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Exit 164. Prayers.

God, our Father in Heaven,

I pray for our world.  I pray for my country.  I pray that all of us will pay attention and engage with those who are different from us for whatever reason.  I pray that we will seek to understand why they feel, believe, and vote the way they do, rather than ignore them or belittle them as wrong for whatever reason in whatever way.

I pray for all of those who feel oppressed, marginalized, ignored, and patronized.  I pray that we will understand why they feel this way, that we will understand their lives and their history and their reactions that may differ from ours.  I pray that we might see each other as fellow human beings, not antagonists.

Forgive us, Lord.  Forgive our sins as a people.  Heal our broken nation.  I pray that we may remember our Constitution and the ideals of freedom and liberty that led to the founding of this nation.  I pray that we may heal from the sins of our history and move forward.

I pray that you will be at work in the hearts and minds of those who are angry, and those who feel hate toward others who are different.  I pray that they will be softened and broken, and that they will see the people that they hate as human beings, as beloved children of God.  I pray that bridges will be built.

I pray for my good friends who live in and around Charlottesville.  I pray that you will keep them safe as protesters and the news media descend on their region.  I pray that they will be good examples to the world at large, so that the rest of the country will know that central Virginia is a beautiful place full of friendly people who are not white supremacists.

And I pray for my own heart.  God, I pray that you will expose the biases I have, and help me practice what I preach and heal the anger I sometimes feel toward certain groups.

In the name of Jesus, who died to forgive our sins, and bring us to everlasting life with him,

Amen.

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Exit 62. Happy 239th birthday, United States of America.

Yesterday, July 4, was Independence Day here in the United States of America.  The British began settling the Atlantic coast of what is now the USA in the 1600s and 1700s.  By the 1760s and 1770s, the relationship between the Crown and the colonies had deteriorated as the government raised taxes and exerted greater control in the colonies.  After full-blown war broke out, a group of representatives met in Philadelphia and signed the Declaration of Independence (full text).  The Declaration, dated July 4, 1776 and primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, began by asserting that all are created equally with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that government is derived by the consent of the governed; and that when a government becomes abusive, the people have the right to abolish it and replace it with another government.  The Declaration then continues with a list of reasons that the British government under King George III had abused its power in the American colonies.  Fighting between the colonists and the British would continue for several years, and in 1783, after the British had suffered a number of defeats, they formally ended fighting and recognized the new nation.  Thomas Jefferson would later become the third President of the new United States of America, serving from 1801 to 1809, and as one of the nation’s Founding Fathers, his image can be seen on both the five-cent coin and the two-dollar bill.

I have friends in other countries now, and I occasionally get views on this blog from outside the USA, so one reason I included this brief history lesson is because I don’t know how much of this is taught in other countries.  The sad thing, however, is that many people right here in this country don’t seem to know what we are celebrating on July 4.  All of this is still taught in schools, but so many these days have the attitude that what they learn in school is not worth remembering once they have taken a test on it.

This is certainly not the only reason for our changing sense of national identity, of course.  I grew up in the context of the waning years of the Cold War and the brash consumerism of the 1980s, with a clear sense that we were the “good guys” and the Russians were the “bad guys” long before I understood the causes of the Cold War or the political and economic differences between the two nations.  Today’s youth spent their childhoods in the era of the United States being the world’s only superpower, and being widely criticized for that role  They live in the era of increasing globalization and exposure to other cultures, and the era of increased public concern over environmental destruction and its consequences.  This is just my opinion and observation, not intended to be a scientifically drawn conclusion, but it seems like this has created a generation that does not value representative government or free market economics as much as previous generations.  An increasing segment of the population associates representative government with injustice and free market economics with the destruction of the environment, and their views are entirely justifiable in light of recent history.

To me, this context can make the celebration of independence a little awkward.  Does this country still stand for the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?  There is no doubt that the world has changed a great deal since Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues wrote the Declaration 239 years ago, and that our nation and the world are facing a very uncertain and potentially unsettling future.

I want to have hope and optimism that our nation will survive.  Those who wrote the Constitution knew that the world would change in ways that they could not foresee, so they included a provision by which the Constitution could be amended.  It is difficult to amend the Constitution; an amendment must be proposed by a 2/3 vote of Congress, and then the state governments of 3/4 of the states must pass a bill in favor of the amendment.*  But it is important that Constitutional amendments be difficult to pass, so that the foundations of our national government do not change based on whims and fads, and this is why only twenty-seven Constitutional amendments have been approved.  (*Yes, I know there are a few other options involved, but I’m trying to keep it simple.)

One key phrase from the Declaration of Independence that tends to get forgotten these days is “consent of the governed.”  Government exists because the people allow it to exist, and in a representative government like ours, the government only has power because the people allow it to.  Some complain, justifiably, that our government is under the control of big money and big corporations, but the only reason for this is that enough voters have become complacent and cynical enough to continue voting for people who are beholden to big money and big corporations.  This could easily change if enough voters could agree on something better.  Also–and I know that this next part is not true of all countries–the United States federal government exists because the states allow it to exist.  The United States is not one country that was formed first and then divided into states; it is a group of states that created a centralized authority to strengthen their union.  We tend to forget that each state has its own culture and its own way of life, and that, for the most part, the states should not all be the same in the first place.

