Thursday, July 4, 2013


I started a rather unexpected journey with my oldest son, Ethan, this week to do some archival work for a book project.  Knowing that I would be visiting college campuses,  he asked if he could tag along.  Since he has his learner's permit and I enjoy spending time with him, I thought it would be a good road trip for both of us.  In more ways than one, and with some reservation that what I am about to write may might make my wife sad that she was not here with us, I have enjoyed my time with my son.

He knows that I am a teacher, but he has little sense of what I do as a scholar.  We have talked about the book project, but he was unsure what I meant by research.  After having a "box seat to the archives" (his words), I am not sure that he finds six or seven hour days in the archives all that enjoyable.  But now he knows what I do when I go on these trips.  What I did not expect was his embracing of my childhood or our time spent in Charlottesville.  I am still not convinced that we should drag our kids down the same childhood streets we roamed, but at least this go-round he appeared interested, asked questions, and made observations (he could not believe how long the bus ride was to our middle school).

We also returned to the place of his own birth.  We left Charlottesville when Ethan was three-and-a-half years old.  He has some clouded memories, and as he learned, some of those are not correct.  What he did not know then, but saw a glimpse of yesterday, was that he was surrounded by people who know him and cared deeply about him and his well-being, even from afar.  I cannot express what it means to me to have Ethan know as a young man people who remember him as a free-spirited toddler, who can tell him stories about him and his parents.  He has laughed so much and his parents and thei friends.  

Our friends have sustained us in ways that we are never fully aware of until they are gone.  I am grateful for the friends we have made in Macon, but the return trip to Charlotesville and Crozet felt like conversations that I left off only the day before. In some cases I was picking up those conversations more than a decade after they ended. I realized yesterday that we have been gone too long. Glad to be returning in less than four weeks. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

David Thompson

No, not the basketball playing David Thompson.  My guy is a tic under 5'10".  Although very athletic as a young man, the sight he lost in his left eye at age twelve caused educators to worry that he might lose sight in the other eye if he played sports.  No, this David Thompson is my dad.  He is a gifted father, who I will never come close to emulating as a dad.  It is a rare gift for a man to pour himself out for others, but that is what he has done.  He loves children, so often my dad would be a kind of neighborhood dad for friends.  More important to my later life, he opened our house, along with my mother, to two nephews and raised them as if they were his own.  Though I know now that my mother was the glue that held our family, both nuclear and extended, together, my father provided the structure for the glue to hold.

My sense of being a father comes from his presence to us every day.  I have often shared with others that my dad hated his job.  Given that most of my adult life has involved reflecting on the idea of calling or vocation, I am aware of the shadow of my dad's presence at our dinner table and his disgust with a job that was meaningful to him at at twenty but had become obsolete by age forty due to computer technology.  My dad's love of drafting was outsourced to the power of algorithms in computer-aided design not a foreign country.  My dad, however, had a calling, and it was two-fold.  He loved his family and he did his job for more than twenty years to take care of them.  And he was a builder.  He built my mother's home, every piece with his own two hands off the plans he drafted.  And he built us into a family.  My dad's love drove him to think and to act for others.  Since I have children of my own, I understand what he gave up of his own interests and dreams to help us pursue ours.  His grace in just showing up far exceeds anything I am capable of at this point in my life.  I am trying.

He is not perfect, and the loss of his eye-sight in his right eye eight years ago and the loss of my mother seven years ago has put a strain on him.  As in all families, that strain on him has radiated out to all of us.  He is stubborn to a fault, like his mother before him.  I wish his grandchildren could know the independent, creative man I grew up with who built houses out of thin air.  What they do know is the man who loves them unconditionally and shares in their successes and grieves in their hurts.  For that, I am grateful that they know him in the most powerful calling of his life: love of family.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Religion and American Culture

Off to Indianapolis for the 3rd Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture.  Missed the second one but looking forward to gathering with colleagues and friends. Hope post a few observations along the way. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Is anything ever accidental?

"You are a racist."
"No, I am not.  My best friend from high school is black."
For most of a two year period one of my college roommates and I carried an ongoing argument over whether I was a racist.  I defended myself against the charge by claiming that my best friend from high school was black.  I now know that I used one of lamest excuses for not being a racist.  One evening, before that realization, my roommate changed the terms of the debate when he asked me a rather innocent question.  It wasn't until years later that I understood the full implications of the question.  He asked, "would you marry a black woman?"  Without thinking, I said "no."  That night, somewhat unbeknownst to me, I began the process where I came to understand what he meant by calling me a "racist."  I had been programmed to think in racial terms. 

