Month: February 2016

Exit 96. I’m scared.

I’m scared.

I’m scared of what the world is coming to.  The Presidential election here in the USA is just eight months away, and all of the leading candidates scare me.  In one party, a crooked and dishonest career lawyer and politician is sparring with another career politician who, although he seems to be a decent man, has extremely radical views that go against much of what I believe this country stands for.  On the other side, a demagogue with a long history of baggage is telling angry people what they want to hear, even though it goes against his previous actions and positions, and his conduct is completely unbecoming of someone fit to lead a nation.  A few of the other candidates running I find somewhat tolerable, but splitting the vote among these minor candidates just seems to be helping said demagogue pull away in the race.  I fear for the future of this country if this many people really support candidates like this.

I’m scared of what passes for entertainment these days.  I’m scared at how desensitized some of us have become to depictions of adult situations and violence.  I’m scared at how shows that were considered horribly trashy just a quarter-century ago are so tame by today’s standards.  I’m scared that kids grow up thinking that the way violence and sex are portrayed on TV is normal.  I’m scared that my values seem laughably quaint to the rest of the world.

I’m scared of the way we treat each other.  I’m scared of how so few people are honest and straightforward anymore.  I’m scared of the way that so many of my friends seem to keep me out of the loop on purpose.  (To my friend who saw fit to keep me in the loop, recently, thank you.  You know who you are, and you know what this is about.  I appreciate it.)   And I’m scared that some people would throw away years of friendship and stab their loved ones in the back for totally selfish reasons.

Perhaps the scariest thing is that none of this should surprise me.  It’s all in the Bible.  Jesus said over and over again that difficult times were coming.  We will be persecuted for our beliefs.  There will be wars, and brother will rise up against brother (Matthew 24).  Paul writes that a man of lawlessness will come and make people believe the lies of Satan (2 Thessalonians 2).  (Note: I’m not saying I honestly think that Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton is the Antichrist.  But the concept of deceitful demagoguery is in the Bible.)

I don’t know who or what I can trust anymore.  All I have left to hold on to is Jesus.  Maybe that’s where I need to be right now, so I can tear down everything holding me back and build something new.

Exit 95. God is not sitting on a cloud with a stopwatch.

Recently I was talking on Facebook with a friend whom I’ll call Enif.  I’ve only met Enif a few times in person, through swing dancing, but we know quite a few of the same people.  I had asked her about something that she had written about, something personal going on in her life that I thought may have had some similarities to some thoughts that had been on my mind.  She explained more of what had happened with her recently, including some things she had been praying about and gotten a clear message from God in response.  I explained what was on my mind, and I added that I need to spend more time praying in general.

Twenty years ago, when I was a student at UC Davis and a brand new Christian, one thing I heard frequently from those around me, leaders and friends at church and in my college group, was the importance of spending time in prayer and reading Scripture.  Many students would share testimonies of how they would spend every morning, or every evening, reading the Bible and praying, because that is how one truly knows God.  One wouldn’t have a friendship without spending time with the friend in question, so how is a relationship with Jesus Christ any different?  I tried for a while waking up extra early and finding a quiet spot at home to start every morning with God, but my concentration that early in the morning wasn’t what it could be.  I eventually started using time between classes for prayer and Scripture.  Typically, my schedules would end up so that I had an hour or two between classes mid-morning.  The UC Davis campus has a creek running through it, along the south end of the core campus area; along both sides of the creek runs the UC Davis Arboretum, featuring plants from all over the world.  During my break between classes, I would walk to the Arboretum, sit on a bench, read a few chapters of Scripture, and pray for a while.  It worked for me, but I still felt a little guilty that I only did this four or five times a week, not every day.  As an adult, my prayer times have been even fewer and farther between, as the hectic stresses of life take over.

Enif’s reply to my statement about needing to spend more time praying surprised me.  She said that I don’t necessarily need to be praying more, and that making such a statement sounds more like the kind of works-based belief system that Jesus saves us from.  I should be doing things because I want to do them for God, not because I feel pressured that I need to, and that in living a Christian life, I am praying throughout the day.

I stand by my statement that spending more time in prayer and Scripture would be good for me.  Yet I think Enif is right.

Probably the greatest misconception about Christianity, particularly because it is still held by many who consider themselves Christians, is that we are saved by good works.  This position incorrectly views God as a sort of omnipotent Santa Claus, rewarding the good little boys and girls and punishing the bad ones.  That is exactly what the Bible does not say.  Jesus Christ shed his blood on the cross to save us from our sins, and nothing we can do can earn salvation from our sins.  Our acceptance of Jesus’ salvation shows through a changed life, with Jesus Christ as Lord, and it is out of this changed life that the good works happen, not out of obligation.

I forget sometimes that some of the other Christians I knew when I was in college may not have been very mature in their faith at the time.  Many people who call themselves Christians are really just looking for rules to follow to feel self-righteous, much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.  Just because someone I knew in the ’90s self-righteously pointed out that they spent two hours every day reading Scripture and praying doesn’t make them a better Christian than I am.  God is not sitting on a cloud with a stopwatch, checking to see who spends the most time in prayer every day.

