A Positive Spin on Negative News

How do we create positives in a world of negative news?

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Steven Pinker opined in the Guardian on February 17th that there is an overwhelming trend towards negative reporting in news outlets.  For a child growing up with cable and satellite television and the myriad channels dedicated solely to the dissemination of news and having seen first hand how the lead topics of every nightly report are murder, rape, war, and graft, this trend is no surprise.  I have only ever known the news to report first and foremost on the worst of the worst.  As Mr. Pinker pointedly remarks, the adage of the day is if it bleeds, it leads.  Having also lived in a small town, then a big city, and then to a small city, I have seen a wide spectrum of how this plays out.  On the local channels there is typically a nod to a trending national headline (almost always negative)  followed by local headlines.  In the larger towns this usually starts with who was murdered that day or if no one was, the next most egregious list of crimes that occurred.

In our current situation we are fortunate that the list of crimes is usually fairly short and mercifully aligned with drug overdoses or bank robberies, not mass murders or worse.  It has gotten to the point where I no longer watch the news because frankly, I am not interested in hearing about all the bad things that have happened that day.  I have no doubt they occur and I am not supposing that ignorance will yield bliss or make the problems go away.  But simply put, there really is nothing I can do to stop a drug dealer from dealing his drugs.  I cannot stop a group of gang members from shooting each other, and I cannot intervene when a parent abuses his children.  The Federal and state authorities are tasked with this effort.  Instead, I try to focus on the areas that I can impact.  I look for the politicians who will support tough crime laws that will directly empower those authorities tasked with preventing or at least cleaning up the mess left behind by evil.  I look for opportunities to create positive outcomes for our community so that there will be fewer people who feel helpless and turn to crime as what they perceive to be the only solution to their predicaments in life.  I try to find ways to bring good to the world when it seems all we hear is bad.

As Mr. Pinker points out, the statistics reflect that there is a propensity for apathy or inactivity when the situation seems hopeless.  Why do anything if everything you do has no effect?  Pinker also published a study which reflects statistically that the world is currently in the most peaceful era it has ever seen (as measured by violent deaths per 100,000 people).  There are fewer wars occuring now then any other time in known, recorded history.  Would you have believed that from watching your news feed today?  I know from my personal experience that if I had to answer whether I thought the world was safer or more unstable and dangerous I would have to default to the latter.  Why?  Because despite the evidence to the contrary (evidence which goes underreported or not reported at all) the multitude of news stories is focused on the negative.  I don’t know if this is a function of the human condition or not.  Are we so guilt ridden from original sin that we cannot fathom to be deserving of peace and prosperity?  Maybe we just need violence and disruption in order to feel important.

I cannot begin to speak for anyone other than myself but I will say that there was a time when I intensely obeserved the news, formulated my strong opinion about the need for a crackdown in all phases of life to stop the bad guys, and vowed to be vigilant in the efforts of justice in the face of lawlessness.  And then I had children.  I watched them play unassumingly and unaware of the evils and dangers that were, according to eyewitness news accounts, around every fathomable corner.  My children weren’t, fortunately, in danger of imminent abduction or murder.  Now, I count my blessings that I have been fortunate to live in neighborhoods where gang violence and drug abuse are not prevalent but crime doesn’t just happen in these places and the news is all too happy to report this.

So after careful observation I started focusing more on the positives.  Laughter, empathy, friendship.  And while I am aware that danger still exists, I am also focused more on how my children have given me the hope and courage to focus on the positives in the world.  You see, it’s easy to gravitate to the negative.  It makes you feel good to not be the bad guy.  It’s easy to say you did the right thing by condemning the man who raped his neighbor or the “sicko” who shot up a country music concert.  But it’s hard to do something about it beyond the words.  It’s hard to give up a Friday evening to go serve dinner to 100 strangers who have no home and are in desperate need of a hot meal to fill their stomachs.   It’s hard to volunteer your time at the county jail to bring comfort to a man who may have committed unforgivable crimes and to remind him that he is still a man, flawed like us all, but deserving of love nonetheless.  It is hard to forego that next latte or round of golf so you can donate to a charity that serves those in need, or those who are sick, or those who may not look, believe, or think like you.  Fortunately, there are a lot of people out there that make those sacrifices.  I only wish the news spent more time lauding their efforts, mundane as they might seem for the ratings gurus.

