On Identity

Every performing musician has his or her pre-show ritual. For some it’s stretching backstage or practicing solos. For some it’s sleeping or listening to a song to get in the mood. As embarrassing as this may be, I’d imagine myself as my favorite musicians. Though I don’t play shows anymore, I find the ritual still at work in my life. Whenever I’m asked to speak somewhere I imagine myself as my leaders, using the same terminology and mannerisms, hearing their voices in my head. When I’m on campus I’m my old staff worker, trying to project vision with the same enthusiasm.  I’ve become an amalgamation of my heroes. 

Not too long ago I took a missionary assessment to help me recognize my strengths, weaknesses, and areas of growth. One thing that came out was that at the ripe age of 23 my identity is still forming.

So much of my life has been spent trying to be other people. I’m a chameleon, able to blend in with whatever group happens to be around me. This works both to my benefit and detriment. Benefit because God’s gifted me with the ability to see the beauty in mostly everyone and a desire to share that with them, if not emulate it in some fashion. Detriment because sometimes it means picking up their negative qualities as well. Detriment because it almost always means seeing myself as lesser.

If I’m honest, while part of me exemplifies the behavior of my predecessors because it’s how I learned something, part of me does it because I don’t believe who I naturally am is good enough. Somehow hiding in the armor of my heroes makes me better (or so I tell myself) but more often than not it seems contrived.

Back in high school one my closest friends would intentionally be mean to girls as a way of flirting. The crazy thing was that it worked. Even girls he didn’t like would develop feelings for him. I, on the other hand, would try and would find myself doing damage control later. I could pretend to be him, but I wasn’t him. It’s like when we were children and we’d wonder why everyone else got away with stuff but we always got in trouble. It’s taken me 23 years but I think I finally got it: it’s because we weren’t everyone else. We’re different and that’s okay. The pitfalls of our leaders/peers don’t have to be ours as well. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to be yourself.

If there’s one thing I’m most grateful for it’s that Cayman has forced me to become my own person. Rather than hiding behind the gifts of particular people, I’ve had to step out and learn what I’m good at and, in the process, discover how God’s grace is sufficient in my weakness. He says I’m enough and that matters so much more than the lies I tell myself. Growing up is about learning who you are and who you are not. 

I’m not C.S. Lewis. I’m not Andrew McMahon. I’m not Brian Sanders, Jeremy Stephens, Brad Everett, or Joshua Haupt (although they are all remarkable individuals I’m profoundly shaped by). I am Tomy. Granted I still have a long way to go before I fully embrace that, I’m closer than I was before.

I’m Tired.

I didn’t have any intentions on blogging about Ferguson namely because the last thing I wanted to do was to appear as if I’m appealing to current events in some “attempt to be relevant,” as if I’m trying to win some Internet popularity contest. The fact is many people are writing about Ferguson and racism in America. And quite frankly I’m tired.

I’m tired of being told what to feel. I’m tired of being told what I feel isn’t valid. I’m tired of White people trying to tell me what racism is and isn’t. And quite frankly I’m tired of trying to explain, to no avail, why they don’t get to define this conversation. It’s disheartening and it’s exhausting and it’s tempting to give up.

This past week a friend of mine posted a blog about how we, as Black people, should just leave America. Initially I wanted to respond reminding him of the good that’s worth fighting for. Then I remembered that for the past year and a half I’ve been living in the Caribbean and, to be honest, in times like these I’m reminded why I left the United States. Though we built it, I’m not sure there’s a place for us there.

Growing up, I was often told by my friends I was the nicest Black person they’d ever met. In fact, between my aptitude for school, my niceness, and my musical tastes, it was almost like I wasn’t Black at all. I didn’t live in the ghetto; my parents were still married; and I attended private school for most of my education. Of course now I see all kinds of issues with these statements. But at that point I thought nothing of it. In fact I prided myself in it.

Then at fourteen, I watched as a Hispanic girl I liked was called from the other side of the cafeteria by her mother, who was less than excited at the prospect of her daughter being romantically involved with the “same kind of people” that impregnated and abandoned her older sister. Her mother proceeded to pull her from the cafeteria to their car by the ear.

Then at sixteen I was stopped by a White police officer in a predominately White neighborhood. Apparently, he received a call about a Black man roaming the streets with a gun. After being pulled from the venue (I was watching my friend’s band perform) to get frisked, the cop was surprised to find a cellphone in a leather case. He may have been embarrassed but I was humiliated because my White friends who witnessed this happen didn’t say or do anything. It was then I realized no matter how special people made me sound to the rest of America I was just another Black man living in a country where someone could ignore the command to leave you alone, kill you when things don’t go their way, and be found innocent just in time for people to decide your dead body makes for a good Halloween costume (all while claiming to not have the facts). Sometimes I think we use the complexity of issues as an excuse to be silent, overlooking the fact that silence is also a decision. Tell me talking about race doesn’t unite us and I’ll tell you neither does the absurdity of supposed “colorblindness.”

This week has reminded me that we often resort to violence when we are unable to articulate our frustration or when it fails to convince; and I’ve come to realize this situation takes much more than explanations. It takes Jesus; and I pray he comes quickly.

To those wondering: Yes, I know racism is more than Black and White. It’s been my long held belief that if anyone deserves to be mad it’s the Native Americans, who not only had their land stolen from them but were beaten down so badly we had to create special places for them to recuperate while we celebrated the man who put them there.

To those tired of hearing about Ferguson: I’m just tired of it happening. 

