Words matter…

I remember the childhood rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I wish that were true…

Unfortunately, far too many of us have had experiences with name-calling in one of its many forms…and studies bear out the long-term impact that bullying can have on everyone involved.

When one is a child, bullying can ensure that one is seen as somehow “less than”…pushed to an outer circle. Sometimes the bullying that takes place is clear and undeniable, but sometimes it’s far more subtle, with words that poke fun–and can be (and are) easily dismissed as kids “just having fun.” But it’s not fun to the one experiencing it.

Nor is it good for the one doing the bullying. They never learn how to interact appropriately with their peers, but learn that force (whether physical or verbal) is the way for them to get what they want.

Young people who are struggling to find their own identity struggle often with words used to identify them…and sometimes believe they have no choice but to disappear.

Even into adulthood words matter.

Words create the environment we grow into…and that’s why we’ve come to recognize that words that were common years ago are no longer acceptable–words such as the “n” word or “retard” (which I remember hearing as a common insult when I was young). We’re slowly coming to understand that words that were commonly used to describe individuals whose sexual or gender identity are different from our own have consequences.

But somehow it still seems acceptable to many to shame girls/women…to see us only as sexual objects…to ignore the fact that we are individuals with desires and talents like men…to suggest in many ways that we ought to be kept barefoot and pregnant…that men ought to make all decisions for us (including decisions about our own bodies)…

Those words have helped create a culture where a young man who viciously raped an unconscious woman gets away with a slap on the wrist because “she asked for it because she was so drunk” and because he is an athletic swimmer.

Those words have helped create a culture in which a once-honored comedian found it acceptable to drug women he wanted to have sex with…and then claim it was consensual.

Those words have helped create a culture where some well-known athletes have boasted about the number of women they have had sex with.

Those words have helped create a culture in which one of the candidates for the highest office in our land feels no shame in boasting about groping and kissing women against their will…and where others who hold office see nothing wrong with what he has said.

For too many years we have been quiet, believing (or at least hoping to believe) that “words will never hurt me.”

No more.

Words have consequences. Words have power. And it’s time that we acted in ways that show we believe it.

The indomitable human spirit

I’ve been enjoying watching the 2016 Olympics. Yes, I know there are problems–sometimes very serious ones–that can be found related to the games…from the cost of creating the site to some of the training methods used. But there are also some wonderful stories of the indomitable human spirit. These are some that have impressed me.

  1. The “Final Five”…Not only have each of them been wonderful performers themselves, it’s been clear that they really like and support each other. They have been genuinely delighted when someone on their team has done well–and genuine in their hugs when someone has had a problem with a routine.
  2. Aly Raisman…To watch Aly Raisman come back come back from disappointment four years ago, determined to show that she is one of the best in the world was exciting…and her parents were as much fun to watch as she was! It was easy to sympathize with their concern and nervousness for their daughter, but they way in which they showed it made each of us wonder how we would react in the same situation.
  3. Laurie Hernandez…She just bounces! She looks like she is having so much fun in her routines.
  4. Simone Biles…Who can ignore Simone her?! Her gymnastic ability is incredible–I can’t imagine bouncing as high in the air as she does. But the support of her grandparents (now her parents) through the years is special as well. I can’t imagine the pain of seeing your child lose custody of their children–much less making the decision to adopt them yourselves. But it says a lot about the special relationship they have.
  5. Ellie Downie…Her fall during her floor routine for the all-around qualifying was horrendous! I’m sure that everyone–including her sister–who saw it was scared for her and wondered what the prognosis was. But then to see her come back and insist on doing two vaults so that the team could qualify…and then to see her later do a wonderful repeat of the floor routine was wonderful.
  6. Kohei Uchimura and Oleg Verniaiev…Gymnastic decisions are often close, but the men’s all-around came down to the final performer on the final routine–and a decision of .99 point. Both competitors did wonderful routines and you sometimes wish that there didn’t have to be a winner and everyone else.
  7. 2016 Refugee Team…For the first time the Olympics acknowledged that the world is not a wonderful, peaceful place. Ten athletes are competing under the flag of the Olympics, highlighting the problems of refugees around the world. Just staying alive for some of these refugees makes them gold medal winners, even if they don’t win at the Olympics.
  8. Michael Phelps…Does anything else need to be said? I was delighted to see him come back in a better place than he was after the 2012 Olympics, and to see him delight not only in his own successes but also in the team success.
  9. Joseph Schooling…Each athlete has a hero they look up to. For this young man it was Michael Phelps. I cannot imagine how he felt when he beat Phelps out for a gold in the butterfly.
  10. Katie Ledecky…Does anything else need to be said about her? She absolutely blew everyone else away in the 400-meter freestyle…and she looks like she’s having so much fun as well.
  11. Simone Manuel…This young swimmer tied for gold with the 16-year-old Canadian Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter freestyle, with both of them breaking the world record in the process. She is the first African-American to win an individual event in Olympic swimming–and the background to her win informed me of some of our racist swimming history, history I had not been aware of because it had not impacted me.
  12. Mo Farah…Who? Not a runner I had ever heard anything about, but his run in the 10,000-meter race was incredible to watch. He started at the back of the pack…took a fall on the second lap…and yet came back to win.
  13. Keri Walsh-Jennings and April Ross…I used to enjoy playing volleyball at church camps, but these two women take it to a whole different level! They are so athletic and manage to pull off almost impossible saves!
  14. Ibtihaj Muhammad…When I was in college I took a class in fencing. I haven’t fenced since, but I remember what a challenge the sport is. At a time when so much hatred has been expressed against Muslims, I am pleased to see a Muslim woman representing the United States.
  15. Adilende Cornelissen…I’ve always loved horses. I don’t understand much about the sport of dressage, but I do know that it requires a close connection between the rider and the horse. Cornelissen was the reigning silver medalist, but when her horse became ill, she put his needs to recover over her own desires to win.