Perhaps the ratings for good deeds are low because those good deeds remind us of how we all could do more.  And the reminder that we aren’t as profundly good as we think ourselves to be is a turnoff.  It certainly is a lot easier to feel good about myself when I see all the bad things others are doing that I am not.  I can boast of my goodness relative to those who are stealing, murdering, and waging a war of unjustice.  But looking at the great deeds of others puts into stark relief that which I am not doing.  Am I living the life of Christ, a life for others or am I living a life of me, focused on my happiness, my personal gains, my status in society?  If the answer is the latter then it is no wonder that I am drawn to negative news as a buffer to my own falibility.

The great news is that we can all break this habit if we deep down desire to do so.  It is not easy, no habit is easy to break.  But in doing so we will live a life far more fulfilling and far more impactful than the one we live by just not being that guy on the news whose mugshot is the lead story.  We need those good news stories to challenge us to be better.  It’s okay for us to look at others and feel bad for not doing more.  In fact it might be really healthy for us.  A reminder that we can be better and should try.  Seeing someone just like us who is capable of making a difference should inspire us and give us the confidence that we too can do the same thing.  It doesn’t take someone special to do something good.  Quite the opposite.  If you really look at it, it takes someone special to commit an act of evil, if not, then there would be a lot more people committing crimes in this world right?  The fact is that we don’t need to be, and probably outght not be, special.  We just need to be us and we need to make a committment to do good for others.  The ratings might not be there but the path to salvation, to a happier life, and a safer planet surely is.

Scouting for God (post from 09/11/17)

Tracking signs from God, like hunting, takes patience and faith.

In the spring, good deer hunters flock to the woods in search of deer signs. They pick a day with snow still on the ground, not too deep to traverse but enough for deer to leave their prints behind. This is also the time of year that bucks start shedding their antlers, always a great sign for hunters looking to bag that extra big buck. The annual trek into the woods is usually dirty, wet, cold, and many times you come away with more questions than answers. But on that rare occasion you come across a trail, every hunter gets that excitement coursing through his or her veins, knowing they are on the right track. Frankly it usually starts with a hoof print or even a little scat. But with a careful eye, a patient and motivated hunter can usually follow the path of the deer, often times discerning where the deer are heading for breakfast and dinner, where they might be bedding down, and how many may be in the area. These spring tracking events are critical to setting up a successful fall hunt.

While the demands of our busy weeks keep me from doing proper spring scouting, the times that I do get out I cherish. I often feel like doing this difficult task is rewarded with the knowledge that I am practicing an ancient art: seeking, tracking, and harvesting. While the end result is food for my family I often find that these treks into the woods looking to set up the later hunt are often just as rewarding. The peace of being one with nature, listening and searching for any indication of wildlife is so basic and so fully human.

How to search for deer, I think, is not too dissimilar from how we seek God. We don’t seek signs from God for the sake of the signs themselves but rather for confirmation that we are on the right path. Like the deer leaving hoof prints, God leaves a mark to show us the path. And much like any hunter can attest, there are often times a LOT of paths to follow. Sometimes it feels like the trail goes in a thousand directions and taking the wrong turn will lead you only away from your target. But like any good hunter can tell you, practice only makes better, and sometimes it helps having a good friend with experience to help you along.

When tracking God we need only patience and faith, and that good friend we have to help us see the right path is Jesus himself. Whenever I get confused or lost while scouting I know the best solution is to stop moving, take a breath, and go back to the last spot I remember seeing signs and felt confident. When following God’s signs I think the same is true. Sometimes I miss the trail, miss the signs, and then I go back to the last place I remember seeing God at work. I take a deep breath and scan the area for that next sign and when I feel like I just cannot see it, I ask my friend Jesus for a little help. It’s amazing how willing He can be to help, especially when you need it most.

