Monday, April 21, 2014

Cold, Hard Truth

I went to church yesterday for the first time in years.

Returning to church was something I'd wanted to do for a very long time, and there's been a church I've enjoyed going to for years, though depending on where I was living I couldn't consistently attend it.  Now that I'm in an area that is reasonably close to it again, I decided I'd go back for Easter Sunday.  The good news is that the church is still very much how I remember it, and I definitely plan on regularly attending again.

Yesterday being Easter, the pastor's sermon was obviously going to surround the death and resurrection of Christ.  However, one of the things I've liked most about the pastor about this church was that he has never just picked a random passage from the Bible and chose to talk about its significance in his sermons.  Rather, he takes modern-day situations that we all face - addiction, loss, stress, family, you name it - and he applies Biblical principles to it.  I've gotten more from his sermons than I probably ever have from previous churches I've been to in life, which is the big reason why I want to continue going.

His sermon was titled "Image Isn't Everything."  It was one of those classic moments where I'm socked right in the gut from hearing him speak, like this sermon was written specifically for my ears.  He always made great use of props when he spoke, and yesterday was no exception.  There was a mirror sitting on a table the entire service, and it wasn't until he delivered his sermon that its relevance was made clear.  The crux of his words was mostly about what we all see when we look at our reflections in the mirror.  Do we like what we see?  Are we happy with ourselves?  Or do we look at our physical imperfections instead?  Do we keep looking deeper, thinking more about the spiritual aspects that we don't like?

He started writing words on the mirror, mostly negative things that we may think about when we see our reflections.  Words like liar, greedy, filthy, ugly, shame, and unworthy.  Words that cloud our judgment when we see ourselves in private and keep us from feeling worthy of others who may love us.  We deceive ourselves by buying into these lies, which not only hurt our relationships with God, but also with each other.  We keep many secrets out of fear that if anyone knew the truth about us, we'd be seen as frauds or hypocrites.

Talk about tough words to hear.  I know I've been guilty of doing just that kind of behavior more times than I can count, especially when I've looked at myself in the mirror.  I can't begin to guess just how many times over the years I've done that, and I still do it to this day at least on occasion.

The mirror was eventually covered with so many negative words that the pastor's own reflection was barely visible.  Then he wrote one more word over top of all the rest, and that word was pride.  Pride is a funny little thing.  On one hand, there's nothing wrong with taking a little pride in our individual accomplishments in life (I know I have).  However, pride can easily translate to stubbornness, and dig even deeper holes for us to be stuck in.

Finally came the zinger.  With all those words in marker covering up the mirror, the pastor then said we take things upon ourselves to fix the mess.  He took a paper towel and tried cleaning off all the marker, but it only smeared the ink over the mirror.  Nothing was left legible or visible.  He then said there's another word for what can describe what we do when we attempt to fix our own attempts, and that word was religion.

I know plenty of people who are very opposed to organized religion.  Some of my best friends are openly hateful of spirituality and religious beliefs for a multitude of reasons.  They regularly point out people who had acted in history in the name of their religious beliefs, only to really be acting in their own personal interests.  They also talk about the sheer lunacy of religion in general, questioning why God would allow any kind of tragedy to happen in this world if He truly loved us.  I can't really argue with them on either of those points since human logic can't explain either one.  Religion has dirtied the concept of spiritualism throughout history, thanks to regular people trying to act in the name of God and failing miserably in the process.

I'm not educated enough on spiritual issues to be able to adequately respond to friends of mine who disagree with religious dogma.  Whether I'll ever get to that point is open for debate, but it certainly won't happen with only attending one service on Easter Sunday.  I learned something important Sunday, and I took it home with me afterwards.  That's far from the first time I've ever learned something from attending this church, and now that I live fairly close by it again I plan on learning a whole lot more from it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.  The Braves put together a big ceremony to commemorate the event, and several newspapers and news outlets have interviewed Aaron on a number of subjects in the last few days.  One such interview was in USA Today, and Hank Aaron commented on some of the racist threats he had faced while chasing the Babe's record, as well as how racism has changed, if at all, over the years.

I have several thoughts in reaction to Hank's comments, but before I get into them let me start with this: I hate that anyone had threatened him while he was chasing 715 home runs.  I hate such a momentous occasion was sullied somewhat because some supremacists didn't like Hammerin' Hank because he's black.  I hate that some of those same supremacists exist today and still hold grudges over Hank 40 years later.  I don't even like using the word "hate" in conversation often, but I think this is one of the few times it truly applies.

No matter what kind of hate-mongering Hank Aaron had faced back in the 70s, nothing will ever take away from a timeless moment like this one:

My thoughts on Hank's comments are more about where racism is today.  He said that 40 years ago, racists were easy to spot because they wore white hoods.  Now they're in $1000 suits and designer ties.  We've made progress, he said, because we have our first-ever black President, now in his second term in office.  But there's still work to do in his eyes, for a number of reasons.  First, he said Obama has had to deal with racist backlash from Republicans in Congress.  In the world of baseball, he also noted how the number of black players had dropped from what it was in 1974 to what it is now.

I agree with some of those comments.  Yes, a racist's "look" certainly has changed, and many of them do wear suits now.  The number of black players in baseball has diminished in the last 40 years as well.  What Aaron had failed to note is baseball has evolved to include players of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds.  There is an extremely large number of Latino players in baseball now, as well as a significant number of Asian-born players.  Moreover, the number of black athletes in sports like basketball and football has dramatically increased in the last four decades, so it's not like the number of black athletes across the board has dropped (though I do realize the obvious special place Hank Aaron has for baseball in his heart).

There's a much larger issue here though.  I strongly disagree with Aaron on ethnic slandering in politics.  Republicans don't dislike Obama because he's black; they dislike him because of his political philosophies.  Hilary Clinton could be in the White House and Republicans would dislike her for the same philosophical reasons (though in her case, they'd likely be categorized as misogynists).  I may be a white, moderate conservative, but I can tell you Obama's ethnicity isn't even something that enters my mind when I think about my opinions of him.  It's fairly insulting to presume that any Republican would dislike Obama solely or primarily because he's black.

The irony to Hank's thought that Republicans are hate-mongering supremacists is that no one seems to recall the story of George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama during the 1960s.  He was the infamous man behind the effort to keep black students from attending the University of Alabama in September 1963 (you know, the part where Forrest Gump just followed a woman who had dropped her book while entering the school).  He fought with every breath to keep segregation in effect, and he was a Democrat.  Has everyone forgotten about this piece of history?

My biggest beef with Aaron's comments, as well as anyone with ethnic hate-mongering ideas, is the fundamental flaw with the concept of racism.  Maybe it's because I'm a simple-minded moderate conservative, but I can't help but think that people who have darker skin tones than me aren't a different race.  A different ethnicity, sure, but not a different race.  Whites, blacks, Asians, etc - we're all human beings.  A single race.  No one ethnicity is superior to any other.  It's classic Occam's Razor, and it doesn't need to be any more complicated than that.  I don't even know how such a simple concept came to be so convoluted and complicated, but it has.  If the mass public realized the concept of racism is a paradox, I think the idea of ethnic superiority would become a distant memory.