I know there are undoubtedly many more–and will be more before the Olympics are over.

Perhaps one of the major values of the Olympic games is to remind us of the importance of the opportunity to do one’s best…the importance of teamwork…the indomitable human spirit.

Winners…and lessons

World Series celebration

This week my hometown has been celebrating! The Kansas City Royals won the baseball World Series–for the first time since 1985.

It’s been quite an experience for a city whose team has often been pitied…or laughed at. We’ve sometimes been the “poor relations” in baseball–but not now.

And the run to the win has been an improbable experience. I’ve lost track of the number of times we were counted out during the regular season–much less during these post-season games. There were so many times when we were one or two outs from losing…only to find ways to come back and win…and win…and win.

There have been a number of articles on the lessons that can be learned from this team. I can’t find all of them, nor can I remember everything they have said. But here are what I think are the important ones.

  1. It takes a team. The Royals won without anyone one player standing out as a superstar who did it all for the team. Everyone on the team had a significant role at some point in winning this trophy, and the players themselves recognized that. After every game (regular and post season) they took time to celebrate and affirm all members of the team, even if they hadn’t played that particular game.
  2. Never give up. One news story I heard said that in either seven or eight of the games (I can’t remember which), the odds of the Royals winning that particular game ranged from 1% to 25%…and yet the Royals found ways to pull out a win. The developed a mantra–“Keep the line moving”–that kept them motivated. Rather than trying to hit a powerful out-of-the-park home run, they focused on getting hits that would allow the next player a chance to hit–and it worked.
  3. Welcome the stranger. Johnny Cueto had not been with the team all season; he was a player brought in specifically for the World Series. Yet he was welcomed to the team and made an integral part of it…not seen as “an outsider”. Even when he did not pitch as well as expected/hoped, he was not ostracized–and he ended up pitching an incredible game late in the series.
  4. It sometimes pays to take chances. The Royals found ways to win by sometimes taking chances. I’m thinking in particular of Eric Hosmer’s dash home in the 9th inning of game 5…with two outs. That tied the game–and led to the win. Yes, it was a chance–and to some it might have seemed a foolish chance. But it wasn’t as foolish as it might have seemed, because the Royals had done their homework. They had scouting reports on the Mets players and knew when it made sense to take a chance.
  5. Enjoy your job. Make no mistake about it–when the Royals play baseball, they are doing a job. They get paid very well for it–and they are expected to do their best. But it was also obvious that they were enjoying what they were doing. Even when things weren’t going well, they found things to enjoy–and because they enjoyed their jobs, they found ways to make good things happen. When things didn’t go as they had hoped, they didn’t let it get them down; instead, they seemed to be able to let it go and move on to the next thing they needed to do.
  6. Respect each other. Last year the Royals came up one game short. The local newspapers could have really pounded them–but one of the headlines read “Royally Proud!” This year the Mets came up one game short–and one of their local headlines read “Amazing Disgrace!” I know which team I’d be happier to be on…which city I’d be happier to do my best for.
  7. Celebrate the good things! 