Years later it occurred me that when folks walk away from the "racist" tag they do so because they think it only means hateful things.  If they are not members of a hate group, then how can they be racists.  That is the problem with our discussion of race in the U.S.  We want to understand a complex social construction in simple terms.  For most of us, the process of racialization occurs almost from birth.  When our parents make choices about where they worship, our preschools, or non-school activities.  Interestingly, it can occur before our births when they make choices about where we live, if they can afford that choice.  We are taught to make choices from within racial categories.  In the abstract the categories are all wrong, but in our practical, everyday lives, we hold tight to them.  The choices we make to get from point A to point B in our hometowns suggest how we think and act in racial terms.   In Macon, Georgia, the choice of sending a child to public school versus private school after fifth grade shows the process.  We racialize our music.  My current example is Darius Rucker, but there are other examples.  But the process of racialization is even more subtle than that.  In reaction to a question posted on Facebook about Brad Paisley's "Accidental Racist" song, a young woman said she was proud to be "Black."  Since the young woman claimed her racial identity, she is in effect making a "racist" claim that a racial category helped define her understanding of herself.  No one would suggest she should have done anything else, but this is what makes the Paisley song interesting.  What happens to a white man if he does so?  Given the initial reaction to the song, it is clear that he must be the worse kind of racist: one who doesn't understand his sin.  It might have helped if Paisley had had a little more historical perspective before launching the song.  Paisley, his character in the song, and the young woman in the comment section of a Facebook post claim their identity in racial terms.  It would be nice to live in a world where people are judged by the content of their character, but we have not constructed that world. 

Oddly, the song attempts to understand something that is often lacking in discussions about race relations: an attempt at understanding the "other."  Paisley's character is caught in a judgmental stare.  Rather than trying to "walk in another's skin," the initial move in the song is to defend the character's regional identity.  Here South means "white."  In this simple move, the song's problem becomes clear.  Paisley grabbed a loaded symbol and tried to explain it away in all of his post-release interviews.  The focus has remained there.  Sadly, it also gives the stupid "heritage, not hate" line continued credibility among those believers.  The character in the song, however, moves forward in his thinking, is forced to think about his racism, and his understanding of that racism.  It is in that move that the character asks "Dixieland" to understand why he is asking difficult questions.  But the angry reaction to the song and Paisley's own words miss the attempt to understand another human being's experience because the focus stayed on the coded image.  And the lyrics that push the issue hardest for white southerners are covered by the rap lyrics to let bygones be bygones.  Can't we all just get along, which is always the weakest way to address racial discussions.  The song could have done more, but it did not.  There is nothing accidental about any of this.

Given his discography, Paisley is likely one of the few people who can ask these questions to white southerners listening to country music, even if his critics think they are in a better position to advance racial understanding.  Sorry, folks, but Paisley's audience is never going to hear you because they have been racialized to ignore you.  A better question might be, how can we claim racial identity without letting it define us in simple terms?  I am far more interested in having students who understand their cultural history but who are not limited by that history.  It takes a tough skin to move through that process, including having a good friend point out your racial tendencies.  But to assume that country music artists are the only ones who see the world with racial blinders on might be as bad as the song itself.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

April 4

U2's lead man, Bono, thought he had heard somewhere that  the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. occurred in the morning.  In the group's song Pride(In the Name of Love) he wrote, "Early morning April 4/ shot rings out in the Memphis sky."  The group gathered at the Lorraine Motel the evening of April 4 were getting ready for dinner, or supper as most folks called it then.  Bono has had to either announce the lyrics are wrong or change them in performances, but the next set of lyrics tells the true story: "Free at last they asked for your life/ they could not take your pride."  In many ways, I am shaped more by that song and its reflection on King, Gandhi, and Jesus (the fourth taken in the name of love has escaped me) than King's actual life or his death.

Tucked between the death of two grandfathers, the first dying in early February and the second dying in mid-May, King's death apparently barely registered on my family's life.  My father says that he remembers the news blurb but does not recall the family saying anything about the news of King's death.  My parents were likely adjusting to life with a ten month old and dealing with the loss of a parent.  Funny how the grand stories of history pale in comparison of daily life of average people.

But King's life and death loom larger on me than either of my grandfathers, both good men but lost to me in time and distance.  The young minister from Atlanta has complicated my thinking about heroes ever since U2's song brought me to him and energized my sense of justice as something beyond lists of right and wrong.  I often have to get students to think about the man beyond the "Dream."  The man who failed in Albany, Georgia, and Chicago, Illinois, was willing to let his mind expand to include the war in southeast Asia under the umbrella of civil rights, often in the face of criticism from his fellow civil rights activists brethren.  In seminary, I was drawn to his thinking by my own sense of racial injustices I had experienced through the lives of two friends.  But at the same moment Boston University's investigation into his dissertation revealed significant cases of plagiarism, and his marital infidelities were no longer allowed to stay in whispered conversations.  The saint was human.  By the time I reached a doctoral program, I must confess I was tired of Dr. King.  Call it hero fatigue.