But, on the other hand, if my life has really been transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t I want to pray, to read his word, to listen to his guidance in my life?  I should.  And that can happen when I sit in a quiet place and open the Bible.  But it can happen in so many other ways too.  God is bigger than our human routines and rituals.  The important thing here is that I am not letting the worries of this life choke out spiritual matters.

Exit 94. Friends or followers?

The TV show The Amazing Race, one of my all time favorites, began another season this week.  For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it has been on since 2001, running two seasons every year.  It is essentially a travel game show.  Contestants are in teams of two with some pre-existing relationship, and they apply together.  Typically, the contestants will be a couple, friends, siblings, or colleagues of some sort.  In each episode, the teams travel to some faraway location, where they compete in physical and mental challenges related to the history or culture of the place they are visiting.  At the end of each episode, they meet the host at a pit stop; the first team to finish wins a prize, and the last time (usually) is eliminated from the race.  They continue, traveling through several different countries over the course of the race, until only three teams remain in the final episode, and the first one to the finish line wins the grand prize.

This season has a casting gimmick.  All eleven teams are social media celebrities of some sort: YouTube video stars, Instagrammers with thousands of followers, and the like.  (My first reaction to this was, “I wonder if one of the challenges this season will be to jump over a shark on water skis?”)  I’m still going to watch it, but my perspective will be a bit different because I haven’t heard of any of these people before now.  To me, the fact that “social media celebrity” even exists as a way to describe someone just shows how frighteningly fast the world has changed, and how out of touch I am.

I have an Instagram.  It’s public.  I don’t post pictures of me.  I just take pictures of stuff I see.  I’m not trying to get thousands of followers, and the overwhelming majority of those following me are people I know in person.  But, as it is a public account, every once in a while I’ll get followed by someone I don’t know in person.  A few weeks ago, someone I was pretty sure I didn’t know in person started following me, and I messaged her to ask if we had met in person, since I didn’t remember.  She said she didn’t think so.  I asked how she found me, and I also pointed out that I had looked to see who she knew, and that we seemed to have a few friends in common.

“Friends or followers?” she asked.

And that was the first time it really hit me.  Most people out there in the world of social media make a distinction between the two.  And I don’t.

Much of my social life between 1994 and 2007 revolved around people I met in chat rooms.  I don’t do that anymore, for a variety of reasons.  But I’m still in touch with some of those people.  And I always thought of all the people I would meet on chat rooms and message boards as friends, or at least as people I’d like to get to know as friends.  Occasionally on this blog I’ll get comments from people I don’t know.  I try to check out their blogs when I can, and I’ve started following, and commenting regularly on, two blogs that I’ve discovered this way.  I feel like, were the situation to come up, I’d want to be friends with them, at least so far.  But I can’t expect them to feel the same way.  Not everyone wants to make friends through their blogs.  I haven’t told either of them this… and if they happen to read this, I hope this doesn’t sound creepy or stalkerish at all, because I don’t mean it that way.  And I have no intention of stalking them.  (Both of them live quite far away, so it isn’t an option anyway.)

The obsession with getting followers and not making friends isn’t the only thing that rubs me the wrong way about the existence of social media personalities.  Maybe I’m just envious of people who have these street smarts and these opportunities.  As a teenager, I would have loved to make videos.  There was no YouTube back then, and we never had enough money to have a video camera.

There’s also the fact that I am a teacher.  The stereotype I have of social media personalities with enough followers to make a living from social media is that they didn’t follow the traditional career path of doing well in school, getting into a good college, and getting a good job from there.  But there doesn’t have to be anything wrong with that.  Life changes, technology changes, and career paths change.  “Truck driver” wasn’t a common career 100 years ago.  “Computer programmer” wasn’t a common career 50 years ago.  This is just a natural evolution of things.  And making a living successfully from social media still requires street smarts.  Being a YouTube star isn’t really any different from being an actor, and being an Instagram star isn’t really any different from being a model.  Both of these careers have existed for a long, long time; the technology may have made these careers more accessible, but they haven’t really changed human nature.  So maybe I’m getting worked up over the wrong things.

Exit 93. It’s just a game.

Today is Super Bowl Sunday.  (For my unfootballed readers, that means the day of the National Football League championship game.)  I’m going to have it on in the background, but I have no preference as to who I want to win this game.

There are a number of significant events in my past that I associate with happening on Super Bowl Sunday.  One of them in particular, even though this year is a milestone anniversary for it, wasn’t on my mind much if not for two posts I saw on Facebook within a few hours of each other a couple weeks ago.  One said that the current date of January 28, 2016 was the 20th anniversary of the last Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl win.  (“20 years of choking,” the caption said.)  The other was from a friend from college, who found and shared some 20-year-old pictures of a retreat he had been on with his Bible study, also in January 1996.