To my friends/heroes/mentors (especially White ones) who’ve spoken up about this issue: You have given me more hope and strength than you will ever know. Thank you for being equally enraged, if not more so.

All The Small Things: Thoughts on Grandiose vs. Everyday Actions

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid… and he gives me courage.” ­– Gandalf from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

This past week has been kind of surreal. After five years of searching I managed to reconnect with a stranger who shared with me some of the profoundest insight on life I’d ever received. More than right words, they came at a time when I was trying to find myself. Those words were water to a parched soul. Though we were complete strangers, this person made an impact on my life I never forgot. This past week all my searching came to an end when I found them Facebook. Without a second thought, I messaged them.

Then I got nervous.

More than the uncertainty as to whether or not it was right person, I was afraid they wouldn’t remember me. Sure, that conversation may have been monumental to me but who remembers every random interaction they have? But the possibility of being influenced by something someone doesn’t even remember got me thinking: what if we have a deeper impact on people than we even realize because the little things we do matter more than we think?

A student of mine occasionally tells this story of how she got involved with InterVarsity: she attended our student rally where I presented the gospel (a lot of it without notes, mind you) and something small I said, something I don’t even remember (hopefully it was the Holy Spirit), got her thinking. She recommitted her life to Jesus that night and has been a part of our community ever since. Now things are changing for her and she attributes it to that one night, which is still beyond my recollection.

There are moments when I try to be deep or witty or cool only to have it fall on deaf ears and unimpressed crowds. But it’s always the small things that somehow resonate more. I find this both encouraging and discouraging.

Discouraging because I’m a sucker for the grandiose. Maybe it’s all the Disney channel I watched growing up but I like coming through in a major way. I’ve traveled an hour and a half via Amtrak for a teddy bear. I once wrote and recorded a song asking a girl to prom. I’ve even worked three jobs just to visit my girlfriend who lived out of the country and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (you should ask me about UC Davis some time). Yet no matter how grand the gesture, the little things always seem to overshadow it; and that makes me mad. 

We want our big gestures to count. We plan them with a particular response in mind (rewards, accolades, praise, etc.) and yet it’s for that exact reason smaller gestures always trump our grandiose actions. While big gestures may reflect the person doing them, they don’t always. Anyone can write a song, buy a star, or plan a surprise but it’s the small things we absentmindedly do that portray who we really are. Something about that reminds me of God. We can hide behind the grandiose but it’s the miniscule that exposes us.

This isn’t to say we should stop our big actions. Those matter too. After all, the person loved their bear, the girl said yes to being my prom date, and the woman I flew out of the country for is now my wife. At the very least they make for interesting stories and at the most they are tremendous expressions of our care. However, to believe that our grand actions somehow make up for the small, every day things is self-deception. Small actions speak louder and it’s in this we find our encouragement: we are impacting more people than we realize or even remember. How cool is that?

Technological Zombies

It’d been eight years since the zombie apocalypse ravaged the city, a host of them residing in an airport eating the flesh and brains of humans. A girl and her friends are wandering around when the zombie finds himself attracted the woman. He eats the boyfriend (minor detail) and something strange happens. His attraction grows stronger. He begins to protect the girl. Stranger still, the zombie falls in love with the girl and the more he falls in love with her, the more human becomes. Though Warm Bodies carries the obvious message that love is what makes us who we are, I can’t help but wonder if there’s more depth to that statement than even they knew. Frankly, sometimes I wonder if technology has robbed us of our humanity, making us more efficient but at a greater expense than we realized.

Aside from our increased sense of impatience and dependency, we’ve forgotten how to unplug and exist apart from our devices. We’re like children who don’t want to sleep out of fear of missing out on the action. It’s gotten to the point where the first thing my students ask me for when they come over my house is the password to my wifi (the second being the location of our outlets). The sad part is I’m guilty too: whenever I walk into the room my first inclination, much to the frustration of my wife, is to crack open my laptop and check my Facebook. It’s interesting how now in Christian circles we’re challenging each other to fast from technology. Years ago it was countercultural not to have cable or television in your house, but now I believe if someone wanted to be truly revolutionary all they’d have to do is keep the Internet out of their house (but even then I’m sure there’d be an open network in the vicinity).  We’re technological zombies feeding off the LCD screens of our latest gadgets.

A while back I wrote a blog on happiness. If I had to point to one thing I believe is contributing to the increase of depression in our society, I would say technology. Courtesy of social media and other platforms, we now have another excuse to turn inwards and create our own realities as an escape from the one we actually reside in. In the process we’ve become so busy pretending we’re living a fantastic life we actually fail to live.

This isn’t to say technology is the anti-christ. Obviously the reason you can read these words regardless of your location is the technology afforded to us. Yet every so often I’ll meet with students to learn about their spiritual journeys. Invariably the question of what they do for fun comes up and more often than I’d like the response has been to sit at home on their smartphones, watching Netflix. They don’t like interacting with people. Though it’s hidden under the guise of shyness, in actuality they’ve forgotten how to relate to people in real life.

As ministers we’re not just competing with clubs and bars. We’re competing against the growing isolationism of our materialistic, technological culture and I’m tempted to capitulate. Sometimes it is easier to talk with someone via text message than to bear the awkwardness of real life interaction. But for those students I’ve seen become a part of our makeshift community, I’ve seen something strange happen: they come alive again. They rediscover the joys of meeting new people and sharing life with one another. Like Warm Bodies they become human again as they’re reminded again that it’s love that makes us who we are.