Along this journey Sara and I have seen many signs. I will admit that in the past if someone had told me they had seen or heard a sign from God I would have been pretty incredulous. But through this process of preparing to vacate our existing lives in exchange for something far…different, I have become acutely aware of the signs God has placed for me to find. Sometimes they have hit me like a sack of bricks, or a six point antler shed. No mistaking what you found there. Other times they have been far more subtle, like a few pieces of hair clinging to a tree branch. I cannot explain why the signs come hot and heavy one minute and hard to track the next, but I know they are there and every time I questioned if I was on the right or wrong path it seemed that I found a guidepost or indication which way to go. God has laid the path but God has asked me to find and follow it. The great news is that as long as my head and my heart have been open to seeing the path, I have been able to follow. It hasn’t always been easy, admittedly my faith has been tested. But when I was most desperate, afraid, and unsure, my response was to turn towards God, not away, and every time the signs have shone most brightly for me to follow.

So I ask you, don’t be afraid of the signs, embrace them. They are there to help you find the path. Just remember though that it isn’t the sign you seek but the reward at the end of the trail. Happy hunting!

Casting Off (post from 8/13/2017)

I think it was Rally Day at our church when I first remember hearing the story of Jesus telling his disciples that in order to truly follow him they would have to basically eschew everything they had ever known, cared for, sought after, or held dear. I recall our pastor remarking at the time at how scary that must have sounded. During a time when family meant survival Jesus was calling his disciples to abandon their family and friends. He told them to give away their possessions because no one who owned anything would follow because they would otherwise assess the values of their possessions lost and weigh them against the “value” of pursuing a life of faith. Frankly I couldn’t really blame them. How could Jesus ask them to give away so much? But, as our pastor continued, I realized the truth, though I remember reminding myself to come back to it a later date, essentially postponing the inevitable I guess.

The truth of course is simple, though not terribly easy to accept. What we “own” here is of little real value. They say that what you own eventually ends up owning you. Well, that I think was very true in my life. I sought riches, not of the biblical but of the commercial sense. I set goals for myself focused on material success. Taking a helicopter to work, owning houses in multiple seasonal locations, boats, cars, a sizable bank account. Funny thing is that when I set these goals I actually started to achieve them. Miraculously or not when I set my mind to it I was able to accomplish some great things. Great through the lens of my worldy self. I was still well short of my big targets of course but I had a large house, a boat, pool table, a bank account that could sustain me for several months, and the future looked bright.

But something in my goals was missing. I can’t put my finger on it but I think it was close to around the time my first child was nearing her due date. Sara and I talked more and more as the date was coming that we were missing religion and that we felt we should really reconsider our faiths and how we wanted to raise our daughter. We started looking at all sorts of religions: Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, you name it we considered it. And then it happened, God came into my life for the first time that I, in hindsight, can remember. I didn’t realize it at first but now I know why I found an audio cd. Yes I was searching for books on religion so to be sure it was not total coincidence, but this particular book, this particular day, everything was right. The book was WhereGod was Born by Bruce Fieler. I started listening and quickly found myself completely hooked. Bruce Fieler was telling my story, except it wasn’t mine, it was of course his. But the circumstances were striking. He questioned his faith, like me. He had not really turned away from God as much as not really pursued a relationship with God, just like me. And just like me, he was looking to find his faith or at least to find out if something was missing in his life. And of course it was. God was there all along, waiting patiently. Like the prodigal son coming home, Bruce Fieler found his faith again, and I was starting to as well. Sara and I talked at length and I remember distinctly sitting in our kitchen one evening, explaining to her that I felt like this book had been a calling to me. I felt like a great hole in my life was being filled and that God was calling me home.

Fast forward and now I am back at it, I guess. I feel like God called me home and brought me in. God comforted me and reminded me how wonderful life with God is. God let me become comfortable in his grace to see how I would respond. But I also think this was a time of preparation. God needed me to have some time with my faith, to strengthen it and to realize that it was a part of me that I needed. If God had asked me to cast off my material wealth and to forego those goals I had set so long ago and pursued with such vigor I might have turned away from God. My faith was still in its infancy. I needed time, practice, and belief that the faith I was pursuing was strong enough. So this September day, when our pastor told me to cast everything I knew aside, I got it. I knew what God was saying, though at the time I wasn’t ready to admit it. But like a catchy tune that sticks in your brain that you can’t seem to forget this thought kept coming back. It kept creeping in when I most wanted it gone. It made me question myself, my goals, my image of self worth. And then it reared it’s head with an authoritative thump when Sara brought to my attention the thought of traveling the country and serving.

