2020, God and Flint, Michigan

The year 2020 hasn’t ended yet. Unfortunately, we still have a few days in the year. Very few of us will be looking back fondly on this year of a pandemic with over a quarter of a million dead, tons of canceled events, massive numbers of jobs lost, racial strife, and an incredibly divisive election that did damage to democracy. There was nothing good about the year 2020.

Right?

A few years I was back in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. As I drove down Dort Highway on the east side of town a memory came back to me. The memory was from the 1970s when I was in grade school. Up and down Dort Highway, auto carrier trucks would lumber down the road. The trucking company had it’s main garage on this side of town and you would see truck after truck filled with Buicks and Chevrolets going to all points. That memory came back to me forty years later because as I drove down this road, I realized that those carriers no longer lumbered down the road. They hadn’t driven on that road for years. It was a reminder that things had changed.

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One of the ubiquitous car carriers with Buicks in the early 1970s. Photo by Dan Dosser.

What changed in Flint was the massive downsizing of General Motors over the last 30 years or so. In the late 70s, General Motors had 80,000 employees in the Flint area that worked for them. Today, there are around 8,000.

Such a massive change brought changes in Flint as well. Once well-kept houses were now trashed. Stores closed and people moved away. The city has gone through two periods where they were deep in debt and the state had to come in to help right the ship. One of the times the state intervened led to the now-infamous Flint Water Crisis where the water supply became contaminated with lead. Flint had a population of nearly 200,000 in 1970, shortly after I was born. Today it is around 99,000. The city that I grew up in was prosperous. It wasn’t perfect, but people took care of their homes and life seemed great. That Flint no longer exists. All that’s left are the memories.

I’m a minister, so it’s not a surprise I would go to the Bible to see if there are any parallel situations we could learn from. Turns out there is a powerful example. The Israelites came back from exile and had to face that the good old days were long gone. The book of Ezra focuses on homecoming. The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians around 585BC. It was a Babylonian policy to drive the people from the land to another place. So for 50 years, the Israelites had to make a living in a faraway land. During the exile, Babylon fell. In its place, a new empire took over: Persia. It was during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus that it was decided that anyone who wanted to could go back to their homeland and live. Their homeland would be under Persian control, but it would still be home. So, a number of folks decide to make the journey back.

The Israelites return to find Jerusalem in ruins and their temple, the center of Jewish life was destroyed. It was time to rebuild. It took a while, but after a while, the temple was completed. When the people of Israel came together at this momentous occasion, something interesting happened. Among the young who had no memory of Judah and Solomon’s temple, there was excitement. They now were home and had a place to worship God.

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Flint’s 235-acre complex known as Buick City was in operation from 1904 until 1999. The facility was demolished in the early aughts. Public domain.

But the older Israelites were sad. They knew of the splendor of Jerusalem of old. They had memories of the old temple and this wasn’t it. This temple was a bit smaller than the old one. It certainly wasn’t as fancy as Solomon’s temple. For these folk, they could only feel a profound sense of loss. The grandeur of the old temple, with the Ark of the Covenant, was never coming back. The days when Israel was a free and prosperous nation were long gone. They had to live in this new reality, and it paled in comparison to their memories.

Change happens. But just because it happens, doesn’t mean it is always welcomed and it can be quite painful. Change can be bewildering and scary. For those Israelites that had memories of their grand past (which wasn’t all that grand), it was hard to face reality. That’s why 2020 has been so difficult. These days people cling to familiar or live in extreme denial. Everything that we once knew, everything that seemed certain is now no gone. Nostalgia tells us we can go back to what things once were. It gives us a sense of safety and comfort when the world has changed.

But nostalgia is tricking us. We can’t go back. We can only go forward. We can’t regain the past, we can only reach for the future. Easier said than done.

While we can’t go back in time, and neither could those Israelites. When we go back to that festival in the book of Ezra, we find something interesting. The cries of joy and pain were so that no one could tell the difference. The passage never says that the old Israelites were wrong to weep. It just says they weep. They are happy to be back home after decades away and they are hopeful in seeing a rebuilt temple even if it isn’t as grand as the old temple. But in the midst of their joy is a lot of pain. For them, this wasn’t a time that was simply joy or simply pain, it was both. It was bittersweet.

Bittersweet. What better word could define 2020? We’ve lost a lot in 2020. There is nothing wrong in grieving for that which we lost. We mourn because we can’t be near the ones we love. We mourn because we live in a new reality that pales in comparison to the old. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is one that has changed all of our lives and we are left with a lot of bitterness because we have lost the life we once had and maybe people we loved.

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Volunteers in Minneapolis clean up the ruins of an Arby’s restaurant that was burned down in the riots that followed the killing of George Floyd. Photo by Dennis Sanders.

But there is also sweetness in this year that we see as so dark. And it has truly been dark. But there have also been signs of hope in this long year. It’s the people who would clap for first responders. Or the grandmother that lives next door to me that gave up her job so she could be there for her grandchildren as they took part in distance learning. It was the army of volunteers that I saw in Minneapolis with brooms in hand trying to clean up parts of the town that were overcome by rioters in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. It was the communities of faith that had to learn how to pivot and become virtual overnight and still find ways to be church while apart. It was people visiting with friends over Zoom or socially distanced outside in the summer air. It’s the sign of those trucks filled with vaccines for COVID-19 rolling out of those warehouses in Michigan. There is a lot of pain to be found in 2019, but there is also much joy.

