Devotional: Recognizing God

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

March 16, 2018

Psalms 27:4: One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

IMG_5477

“Wow. That is so cool that you have your own flower blooming just for you,” one of my advanced writing students said as she walked into my office.

“What are you talking about?” I asked

“Out your window. You haven’t seen it?” she said as she pointed out my office window.

“Oh. Wow. Yeah. That is really cool. I love that!” I answered.

Of course, this was the first time I ever recognized that flower, or any flower that blooms outside my window. Honestly, I can’t even remember the last time I looked out that window. My attention has been laser-focused on the 1,000+ unanswered emails on my computer screen, the stacks of papers and tests to grade sitting on my desk, and countless students coming in and out of my office for writing one-on-ones.

I had to lie to my student. We just spent the last class discussing the importance of taking in scenes and environments when conducting in-person interviews or covering events. Journalists have to be the eyes and ears for their readers, and in some cases the nose, hands and taste buds. It’s important that writers recognize the entire scene around them, always observant, like a detective looking for clues. But here I am, failing to recognize the scene around my own office, where I spend several hours each day.

Carla often tells me I have “tunnel vision.” I’m good at reaching the finish line, but bad at recognizing the environment along the way. Although this tunnel vision can serve me well in some situations — such as meeting deadlines or coming through in the clutch — it does impair my ability to recognize God’s beauty around me.

Our church has been focusing on “listening” this Lent. I’ve realized that if I take the time to listen, my sense of hearing will not be the only sense impacted by this practice. Focusing on listening allows my other senses to come alive. As I write this on the bleachers of a baseball field, I feel God’s presence in the gentle, cool breeze interrupting the still air. I smell God’s creation in the freshly cut grass. And I can see God’s miracles as children run around with pure joy.

God has flowers blooming for me, all around me. But one place they’re not growing is in my tunnel. I need to make more conscious efforts to peek outside my tunnel and take in God’s beauty with all my senses.

Prayer: God, you are all around me. Arouse my senses so I can enjoy your beauty. Amen.

Rambo is real, killing Americans by the dozen with an AR-15

Rambo-like bloodshed is happening with legally available weapons

Originally published on Patriot Not Partisan

In 1985, Sylvester Stallone single-handedly killed 58 people over 96 minutes. Of course, the deaths were onscreen in the movie, “Rambo: First Blood, Part II,” which was critically-panned and labeled unrealistic because there’s no way a single person could to take out an entire army.

More than 30 years later in America, there’s real-life, Rambo-like bloodshed, only the death toll is higher, and the people being killed are innocent. Rambo’s once seemingly unrealistic death toll of .60/kills per minute, pales in comparison to the 17 killed by the Parkland shooter in just six minutes, a rate of 2.8/kills per minute, or the 58 people killed in under 10 minutes by the Las Vegas shooter, a rate of 5.8/kills per minute.

In six of the deadliest mass shootings in American history, the gunman used an AR-15, which allows the shooter to fire off dozens of shots in under 10 minutes. The Las Vegas shooter fired a whopping 1,100 bullets in 10 minutes, an average of 110 bullets in one minute – that’s roughly two shots every second.

These murderers attained the weapons, magazines and accessories to complete their killing sprees legally. Our government believes the Parkland shooter, who was 19 at the time of his killing spree, wasn’t old enough to purchase a beer. But he is old enough to purchase an AR-15 and enough ammunition to kill hundreds of people.

Weapons like the AR-15 serve one main purpose — to kill multitudes in a short amount of time. They’re not used for hunting. They’re not used for self-defense. They’re used to kill as many people in as little time as possible.

Republicans continue to offer “thoughts and prayers,” either saying “it’s too soon” to talk about solutions or using mental health as their scapegoat (as if mental illness is a new development in the last decade). But past history indicates there is a solution that has worked in this country just 25 years ago.

In 1994, with overwhelming bipartisan support, the federal government passed an assault weapons ban that made guns like the AR-15 illegal to own. The ban expired in 2004. During the 10 years the law was in place, there were a total eight mass shootings resulting in 51 deaths. Six of the eight massacres involved semiautomatic weapons purchased legally before the assault weapons ban took effect in 1994. The two mass shootings featuring illegally acquired weapons — Columbine in 1999 and Edgewater Technology in 2000 — resulted in 20 combined deaths.

The assault weapons ban worked. Obviously, assault weapons and the ease of purchasing them is not the sole reason for the spike in mass casualties. However, the link between the spike in mass killings and the expiration of the assault weapons ban is undeniable.

We never thought the mass murder Rambo inflicted could be possible, but with assault weapons like the AR-15 easily attainable, Rambo has become real. And he’s after our children.

Devotional: God appears

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

March 1, 2018

Philippians 2:13 (NIV): For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

 “Third place: Georgia Highlands College.”

This is good news, I thought. We finished second last year in the Georgia College Press Association contest, the first time Piedmont College’s student newspaper was named a “General Excellence” publication in more than a decade. And my students worked really hard in 2017. Another second-place finish would solidify our reputation as one of the best small-college newspapers in the state.

“Second place: Berry College.”

Holy smoke! Berry is consistently at the top! When I arrived at Piedmont three years ago, my goal as adviser of the newspaper was to elevate it to the top of the rankings within five years. Could we be two years ahead of schedule? My heart started racing. I could barely contain my excitement. I am the best college media adviser in the history of the world! Here we go …

“First place: Abraham Baldwin College.”