Of course there are many other lessons that could be learned. But these are the ones that struck me–good life lessons for all of us.

Badge of courage

There are many ways to be a hero.

As a child I think I was pretty typical in seeing firemen, policemen, and nurses as heroes.

But as I grew older, life became more complicated. I came of age during a time of significant change and controversy….and determining heroes became more challenging.

What about the young people my age who risked–and sometimes lost–their lives in order to force us to see the cruelty of the discrimination we so routinely practiced against people for no reason other than the color of their skin? And what about John Howard Griffin, the auRuby Bridgesthor of Black Like Me, who took the step most of us would not have dreamed of…working with a doctor to take medicine that ultimately was a factor in his death that would allow him to darken his skin enough to pass as a member of this oppressed minority…so that he could share at least a part of their story from the perspective of having lived it.

I remember seeing this iconic picture and thinking about the bravery of this 6-year-old girl who walked through a wall of hate so that she could get a decent education. She was a hero as well.

Then we found ourselves embroiled in an unwinnable war in Vietnam. Who were the heroes there? the young people who protested? those who fought? Or did I have to choose? Wasn’t it possible there were heroes on both sides in various ways?

Later I began to hear and read stories about other people from World War II that I considered heroes, although they didn’t see that they had done anything special. There was Corrie ten Boom, whose book The Hiding Place told the story of her Dutch family’s decision to protect Jews…their capture and experiences in the concentration camps…and then her willingness after the war to travel to Germany to bring a message of forgiveness and new possibility. There was Oskar Schindler, a flawed human being who still chose to take risks to rescue Jews from certain death. Many of us experienced his story through the movie Schindler’s List.

There have been others whose names have come forward as the years have gone by…Irina SendlerNicholas Winton…the entire village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon

And now today.

The controversy over who should be considered heroic has reached a fever pitch with the giving of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage to Caitlyn Jenner. Is she really a hero?

I believe she is.

I have heard a number of people who knew Bruce Jenner who have said they didn’t really like that person–who seemed to be rude, obnoxious, not really willing to acknowledge others. I didn’t know Bruce that well, but spent a little time with him and his wife–my cousin–when they came to visit after winning the decathlon. He was nice, but didn’t really share much of himself.

Now I know why. How can you share of yourself when you aren’t really sure who you are? or whether people will accept you if they really know who you are? I can’t imagine spending 60 years of my life in that kind of self-imposed cocoon.

But now Caitlyn has become who she has always felt herself to be…and I am much more impressed with Caitlyn than I ever was with Bruce. Maybe some of it is maturity, but I think more of it is because she is now an authentic person-and she recognizes that she has both the possibility and the responsibility of helping us understand what it is like to be a transgender person…and to challenge us to accept each other, even if we don’t completely understand each other.

Perhaps the best statement as to why I see her as a hero–a flawed human being, yes, as we all are, but a hero–is in this comment by Joey Vicente, a behavioral health specialist in the Army.

“Your definition of what or who a hero can or cannot be is irrelevant,” he wrote. “What if I told you that her speech last night saved even one human being from attempting to take their life. I’d call that a victory on any scale.”

…to be free…

There are a couple of quotes that have been rolling around in my mind this last week:

“…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32

This above all: to thine own self be true.” – Hamlet”

I know…there are specific contexts for both of them, but there’s also a broader truth that I’ve been thinking about because of the stories about Caitlyn Jenner.

Bruce Jenner was a part of my extended family for a few years, although I did not know Bruce well because Bruce and Chrystie lived in a different part of the country.

But as I (along with thousands of others) saw Bruce’s interview with Diane Sawyer and then saw Caitlyn on the cover of Vanity Fair, I was struck by one thing in particular…the eyes.