Time for some back story.  In the fall of 1995, I was a sophomore at UC Davis.  I had gotten involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after several of my friends from the freshman dorm had invited me.  I thought I was a Christian, but over the next several months, I made a lot of new friends who took their faith much more seriously, and I learned what it really meant to follow Jesus.  I decided to follow Jesus for myself on Thursday afternoon, February 15, 1996.

During that transition time of learning about Christianity and making new friends was the Super Bowl.  The San Francisco 49ers (my team) and the Dallas Cowboys were two of the most consistently dominant teams in football at the time, and they had developed quite a rivalry.  I lived in northern California, where the 49ers were of course the dominant team geographically, and the Cowboys are one of those teams that have fans all over the country, as well as bandwagon fans since they were so good during that era.  I hated the Dallas Cowboys.  There had been at least two seasons still recent in my memory when the Cowboys had been the team to beat the 49ers in the playoffs.

On the Friday night before the Super Bowl, I had gone to InterVarsity, and for some reason I was in a bad mood.  I was probably feeling discouraged about not having plans afterward that night, or not having a girlfriend, or something like that typical of me.  Two guys who I didn’t know very well at the time started talking to me, and eventually they invited me to their house to watch the Super Bowl the following Sunday.

One of those two guys was the one who posted the picture of the retreat a couple weeks ago.  I replied to that photo, “I wasn’t there, but one of my friends who hates the Dallas Cowboys even more than I do posted today that the last Super Bowl win for the Cowboys was 20 years ago today (’20 years of choking,’ the meme says), which was that same year, and I remember that Super Bowl being the first time I ever hung out with you guys.”

The other guy who had been there on that night in 1996 to invite me to their house replied, “Was that the game you got really mad at? Or was that a later one?”  He was right.  I do tend to get pretty upset at big games that don’t go my way.  And that one didn’t go my way.  Like I said, I really hated the Cowboys at the time, and they won that game.  I’m naturally competitive, I grew up in an environment centered around sports, and I tend to be short-tempered after a long childhood of being bullied.  But none of that was going through my mind a couple weeks ago when I made my post connecting these two events.

“Probably,” I replied.  “But twenty years later, the fact that I had new friends sticks out in my mind more than the specifics of the game.”

I think there’s an important lesson for me to learn in this.  It’s just a game.  I’ve seen my share of great games over the years, and I’ve seen my share of disappointing heartbreaks.  But realistically, those moments aren’t the ones that really affect my life.  And I meant every word that I said there: most of my memory of that Super Bowl Sunday 20 years ago involves the fact that I was around new friends, people with whom I would spend quite a bit of time over the next few years.  And that is what I should be focusing on.  Yes, it is fun to see my teams win, but the times I spend watching games with friends, celebrating with friends after a win and commiserating after a loss, those are the real memories that will last.

Exit 92. Unfortunately, I can’t change him. But…

(This appears to be about sports, but if you’re one of those sportsball haters, I hope you still read it, because there’s more to this than sports.)

I just got back from the Sacramento Kings basketball game.  This team has been driving me crazy the last few weeks.  They won five games in a row, which put them in position to make the playoffs, which has not happened this late in the season since a decade ago.  Then they lost four games in a row, removing them from playoff contention for now.  Then they won tonight, even though they were without their top scorer, center DeMarcus Cousins, due to a sprained ankle.

DeMarcus Cousins was recently named to the All-Star team for the second consecutive year; last year was the first time the Kings had had an All-Star since 2004.  In one recent game (the last of the five consecutive wins), Cousins scored a career-high 48 points, then two nights later he topped that, scoring 56 points in a double-overtime loss and tying the Sacramento-era record (this is the team’s 31st season since moving to Sacramento).  Many sports writers are calling him the most talented center in the league right now.

However, there is a down side behind all that raw talent.  Cousins is known for being short-tempered.  He often is among the league leaders in technical fouls received for arguing with the officials.  He has been known to lash out in frustration, not only at officials, but sometimes at his own coaches.  Usually, however, such behavior is accompanied by an eventual apology.  Some say he is not a good team player.  Some say that he is lazy, not playing as hard as he could, and he has let himself get a little out of shape.

I feel a certain sort of camaraderie with DeMarcus Cousins, because I can be the same way sometimes.  I am also short-tempered, in a way that affects my ability to express my talents.  I have often acted in frustration and subsequently apologized.  And I have been known to start unnecessary arguments when things don’t go my way.  I don’t necessarily believe in this, but my mom would probably say that Cousins and I are so similar because we are both Leos.

I want to see Cousins succeed.  I want to see him grow up and calm down, so he can focus on being one of the world’s elite basketball players.  I want to see him play hard and shake the reputation for being lazy.  I want to see him take bad calls in stride and not lose his cool, so he can help the Kings bounce back and be a better team.

Unfortunately, I can’t change him.

But I can change myself.

I can work on my own temper.  I can avoid unnecessary arguments when I’m angry.  I can work hard at my goals and not let myself get distracted.  I’ve never met DeMarcus Cousins, and I may never meet him, and working on all these things in myself will probably not affect his play or his personal growth in any way.  But working on these things myself might help someone else, a younger friend or one of the kids I work with, before it’s too late for them.