So, Americans, learn about the issues facing your community, your state, and the nation.  After learning about the issues, vote in the next election.  Remember, you will probably have to make some compromise votes, because no one’s views will follow yours exactly, but some candidates are definitely better equipped to be leaders than others.  I hope we as a nation can continue to do the best we can, and that we will find a solution to the divisiveness and ignorance that seem to have dominated recent elections, on both sides.  Happy 239th birthday, United States of America.

Exit 17. Change one word, and the hypocrite is me.

Disclaimer: This week’s post is pretty much all about sports.  If you don’t like sports, I suggest you read it anyway, because there are some life lessons at the end.  If you don’t even like sports enough to get some life lessons, then please read any of my other 16 posts on this blog.  Maybe you’d rather read about geekbullying or a certain early 90s teen pop band or being an introvert.

During the recent 2014 soccer World Cup, as well as the 2010 World Cup, I remember reading a few Facebook posts from Americans who were actively rooting for Team USA to lose.  Now I’m not talking about people who have a loyalty to another country because of their ancestry, or because they lived there, or because they have a favorite player from that country.  I don’t have an inherent problem with that.  I see that as no different in principle from Vega* the Nice Ex, who grew up in Colorado and was a Broncos and Avs fan despite the fact that she lived in northern California when we were dating.  We never fought about that.  We never fought about anything, for that matter, which is why I refer to her in front of my friends who don’t know her as The Nice Ex.

(* Again, this is me using names of stars, planets, moons, etc. to refer to people from my past and present in an anonymous fashion.  The Nice Ex was not actually named Vega.)

But anyway, I’m talking about people who actively root for the Americans to lose, no matter who they are playing against, and who would not be happy if Team USA were to win the World Cup, simply because they don’t like aspects of American culture or politics, or they don’t like the way Team USA plays soccer.  You’re entitled to your opinions; this is America, after all, land of free speech.  And people with that last reason usually know more about soccer than I do.  But I’m entitled to my opinion too, and my opinion of those people is that they’re a bunch of jerks who are ungrateful for all the freedoms they have in this country, and if they hate America so much, maybe they should like move to North Korea or something.

because_merica_thats_why_us_flag_american_eagle_sw

There’s one serious problem with this view: Go back to that description, change one word, and the hypocrite who deserves to be deported is me.  Specifically, change “soccer” to “basketball.”

Before 1992, NBA players were not allowed to play in the FIBA Basketball World Cup or the Olympics.  Those two tournaments were historically intended for amateur players, and the decision to open them to NBA players was somewhat controversial at the time.  The 1992 USA men’s basketball team, nicknamed the Dream Team by the media, was widely hyped as being the best basketball team of all time, featuring such stars as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Chris Mullin.  They went on to dominate the rest of the world in the Olympics.

I was a precocious 15-year-old during those Olympics, with an opinion on everything… specifically, an opinion that wasn’t always well formed.   I was a purist, and I felt that professionals didn’t belong in the Olympics.  And I was tired of the hype surrounding this team.  The final straw was when I read an article about how the warmup suits were manufactured by Reebok, and this was a problem because some of the players on the team were under contract with Nike and not allowed to wear clothing containing a logo of one of Nike’s competitors.  To me, this represented everything wrong with this setup… if the Olympics were kept pure, without NBA primae donnae, they wouldn’t have these money-driven sponsorship issues.  So I decided to root for the USA to lose.  I was going for Lithuania (even though they had a few NBA players too), because my dad liked Lithuania’s tie-dye practice jerseys, designed by the Grateful Dead.  Lithuania won bronze.

lithuania front 2008

(By the way, the Nike players ended up draping flags around their shoulders at the medal ceremonies to cover the Reebok logos.)  I can remember being actively anti-USA Basketball also in the 1996 Olympics.  After that, I was mostly just neutral toward Olympic basketball and the FIBA World Cup.

But this year is different.  This year, I have a reason to follow USA Basketball at the upcoming FIBA World Cup.  Since a year ago, I have had season tickets to the Sacramento Kings, and I attended 23 of their 44 home games last season.  This is a team that has been stuck in a quagmire of rebuilding, and last year was the first year that they were not also stuck in a quagmire of incompetent ownership.  Kings fans haven’t had much to be excited about over the last decade, but things are slowly, slowly starting to turn around.  And two members of this Kings team, DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, will be playing for the USA at the FIBA World Cup.  (And, just as importantly when it comes to motivating me to want to root for this team: Kobe Bryant won’t be playing.)  After watching these two on the NBA court, I think the international experience will be good for them, and I’d like to see how they do.  Being out there with some of the best players of the game to represent their country is bigger than team rivalries and bigger than corporate sponsorships.

So I officially recant my former anti-USA Basketball position.  And I officially apologize to all the US Soccer haters.  You have your reasons, and I don’t agree with them, but I’m not going to judge you for it.  I haven’t walked in your shoes.