I have an autographed picture of Bruce after the Olympic win. It is a pretty typical celebrity photo…and for many years I didn’t really see anything special in it. But when I saw Caitlyn’s picture, and compared it with this earlier picture, I was struck by the peace that I saw in Caitlyn’s eyes. They don’t look haunted, like I now see in so many of the pictures I see of Bruce.

And I was struck by Caitlyn’s comment that she is “now free”…free to be who she has thought she was for so many years.

I know that many people are tired of hearing about the Jenner transition. Others rave about how heroic Jenner is. And others just don’t understand it. I’m somewhere in the middle of all of this.

Would I call Caitlyn a hero? No…but I certainly call her brave. She has been the butt of jokes for a number of years, and to face them head on like she has…and to openly share the story of her journey…is certainly brave. And I salute that bravery. Not just for her but also for the many transgender young people who have felt like they have had to hide who they are…but who now have another role model for becoming real.

There have been many comments about how Caitlyn “of course” looks gorgeous…why wouldn’t she with all the help she had in preparing for the cover shoot? Is that really so wrong? Who of us wouldn’t want to look the best we could if going through something this important in our lives?

Some who knew Bruce as a younger person have commented that Bruce was not a pleasant person…so is Caitlyn going to be any different? I hope so. Part of that hope comes from Caitlyn’s comments that “I have high hopes that Caitlyn is a better person than Bruce. I’m very much looking forward to that.”

When one is true to oneself, then I think it becomes easier to be nicer to others. You cannot live a lie to yourself without being fearful of exposure to others…and that definitely has to impact how you relate to them.

The furor will eventually die down, and that’s good.

Caitlyn is now free to be true to herself…and I hope and pray that the days are not too far away when other transgender people who are hiding themselves will be able to be true to themselves…and to be free.

We don’t always know

Back in 1972, I played for the wedding of one of my cousins. It was a cold winter day, but she and her husband seemed to be a golden couple.

Four years later, after hours of training on his part–and lots of support on hers–we cheered when he became America’s champion…Bruce Jenner, the decathlon winner. They came to visit my parents shortly after, and we shared in the joy of his victory…oohed and aahed over his gold medal.

They lived in a different part of the country, so we rarely saw them…but we kept up with them both through news stories and through letters from my aunt.

Then…suddenly, it seemed…the golden couple was no more. They had separated…and then divorced.

Why? We didn’t know, but in our humanness, we blamed Bruce. And since it seemed not long after that he began dating…and then married again…we were angry with him. How dare he talk about family…and then leave and start another family? and later another?

We just didn’t talk about Bruce.

Then came the interview with Diane Sawyer…with all the jokes, the innuendo, the gossip leading up to it. Quite honestly, we vacillated a bit about watching it…but we did.

And that put a whole new twist on the story.

While I am still sorry for some of the decisions Bruce has made through the years, I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to try to live as one gender while knowing deep inside that your body and soul do not match. When you lie to yourself, how can you be truthful with others, even (or maybe especially) ones you love?

We don’t always know what is going on inside a person. And I have been reminded again of the importance of Jesus’ challenge to not judge others. Would I want to have been judged the way I judged Bruce? No…and I deeply regret that.

What will the future hold for Bruce and his family? None of us know. It is clear that there has been reconciliation and healing in many ways, and I am grateful for that.

I know there will be many who do not understand Bruce’s journey…and that’s okay. But can we all be willing to acknowledge that there is much about each one’s journey that we do not know or understand…and simply be willing to be companions on the journey?

A prayer for peace

God of all people…

Many of us find ourselves weeping today at yet another example of our inhumanity towards each other. Many innocent people found themselves in harm’s way and their lives changed forever because of actions they had no say in.

We pray for them…for peace…for healings–both physical and emotional. We pray for courage  as they start new life journeys.

We pray for the first responders…those who rushed toward danger out of their training and desire to help. They also suffer when they are unable to bring the healing that is their goal.

However, we also pray for the perpetrators.  We do not know what caused them to see violence as a solution to any concerns…or that allows them to see other humans as pawns or as weapons to be used to attain their goals.

We pray for justice, for we know there can be no healing or peace without justice.

May it be so…

Amen