No Sins But Our Own

More and more I become convinced that the biggest problem we have in American culture is our obsession with any sin that isn’t our own.

Cecil the Lion. Planned Parenthood. Barack Obama. Donald Trump. The entire GOP presidential field.

I get caught up in the hysteria. I’ve tweeted out things about certain cultural phenomena in an haughty, contemptuous way that only serves to reveal my self-ignorance. It’s a human reflex to see clearly the issue in someone else’s life while ignoring the massive dysfunction in your own.

But lately I’ve come to feel disgusted with myself when I point out the fallibility in others. I think of funny things all the time and normally don’t hesitate to share them; but lately, I find myself thinking more and more about the targets of my jokes. I think about their humanity. I think about what made them the way they are. I think about the burden some of them experience, of living under the never-ending spotlight.

That gets me thinking about myself. How would I hold up under scrutiny?

Truth is, I’m not sure. I know there would be plenty of people happy to take shots at the way I spend my time or my money, plenty of folks happy to pick apart everything from my choice of wardrobe to my choice of restaurants. I know there would be plenty of people just waiting for their chance to point out my stumbles and shout their disagreement with venomous glee.

I know this because it happens in everyday life anyway.

“You let your kids eat a McDonald’s?”

“Personally, I think anyone who buys non-organic milk is just abusing their children.”

“I would never allow my children to play in a public pool. Too many germs.”

Once upon a time we were a society that focused more on personal development within ourselves. We honored self-improvement. We praised folks who worked hard and overcame obstacles. We held people up for achieving things we had not yet attempted because they inspired us to want more.

Now we just tear folks down to our level. We don’t celebrate successes, we celebrate sins, because if there’s one thing we all know how to do equally well it’s screw things up. So we watch others. We wait. And when they succumb to being human, we pounce and pull down the rafters.

It’s easier to tear down someone else’s home than build our own.

And in a perverse way, we end up taking responsibility for the sins of others. We end up enabling the very destruction we celebrate, all because we get a kick out of the whole cycle. It sounds trite, but it’s true: if we would quit watching the Kardashians, the Duggers, the whomevers, they would fade away.

The same is true of the people around you. If we’ll quit looking for the sins of others, those sins will fade from our awareness. That’s not to say those folks will stop screwing up (they are human, after all), but we will stop looking for it.

And it’s a funny thing: when you quit looking for other people’s mistakes, when you quit obsessing over other people’s sins, two things happen. One, you start noticing things in your own life that need work, and two, you start developing a sense of compassion for others.

And that’s the key: we can’t have compassion for others if all we look for are their mistakes. And we can’t live our own lives to the fullest if we are too busy obsessing over someone else’s issues.

We are responsible for no sins but our own. That’s not to say we ignore evil when we see, or don’t confront sin when it bursts into our lives; we should be outraged at things like Planned Parenthood selling the body parts of aborted children or a sudden resurgence in the KKK.

But that outrage will only mean something, will only have resonance, if it doesn’t flow from our mouths and keyboards in a constant stream. Think of it this way: my kids know when I’m upset because I don’t talk and act upset all the time. In fact, I spend most of my words encouraging them, loving them, asking them questions and letting them know how much I truly love them.

Thus, it is the rarity of my anger that provides it power.

Jesus was the same way. He didn’t hesitate to call out sin, and there’s only one instance of him flipping tables. Christ spent the majority of his ministry speaking truthfully in love, calling people to God’s best by living it out himself.

His, it would seem, is a much better way.

For Those Who’ve Lost a Child

I’m currently working on a book of essays for people who have lost a child. I’m looking for folks both recently devastated by their loss and for people who have been able to heal over time to contribute quotes on any of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

If you’d like to contribute, simply fill out the form below with your name, email, phone and story. If I can use your contribution, I’ll get in touch with you soon.

The Impossible Weapon of Hate

I remember a story that Lewis Grizzard used to tell, about the former Bulldog announcer Ed Thelinius traveling up north to call a Yale-Harvard football game. In the hours before the game was set to kick-off, a young Crimson student approached Thelinius and began chatting with the Southerner on life in the South, the appeal of football, and the intense rivalry between the Yalies and Harvard.

Finally, the young Harvard man got to his point. “Mister Thelinius, if I may be so bold to ask, for whom are you pulling for today: Yale, or fair Harvard?”

Thelinius thought for a moment and then growled, “Neither. You’re all a bunch of d–n yankees, and I wish there was a way you could both lose.”

Right now, when it comes to the Middle East, everyone is losing, and it doesn’t appear that anything resembling a “victory” will emerge.

I’m not a political science major, nor am I an expert on foreign policy, so I’m not going to try and give you a dissertation on why the tensions in that region run so high. But I will say this, because I see its faint echo in our current political climate:

Hate is too powerful a weapon for anyone to master.