What? My heart sank. As Abraham Baldwin students celebrated and rushed to the stage to collect their award, I could barely make eye contact with my students. I don’t understand this. Over the past year our newspaper raised its standards dramatically, covering issues such as domestic abuse, transgendered student discrimination, guns on campus and the challenges faced by a Piedmont student about to lose DACA protections. What could Abraham Baldwin possibly have covered to earn first place? Was there a cow tipping scandal?

Honestly, I should’ve seen it coming. It was a fitting end to a crappy week. I was on my fifth consecutive 12-hour workday, I unintentionally ditched two important meetings the day before and I was furious at a couple students who bailed at the last minute to make the trip. I was also struggling to get along with anyone in my family – even the dog would snap at me.

I had to hold it together for my students. They needed a good leader, and a good time. We ditched our per diem and drowned our sorrows in overpriced pasta, ultra-rich chocolate cake and gourmet coffee. It was a truly great dinner. The camaraderie of the team overshadowed any disappointment we had.

But the inevitable happened a few hours later. I was alone facing a 55-mile drive home. And the emotions hit me.

I tried to ignore the voices telling me I was a loser and I let my students down. But they persisted.

I tried praying, asking God to help me, but the voices grew louder. Why is God abandoning me?

Tears were streaming down my face, and I was heading down a familiar spiral into depression.

Then I received a text alert on my phone. It was from one of my students.

“Hey Joe. Did you make it home?”
“En route,” I replied.
“K. Don’t text while driving, Just wanted to tell you you are the best. Thanks for being the best.”

My tears of self-loathing turned into tears of pride, and even laughter. How could I get so upset over something so trivial? What’s really important is how incredible my students are, and obviously I’m making a positive impact on them.

The text was from Page, my news editor. In hindsight, I know it was also from God.

Prayer: God, thank you for always being there for me. Thank you for working through other people to influence my life. Help me be a tool for you to impact others.

Devotional: Listen

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

Feb. 15, 2018

Mark 4:9: “Let the person who has ears to hear, listen!”

When I learned the theme for our Lenten season is “Listen,” my mind couldn’t help but recount the song of the same name from Atlanta band Collective Soul …

Hey, you now wander aimlessly around your consciousness.
Your prophecies fail, and your thoughts become weak.
Silence creates necessity.
You’re clothing yourself in the shields of despair.
Your courage now impaired.
Hey, why can’t you listen?
Hey, why can’t you hear?
Hey, why can’t you listen as love screams everywhere.

As a former rock radio disc jockey, I’ve probably heard this song more than 1,000 times (it was a #1 rock radio hit in 1997). Its mesmerizing guitar hook and catchy chorus made it a popular song. Ironically, through all those times I’ve played the song, I never actually listened to the lyrics of “Listen.” But as the song was replaying in my head, it took on a much deeper, spiritual, meaning.

I’ve been “feeding my mind with selfishness” for a long time. From the iPhone to the Echo, I’ve always tried to have the latest gadget. From HBO to satellite radio, I’ve always afforded myself with as many entertainment options as possible. From announcing UGA hockey games to joining yet another committee, I’ve always attempted to keep myself busy.

And at the end of the day, before my “thoughts become weak” and I clothe myself in “shields of despair,” I take two different antidepressant drugs and fall asleep … before waking up and doing it all over again.

I haven’t talked to God in a long time.

“Silence creates necessity,” but I haven’t given time for the silence I need to hear God. I haven’t listened to God.

This Lent, I’m going to make the time.

Prayer: God, I know you’re trying to talk to me. But I keep shutting you out by occupying my life, my mind with a million other things. I promise to try, but I’m also asking for you to help me open up, and listen.

Fire and Fury … but fake?

Insightful book, but bad journalism.

img_5058-2“Fire and Fury” gives an unflinching look at the Trump White House. Wolff’s recounting of his conversations with Trump staffers reinforces several unflattering notions about the President: his inability to focus, he’s hot-headed and short-tempered, his narcissism and ultimately he doesn’t really care about the issues and only cares about being liked. It also sheds new light on the Bannon / “Javanka” rivalry, Trump’s frustration with a revolving door of Cabinet members, and how deep the Russian investigation may go. In the end, Bannon comes off like a genius mastermind — much to the dismay of the President — and the Trump administration is doomed.

The big concern with this book is that Wolff admits in his prologue that some of the content is essentially made up — what the author believes to have been said behind closed doors, rather than actual accounts of what was said. Wolff’s recollections align with popular perception, but is the perception feeding the narrative or the narrative building the perception?

As a journalist, the latter should be the case. But Wolff, a veteran journalist, breaks all journalistic rules by (admittedly) constructing some conversations with which he was not a witness, leaving the reader questioning what is actually true. And as President Trump continues to blur the lines between reality and “fake news,” this book does a disservice to credible journalism.

Joe’s Judgment: 2.0/5.0

“What Happened” … and much more

Originally published on audible.com

I was hoping this book would provide unique insight into the 2016 election. It did, but it steered in many different directions, from Hillary’s childhood to her love of her grandchildren. That made the book a little disjointed.

Critics of “What Happened” complain that Hillary shuffles blame for election defeat. That is flat-out wrong. In the book, Hillary is constantly playing the “what if I ….” card and acknowledges her errors. However, she correctly points out the many factors she had no control over — the constant Comey conferences, Russian interference, the continuous “fake news” stories circulating on social media, the endless Benghazi hearings. Criticizing her for pointing out these unprecedented attacks on her character are unfair. They definitely had an impact on the election.

Hillary ends the book with a call to readers to work Onward Together, and promises to keep fighting. This offers members of the “Pantsuit Nation” some inspiration after a devastating defeat. Hopefully, though, it won’t be too late.

Joe’s Judgment: 3.5/5.0