One more exhibition game Tuesday morning against Slovenia.  First game of the tournament Saturday afternoon against Finland.  Game on.

Exit 10. I believe that soccer can coexist with baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.

The FIFA World Cup is going on right now.  For those of you who aren’t sports people (if that’s you, keep reading, because there’s more to this post than sports), FIFA stands for “Fédération Internationale de Football Association.”  For those of you who don’t know French and don’t have a very good grasp on the obvious, that means “International Federation of Association Football.”  Association football is the game that those of us here in the USA usually call soccer.  Every four years, teams representing their countries play each other in a month-long tournament.  Thirty-two national teams qualify for the tournament, organized into eight groups of four.  Each team plays three games, against the other three teams in their group, then the top two teams in each group (that would be 16 total) play each other in a single elimination format (losing team goes home) until there is only one team left (meaning that a team would need to win four consecutive games, after the initial three, to win the World Cup).

The World Cup is huge in much of the rest of the world, even bigger than the Olympics in some countries.  In the USA, not so much.  Soccer is not the dominant sport here.  American sports fans tend to pay a lot more attention to baseball, American football (the kind of football with yard lines and touchdowns), basketball, and in some regions, hockey.  But soccer is definitely becoming more popular in the USA.  The USA did not qualify for the World Cup at all between 1954 and 1986, but since 1990 the USA has qualified for every World Cup, advancing past the group stage four of those seven times.  Major League Soccer, the top level professional soccer league in the USA and Canada, has expanded from 10 teams at its founding in 1996 to 19 today.  Sacramento has a new lower-level professional soccer team which, for some games, has drawn bigger crowds than many MLS games.  If these crowds continue, Sacramento will likely be considered as a possible future MLS expansion site.  And of course, city parks in many places around the USA are full of kids playing soccer on the weekends.

I’ve always had kind of an ambivalent relationship toward soccer.  I’ve never particularly disliked it, but I don’t really follow it or make much of an effort to watch it.  I have no family tradition of watching soccer (compared to, for example, making day trips to San Francisco with my family a few times every year to watch Giants games, or watching Joe Montana win Super Bowls for the 49ers on TV as a kid).   I already have teams to follow in the other four sports I mentioned above.  My watching of soccer has been limited to watching the students at the school I used to work when they have games, and watching the USA national team in the World Cup sometimes.

But while watching this World Cup, I made an interesting discovery, something that I started to notice about myself during the 2010 World Cup and am finally fully ready to admit: I like soccer.  I enjoy watching soccer.  I think soccer games are exciting.  And I really should make an effort to follow soccer more.

Fans of other sports, particularly American football and basketball, always make a joke about how soccer is about as exciting as watching paint dry.  I really don’t know where this comes from.  They must not have been watching the same games I was watching.  Usually such sentiments are borne of the fact that soccer games, at least at the professional and international level, are usually very low scoring.  So many of the games during the World Cup have been decided by one goal, with final scores like 1-0 or 2-1.  But I don’t think that makes the game any less exciting.  There is a lot more to this game than scoring.  The way the teams set up for goals and defend provides excitement in itself.  And, more importantly, a low scoring game is more exciting because it makes everything so tense.  One goal, one mistake, each one can end up being so huge.

There are a lot of important life lessons to learn from soccer.  Soccer teaches patience.  Goals don’t come often, and it takes a lot of work to set up for scoring a goal, just like in real life.  Soccer teaches that your actions have consequences.  As I said above, one little mistake can have huge consequences in the final score of the game.  And at the World Cup level, soccer is a bit of a humbling reminder that the USA isn’t the greatest country in the world at everything, and that we have a lot to learn from other cultures.

Soccer fans have a different culture than fans of the other popular North American sports, it seems.  They cheer for their teams differently.  They have a different vocabulary as well: a jersey is a “kit,” a field is a “pitch,” a tie is a “draw,” and a game-tying goal is an “equalizer,” for example.  Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t turned into One Of Them.  I believe that soccer can coexist with baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.  I’m not going to turn into one of those soccer fans who puts down other sports as inferior and roots for the USA to lose on principle.  And if so-called true soccer fans are unwilling to embrace me as a soccer fan because I’ll be going for the USA in the World Cup and because I’ll continue to watch American football, and call it football, then maybe I don’t want to be one of you (see Exit 1 on geekbullying, for example).  But I don’t care what those people think, nor do I care with soccer haters think.  I like soccer.

Since the USA was eliminated Tuesday on a 2-1 overtime loss (I haven’t figured out yet what soccer fans call overtime) to Belgium, I haven’t really kept up with this.  I didn’t watch any other World Cup games this week; I spent most of my sports time watching baseball, as I am doing right now as I write this.  And I haven’t been to a Sacramento Republic FC game yet.  But I plan on doing so eventually; there are four teams and four games left in the World Cup, and the Republic season lasts a couple more months.  It’ll be fun.  And I have a new culture to learn, and some new life lessons to learn.