Casting off is no easy thing, but once you hear God ask you to do it, it’s awfully hard not to, right? There is nothing that I could possibly own anymore that could compare to the feeling that I get when I feel the call of God to act out his will in this world. It is a sensation of love that is utterly overwhelming, sustaining, and empowering. I have never bought anything that could create the same sensation nor wanted anything more. And at the same time I have never felt so anxious about it. My brain is telling me this is a terrible idea. It’s unsafe, it is too risky, I am being absentminded of my long term benefit. But then my heart steps in and reminds my head that God hears all, sees all, and knows all. If I just put my faith in God that which is meant for me will occur. I cannot be sure it will resemble anything I ever imagined in store for me. Frankly I kind of hope it isn’t. Who needs to take a helicopter to get to work anyway? I am not suggesting that because I haven’t hit those goals that I am giving up and looking for an excuse in God. Rather, I am owning up to the fact that those were never good goals at the start. They would never sustain me in the long run and ultimately would have left me in constant want for more. I have never felt so full as when I turned myself to God. I now believe I never will.

Today, our pastor told us the story of Jesus walking on water. At least, that’s how I always remembered it. “See, kids, Jesus must have been divine because he could walk on water”. This time I heard it from Peter’s perspective. Jesus, appearing almost as a ghost wades through the stormy seas, a beacon of hope and serenity for a group of terrified fishermen who were drifting farther and farther from shore. Farther from home, farther from peace, farther from what they needed. Jesus approaches and tells them to not be afraid, all will be fine. Peter calls out to Jesus and asks, and in my interpretation maybe even begs him, if it is you lord call me out of the boat. Well of course Jesus does just that and in that very instant Peter leaves the boat. The part that gets overlooked often is that initially Peter is walking on water too! He is not divine but his faith has carried him over the danger of the deep and tumultuous seas. And then he feels the wind and turbulence and he begins to doubt and immediately starts to sink. But rather than drown and give up he calls out to Jesus, again begging, for his hand to save him. Jesus lifts Peter to safety and with, again in my interpretation a bit of a joking admonishment says to him, “ye of little faith….”

Lord, I am Peter. I am calling to you and asking you to call me from the boat. Take me from safety and that which I am told is comfort and security. Lead me into the stormy seas where only your peace, your serenity, and your grace can be found. I know my faith will be tested and I know I will doubt at some point along the path, but I have enough faith to know too that if I take that plunge you will be there to reach out your hand to lift me up again. I put my life and my love in your hands, Lord, for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.

Godstrong (post from 7/29/17)

A few years ago yellow wristbands adorned the young and old alike reminding them to “Livestrong”. A product of a media effort to prop up a now defamed sportsman who was unceremoniously dethroned during his sole act of contrition while speaking to Oprah. While the story behind the meteoric rise to fame and subsequent fall are well known, the subtext is what I find so interesting. Lance Armstrong was by many measures heroic and if not for some poor choices by way of augmenting reality, would go down as an American legend. But in my mind the real story is the pervasiveness of human frailty and the reality that Livestrong ultimately failed because it was rooted in human weakness, not God strength.

The idea was simple and inspiring, you can overcome anything if you choose to be strong and courageous. Lance Armstrong of course had beaten cancer to achieve glory in cycling. Others used that example to achieve their own various levels of success and endurance. But where Lance failed is where God succeeds. Livestrong was a success because of the exploits of someone all too human. Capable of pride, greed, dishonesty and ultimately (hopefully) remorse. God’s strength is so much more powerful because God has no pride, greed, or inherent failing conditions. God does not and cannot fail, humans can.