Before I let him go, however, I wrote one more essay on the change in his thinking that occurred around the time of the "Dream" speech.  Earlier that summer he had given a speech where he linked the war in southeast Asia to the fight for equal rights in the U.S.  His sense of justice included criticizing his nation for using its political and military influence in a place that required neither.  He was willing to wage a prophetic campaign against the nation's might.  When I began teaching at Mercer, we required students to read "Letter from Birmingham" and "Dream."  While teaching the second text, I realized for the first time how much the opening of that speech is a threat, a prophet's call.  I still think we misread the "dream" section because we want to feel better about ourselves, but the speech contains the power of the change that was occurring in King's thinking.  His death in Memphis was the culmination of that shift in thinking.  While racial issues played a role in the Memphis conflict, particularly since the strike occurred as a result of two black workers' deaths, he was there because the sanitation workers were asking for better wages and working conditions.  These were the very things his Poor People's Campaign highlighted.  He saw the movement beyond the right to vote to a place where the kingdom of God bends toward the least of these.  Forty-five years ago, I was learning to stand up and walk around in a world slouching toward Bethlehem.  I have spent the better part of my forty-five years trying to figure out how we can live in that vision, failing as often as he did in ways far different than he.  But his greatest gift is his ability to see the kingdom through his fallenness; hope remains.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Sunday

We spent yesterday fishing on small ponds at the Charlie Elliot Wildlife Center.  If you have never visited, you will know that it is a beautiful preserve that features multiple ponds for fishing, hunting spaces, and other activities for families, which in our case includes birding.  In the silence of Saturday that rests between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we spent the day outside in the glory of creation fishing and barely got a nibble.

It is our luck to struggle to catch any fish.  In multiple family outings, we have reeled in fewer than five fish.  My superstitious self, I did play baseball for twelve after all, thinks it might be me.  Other dads take their families fishing and have a great time hauling in the catch.  Maybe it is the bait; maybe it is the constant commotion that is our family of six; maybe the fish know when we arrive and agree to leave our hooks alone.  I consoled myself yesterday by noting that no one else appeared to be bringing much in the way of dinner either.

And yet, we spent time as a family out of the house and doing something we love.  This past week has been full of uncertainty and emotional pain.  Grief touched our home during holy week, and we headed into Maundy Thursday with as much of a sense of suffering and abandonment as any previous holy week.  We have made it through to Easter morning, but we are forever on this side of resurrection.  The silence of Saturday reminds us that even though we live on this side of Easter we live in-between something that has come and something that is still to come.  On Saturday, we waited patiently for fish that never took the bait.  We'll continue fishing, waiting.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Nights into Days

One year ago yesterday, I posted on this blog that our adoption process had been finalized, and I noted more about my own adoption and why we adopted than anything about our child.  There were, and still are, reasons for that choice.  Adopting an infant is slightly easier than an seven year old who had only been away from her birthmother for one year.  Considering the birthmother and stepfather live in our town and we had to terminate parental rights, our concern for public consumption about details concerning the child forced me to be careful with what I said.  For other reasons, that concern continues to play an important role in what I share.  But we do celebrate the child's arrival in our home and, beginning one year ago, as part of our family.

On the day we finalized the adoption, her birthmother did not come to court.  We were braced for a fight, and every time the door to the court room creaked we jumped a little.  But after waiting forty-five minutes, the judge began the proceedings.  We were disappointed she did not come because it mattered to us that she show some fight for the child.  Sadly, she has disappointed many people in her life, including herself.

From that day forward, we have celebrated a birthday and Christmas, and soon Easter, as a family.  Every day, however, we have worried about what would happen to the birthmother.  We had prepared ourselves for the day we had to tell our child that the birthmother had died, given both her poor decisions and her lifestyle.  Although we had talked about what that day might look like or how we would inform our child, nothing prepared us for last Friday afternoon when we received a message to contact someone who knew the birthmother as soon as possible.  Within seconds I was on the phone and informed that she had died that morning.

Questions will remain unanswered.  We do have some sense about what happened but only in a vague terms.  On Sunday afternoon, we told our child what happened and sat for a long time while tears rolled.  My post today is more about giving the birthmother some respect.  While she baffled us, and likely everyone else around her, and we had to make a decision to protect the child that put us in conflict with the birthmother, the tragedy is that we as humans fall short, everyone of us but we deserve to be treated decently.  As of today, there has been no death notice or obituary for her.  There will be few people, family or friend, who will want to claim her remains.  I promised our child on Sunday that we would help the birthmother in death in ways that we never could in life.  We probably knew somewhere deep inside both of us that we were taking on more than we knew almost three years ago when we opened our home to the little girl with a big smile and open heart.  One year after having to make one of the hardest decisions in our lives, to terminate a parent's rights, we have had to endure one of the hardest parenting responsibilities, informing a child that the woman who bore her and tried hard to take care of her AND loved her in ways only the birthmother could has died way too young.  In the years to come we will have harder responsibilities tied to that choice we made three years ago to open our home to Zoie --- her birthmother's chaotic choices, abuse both physical and mental by the men in her birthmother's life, drugs and deception, psychological disorders --- but we learned a valuable lesson this past Sunday: give the child space; hold her tight when she needs the hug; remain strong even in the face of doubt; and sit quietly to let the tears flow.  Nights always turn into days, and we know on this side of Easter that tragic events can give way to beauty where grace abounds.  Camie Marie Crisp, your greatest act was giving birth to Zoie.  We will hold her in safe keeping until she is ready to fly.