Hate consumes. It corrodes. It takes the natural emotions of anger and hurt and reduces them to a thick, simmering rage. Hate can take a person and warp them, twist them into caricature of themselves that leaves behind no evidence of anything but the hate.

It can descend from the loftiest of sources – the noble aspirations of religion – and become a narrow point of view so extreme in its positions that only a few would ever embrace its message. It also comes from the simple pettiness of man, the nasty little fault in our internal construction that makes us angry when we percieve the world has turned against us.

It takes only a cursory reading of the headlines from the Middle East to know hate’s legacy: violence, unrest, brutality, uncertainty, mayhem. I can’t fathom what it would be like to live in such a place, to such a degree; when we speak of hate here in the U.S., we speak so often of a softer version, one that is armed only with words. It still wounds, yes; but it doesn’t often kill.

The hatred that seems to permeate the air in the Middle East is not so benign.

I don’t know what the solution may be, but I can say this: when men and women cease to see other people, listen to other people, the seed of hate is planted. Our country is currently watching the seed of hate bloom with this election cycle; instead of listening to one another, instead of pulling together towards solutions that work for all, we are pointing fingers and spewing venom. We are aligning ourselves with ideas over individuals, and when theories and policies are more valuable to us than the flesh-and-blood person across the aisle, we have arrived the point where murder in the name of ideology is no crime.

It is necessity.

It’s trite, but the sad, tragic tale of Anakin Skywalker gets it right: when we give into hate we become powerful, but we lose ourselves in the process. And when we have lost ourselves, we have lost almost everything.

May we continue to believe that no power, no idea, is worth that price.

Of Specks, Motes, and the Cacophony of Rage

There’s this verse in the Bible that goes something like, “Don’t look for the speck of dust in someone else’s eye and ignore the tree branch in your own.” To modern ears that’s a bit strange, and it gets even better if you read the King James Version:

“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

Mote. Great word. Too bad it fell out of usage. “Do you mind sweeping up that mote of cake from the floor?” “I seem to have a mote of tuna salad on my pants…”

Mote. That’s almost as good as modicum.

Anyway…while the wording of the verse may be a bit interesting (after all, who wouldn’t notice if a tree branch had punctured your eye?), the concept behind it is fairly simple: don’t be so blinded by what you see as a fault in someone elses life that you miss the fault in your own.

As an individual, this has never be a problem for me. I know my faults pretty well, which is to say I know my faults like a geek knows his Star Wars trivia. (Quick, name the character who’s arm got chopped off by Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Mos Eisley cantina!) I wouldn’t say I obsess over them, but I try to keep my weaknesses under review so I can always look for improvement.

While this can occasionally produce a bout of nuerosis, it does have a great side benefit: it means I have less time to obsess over the faults of others. That doesn’t mean that I don’t; I can rattle off many things about many people that bother me greatly, but in general I try not to base my life around endlessly correcting people who have gone astray in my view.

This comes in handy quite often on the Internet. If I read something that offends or bothers me, I generally tend to say, “Wow. That bothers me. Hmmm. What should I do? Do I comment? Write a response on my blog? Maybe create a new meme from an online meme generator? Or stage a protest rally at my favorite restaurant? Thinking…thinking… Nah, I’ll just go check my email. I’ve got other things to do.”

Lately, I’ve noticed that there is a small group of people who do not seem to share this character trait. If they read something on Facebook, Twitter, CNN, FoxNews, Disney Junior, with which they disagree, their response seems to be more in the vein of:


And why? Because of the mote. The speck. That thing in someone else’s life that really bugs them and makes them lose their junk.

Or, as my great-grandmother used to call it, “Pitch a hissy fit.”

Mote-noting seems to be gaining popularity as people in the digital age seem less and less inclined to just let things go. We are becoming a nation of intruders, on both the left and the right, butting in wherever we see the particular mote that we note and trying to scream people into submission to our view. And if you don’t believe me, just wait until the presidential campaigns kick into high gear.

I wrote some on this yesterday, about how the words that we sling into the atmosphere can crush someone quite easily. I can’t tell you how many people contacted me yesterday and said, “You nailed it. I’m feeling that exact same way.”

It’s fatiguing, and it is also dangerous. Because when everything is a hyper-sensitive issue, or everything is a massive lose-your-junk event, then all of life becomes shrill, and truly important things fall by the wayside.

It’s a cacophony (another great word) of rage. It’s chaos. Lunacy.

And it’s everywhere. So what’s the solution?