So it is that when someone is Godstrong, they approach life in a way that is truly inspiring and powerful. The process of choosing to cast off your way of life and risk everything you “own” is frightening. I’ll admit a daily dose of misgivings and fear as we approach d-day, as it were. When you do things one way for 40 years, as in my case, suddenly changing course is not really ingrained in the human psyche. I have found to this point that no amount of human strength is sufficient. I cannot reason my way through this and most of my emotions are pointed away from this endeavor, not towards it. The times that I find myself truly excited and ready to go are when I sit calmly, breath deeply, and ask God for strength. I find comfort and resolve when I do this and this sense of peace is what I see every day in Sara. Just like lifting weights or training for a marathon Godstrong comes from practice and repetition. Sara is a pro at this constantly reminding herself, and me, that God is there for us. This doesn’t mean that she assumes that our path will be easy or laid out with confetti and roses. Instead she believes that God will provide for us what we need and that what we need may not look like what we want. That’s the trick, what we have been conditioned to want and see as good is really just that which makes us feel safe and comfortable. That does not make it bad by any stretch, but comfortable does not always challenge you to be better. Just like exercising, the only way to improve your body is through some modicum of pain. Godstrong requires challenging ourselves, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, and almost always mentally. I appreciate the message of Livestrong but part of the failure of that concept was that there was no challenge inherently there. Think of it from this perspective, Livestrong is a call to essentially survive and do your best. What exactly is the challenge there? Which members of the target audience didn’t want to live? Who is actively trying to fail? Godstrong on there converse compels you to do things out of the ordinary. Put yourself in harms way to help others doesn’t sound as appealing in a television advertisement as believe in yourself and overcome adversity. God asks you to encounter adversity, embrace it, and if you don’t have it in your life now then go find it and face it head on and to believe that you don’t need to be the one to overcome it on your own but rather to channel the grace of God.

I am not strong enough to face these challenges on my own. No amount of self encouragement or belief will permit me to accomplish those things that I am called to do. But that’s the point, I don’t need to be. God asks us all to be a reflection of God’s grace on Earth. God doesn’t ask us to be God but rather reflect God’s good will and love. If you think of this reflection in terms of a mirror you get the perfect analogy. A mirror is fragile and finite. They can get fogged up easily, can be scratched and chipped. But despite those weaknesses a mirror, even when broken and shattered, can still reflect that image. God’s strength is there for us in all times of our life, when we feel perfect and when we feel broken. We don’t need to carry this weight ourselves, we just need to reflect God’s strength and love and the way will be found, the doors will open, and the grace of God will flow.

Temperament (post from 6/23/2017)

Where to begin? Shower thoughts that try to become reality often hit the wall of where to begin. It’s easy to solve the world’s problems, and sometimes even your own, while feeling the gentle cascade of clean, warm water washing away your cares, and maybe reality itself. This is where I found myself a year or so ago. A shower thought about how great it could be to travel the country and help people. A fairly simple concept but in practice altogether complicated. You have a wife, three kids, a lot of bills, a good job, and no idea how or where to even start. Sure, let’s go travel the country. The funny thing is that when you have a shower thought that wasn’t from your own voice, it has an uncanny ability to manifest itself into more than a flight of fancy. This is really where I was a year or so ago. Meandering through life doing my best to be a good father, husband, and dutiful employee. But in reality my life was going unfulfilled. Amazing to think that I was blessed in so many ways with such a wonderful family and career but at the same time I was yearning for more. More but less. Less stuff, more experience. Less material wealth, more spiritual wealth. And so when Sara came to me while I showered and told me of a former teacher who planned a year long RV trip around the country my thoughts turned to how we could adopt this concept. At first it was a far off pipe dream, a fanciful wish. Maybe in a few years we could get the money together, make the plans, someday. But then a shower or two later it festered and grew, it ate away at the chains of reality and become a nagging call, a reminder that opportunities seldom come twice and sometimes you just have to be awake and aware to hear that quiet call to throw turmoil into your life and do something so crazy that you know it has to be right. Only God can make a tree the poem goes, and I guess only God can turn a shower thought into reality.

And so as I felt the warm shower caress my body and protect me from the craziness that I was certain was entering my brain I simply said it. Sara, what if we traveled the country for a year with the kids, and did it soon. Like in a year, and not in twenty. To my surprise the question was not met with laughter, anger, or even reservation. Perhaps even to my chagrin, it was met with acceptance and excitement. Far from being uncertain I think Sara was all on board because maybe she had been thinking the same thing, during one of her own fanciful shower times. At the very least she felt that there was more for us in store than what we had been doing to this point in life. Now I said out loud what she had been feeling which meant we both felt it too, and now we had a purpose. And with purpose you can accomplish great things. I can’t say that I am supremely confident in my decision because every day I have an ebb and flow of strength and weakness. But I know this much, whenever I start feeling the need to rekindle that flame, all I need to do is hit the showers.