, and will always, do things on his timetable, with occasional spurts of inspiration brought about by my pleading or coaching. I’ll try not to lose my brains when he looks at me for the umpteenth time and says, “I don’t want to go poop. I want to dance.”

In the end, I’ll end up doing what all of us parents do: love him, love him and love him some more. And when he finally gets it, we’ll boogie down and celebrate, potty rock style.

Pot Stirring Tuesday: Is Theocracy Unavoidable?

Relax. That's just an AirSoft gun.
My real one is in my office at home.

This won’t be an overly long post, as I’ve not spent too much time thinking the topic through (it only popped into my head this morning as I read this story about Sarah Silverman and her sense of politically charged humor). And perhaps, by admitting I’ve not thought it through, I am saying this post should not be written at all.

But what would a Tuesday be without a little something to talk about?

So, with that being said, I was wondering this morning if the end of any system of belief, be it Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, whatever, necessarily ends up in theocracy. Meaning that no matter how much a system of belief may state its intention/desire/doctrine for human beings to be free of systemic coercion, the system itself – and the desire for people to convert to its teaching – means freedom is not possible.

I wrestle with this as a Christian. My faith in Christ and the teachings of Christ mean that I am committed to living my life under the authority of both. Which means I am opposed to certain ideas or behaviors. Which means that I find myself in conflict with other people who hold to ideas or behaviors I don’t agree with.

Now, theoretically, there doesn’t have to be conflict. After all, the Bible (and in particular the New Testament) makes it abundantly clear that human beings are, in fact, possessed of free will; this means that they are capable of rejecting anything they like (or, if you want to be positive, believing anything they like). Which means we are free to disagree without the universe imploding.

Or something like that.

But if what I believe really is what is true about reality and all other systems of belief are in some form or fashion detrimental to your life, then letting you live outside of reality is not only dangerous for you, it’s fundamentally wrong.

So here’s where the question of theocracy comes into play.

(Or maybe fideocracy? The rule of belief? Since not all belief structures have a god [theos] as a central component? I digress AND I’m making up new words.)

If my system of belief is indeed correct, and your being outside of that system poses a danger to you or to the society of mankind, shouldn’t I make it my mission to bring you into my system of belief? Shouldn’t I do whatever it takes to make you see that your way is hurtful and adherence to my belief is best?

If that sounds familiar, then you’re up on your current geopolitical affairs.

Most of us would say that we don’t want someone else to impose their beliefs on us; we would argue, in fact, that it is our right to believe whatever we wish – whether that means Christ, or Shiva, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the Great Space Nothing. Most of us would fight to the death to be able to live as we so choose.

Which brings me back to my question: if we’re so willing to fight for our right to live with our own beliefs, and to make sure that those beliefs are respected by all, then all systems of belief end up trying to set themselves up as THE system of belief.

In essence, we’re all working towards theocracy/fideocracy.

What do you think: is it possible for competing systems of belief to co-exist?