It’s painfully simple: concentrate on the tree branches in our own eyes. Back when the Chick-fil-A brouhaha started, I read a great blog post by a young man named Dale Brown. Dale happens to be married to a former student of mine, and he’s also a priest. I thought his view bears repeating (though I recommend reading the entire blog):

This world will become holy only through individual men and women becoming holy, and that has to begin with us.  Therefore, tomorrow I will not be at Chick-Fil-A, but I will say a prayer, read Scripture, attempt patience, forgive those that wrong me, practice silence, ask for forgiveness; and through cooperating with the Grace of God in the Presence of Holy Spirit maybe a small insignificant part of America will be sanctified tomorrow in that with God’s help I myself might be made holier than I am today.

You may not be religious, but Dale is spot on: only by looking to correct our own lives can we expect the world to become a better place.

Motes, beams, specks and branches. Let the sawdust fly.

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

Yeah - I was a child of the swingin' 70s. Dig it, man.

To my right is a picture frame filled with old photos of me as a kid. In one I’m holding my little brother, each of us equally bedecked in some hideous early-80s fashion, and we’re smiling with all of the joy and mischief of childhood. In another, I’m turned out in a strange looking suit/tux/waitstaff ensemble, holding a satin pillow in front of a church altar, the literal picture of an elfish ring bearer. In still another I’m a slack-jawed infant with powder blue booties stretched over chubby feet. And just above that picture is one in which I sport a shaggy blond bowl cut, 4-inch shirt lapels, and a brown suede sportcoat.

Can you say “child of the 70s”?

I’m looking at these old photos of myself, and I’m thinking about the distances I’ve covered as a human being. The roads I’ve traveled; the choices I’ve made; the changes I’ve endured in order to become myself.

It’s not everyday that you get a quiet household and relatively few demands on your time, so when you do, it’s a lot easier for the mind to reflect like this. So I find myself looking at myself and wondering, “Was I really happy then?”

It’s a stupid question. I mean, why wouldn’t I have been happy then? I had a great home, good friends, a wonderful family, and I was yet to be soiled by so much of adulthood. I realize not everyone has an idyllic childhood, but I certainly did, and the thought suddenly occurs to me that, at least in my case, unhappiness is an adult invention.

I mean, why should I ever be unhappy? Life has thrown me a few curveballs, yes, but for the most part I live a life that 90% of the world would love to lead; I have a well-built house with power and running water, two working cars, two healthy kids, a smoking hot wife, and a job that allows me to read, write, think and teach for a living.

So occasionally I don’t get my way. Big deal. Happened a lot when I was kid (usually in the toy aisle of the local K-Mart or Richway–back when Snellville wasn’t so cosmopolitan) and though the disappointment was palpable, it was short-lived. Ten seconds, maybe? A minute or two if I really turned on the pout.

But as an adult, let something not go my way and I can become apoplectic; let multiple things not go my way in one day and I become the Incredible Hulk with a toothache and a hemmorhoid.

I was reminded of this on Tuesday; the pollen was making my head into a pulsating glob of mucus, the Internet was on the fritz so I hadn’t gotten any work done that day, I was tired, I skipped lunch so my stomach was growling, and I just generally felt like the world owed me big time. Lugging that attitude around the kitchen, I accidentally knocked something over – a little glass globe that my son had made at school that was filled with some dirt and green rocks – and heard the tinkling of glass.

I’d broken my son’s trinket. And dirt had fallen all over the floor and counter. And now there was glass everywhere.

The bile rose so fast you’d have thought it was on Cialis. I snatched that little globe off the counter and stalked over to the garbage can. I jerked the lid on the can up and raised the damaged globe high over my head and, squeezing it so as to maintain better control, threw it into the trash can as hard as I could, getting little slivers of glass in my fingers as a momento of the occasion.

And when I looked up, there was my daughter, her face ashen. Suddenly, tears poured from the corners of her eye as her lip trembled and she asked in a hushed voice: “Are you mad at me too, daddy?”

I was so outraged her fear didn’t even register. It took my wife saying, “No, Ella. Daddy isn’t mad at you, but he’s not setting a good example right now. He’s letting his anger get the best of him.”


Conviction, thy name is parenthood.

Thinking about it now, it’s so obviously moronic that I feel dumb even typing about it. But at the time, my anger seemed justified. The universe had slighted me. Things weren’t going my way. Who wouldn’t be angry?

I’ll tell you who wouldn’t have been angry: seven year-old me. He would’ve just gone on with his day and played G.I. Joe in the backyard. Or four year-old me; he would’ve just gone to his room and looked at books and doodled for a couple of hours. Or even ten year-old me; he would’ve gone outside and shot baskets until darkness fell or his fingers fell off, whichever came first.

Looking at the pictures of me as a kid, and maybe even more, looking at the living pictures that are my kids, I’m reminded that there was once a time when I didn’t view life so miserably. And I long to get back there.

I’ve been humming that Beatles song all day: “Get back…get back…get back to where you once belonged…”

Maybe it’s time I made that trip in my heart.