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Flint Farmers Market. September 2018. Photo by Dennis Sanders.

I still miss not seeing those auto carriers as they made their way down Dort Highway. I miss what it represents. I miss that old Flint. But that is not the only story about Flint. There is another story of hope that is growing up right alongside this sad story of decline. If you walk down Saginaw Street, the main drag downtown, you will see some change taking place. For a long time, downtown Flint wasn’t a place you really went to unless you had business to do. But as I walked down the street that late summer day, I saw a number of cafes with outdoor seating available. The area seemed to be buzzing with activity. We could walk over to the Flint Farmer’s Market which moved into new digs in downtown. Nearby, the University of Michigan-Flint continues to grow, bringing in students not only from Flint, but from around the world. Another university has bought up property nearby and are working at beautifying the area. This is the new Flint, one centered on what some have called “Eds and Meds” meaning the focus is on education and medicine. This is still a Flint in process. I have no idea what’s coming down the pike for my hometown, but it’s fascinating to see this new Flint come up from the ground. So, even when my heart sinks passing by the old Buick plant where my Dad worked for nearly 40 years and stare at a barren field, there is also a sense of hope because there is something new taking the place of the old. There is still a lot to be done in the city, but it looks like maybe my hometown will have a future, after all. It’s just not the one that most of us who grew up in the old Flint are accustomed to. There is sadness at what has been lost, but a slight sense of wonder about the green shoots starting to appear.

We need to grieve what has been lost in 2020, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have joy as well. Life is many times a mix of happy and sad times. We need to feel them both.

Featured image: The first Chevy Corvettes roll of the line in Flint, Michigan- June 1953. Photo courtesy of Chevrolet.

This essay originally appeared at Medium.

No, It’s Not Going to Get Better

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In the fall of 1983, the biggest thing on television was the TV movie, The Day After.  Coming at a highpoint in the Cold War, this movie depicted a war between the Soviet Union and the United States that becomes nuclear.  The movie centered on the lives of people living in and around Kansas City, Missouri. I never saw the movie itself.  What I did see was a clip from the movie that was shown on 60 Minutes.  It shows the last few seconds before the bomb hits KC.  There is chaos in the streets.  Freeways are clogged with people running away even though there is no place to hide.  The iconic scene for me is when Jason Robard’s character is stuck in traffic and peers out of the driver window when..boom the sky turns an ugly shade or orange and a mushroom cloud appears over Kansas City.

It was hard to sleep for nights after that.

I calmed myself by believing that God wouldn’t let something like that happening.  Yes, it was a lie, but it worked.

Thirty-five years later, I am wondering if a war with North Korea will turn hot.  There are already scenarios out there that show how an errant tweet might rain down death from the sky killing millions. The fear is back.  I want to tell myself that things will not careen out of control leading to some kind of apocalypse.  But there is also a voice telling me that yes, things could be bad very, very bad.

If there is something that I will be keeping in the front my mind in 2018 is to have a healthy sense of lament. Yes, you heard correctly. Over the last few days, I’ve encountered a few postings on social media that seem to tell us that yes, the worst can happen, will happen and is happening.  Normally, my MO is to ignore these postings and focus on hope.  What is happening will at some point pass, is what I tell myself. But I’m learning to not immediately go to hope.  I feel like I need to spend time in terror and despair. The above tweet is part of a tweetstorm that talks about how fragile “modernity” is. Progress is not certain. We can move forward in progress or backwards as is evidence in the technological advances of the Rome, that were lost when Rome fell.

Farooq Butt’s tweets remind us that our present can unleash forces that send us backward in progress and when that happens, it can take decades or even centuries to get back to square one.

But people will say that things were worse in say, 1968 as opposed to today.  They have a point.  But we don’t know if our relative calm is truly a sign of a better day or if it is the calm before a storm.

I think that we are living at a time when we feel like we are at the edge of a precipice. When a trip to Korea in the fall of 2018, has a pastor and his spouse talking about nuclear war, we are not in a time teeming with hope.

The reason I’m thinking about lament is because of an Instagram post by religion writer Jonathan Merritt.  He decided to ring the new year with a downer:

If I had to describe #2017 in one word, it would be LAMENT. I had to release and mourn destructive relationships that had sapped my emotional health for too long. I had to grieve the words and behaviors of many fellow Christians, which distorted the Gospel of peace. And I was consistently frustrated by a president who attacked minorities and women and immigrants and shamelessly used racial slurs in public. This, and more. So much more. . In 2017, I wept alongside the Psalmist and shouted angry prayers: “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself!” (Ps 44:23) . I’m tempted on this New Year’s Day to sanitize my sorrow from last year. To cling to cliches about the darkness before the dawn. To use the #bestyearever hashtag and pretend that I believe it. To proclaim that “joy comes in the morning” in hopes that you all click “like” and share it far and wide. . But yesterday at @tgctribeca, @edgungor preached a masterful sermon that liberated me from this impulse. Sometimes, he said, we should refuse to be comforted. At least for a time. Because pain is something to embrace, something to sit with, something that humanizes in a way that candy-coated cliches cannot. . So if you’re still reading, here’s your permission slip to keep grieving, keep mourning, keep wailing WITH ME. There is no indication that #2018 will be the dawn to 2017’s darkness. It may be bleaker and harder and more painful, actually. But if we lean into it, we may just find a God who teaches us lessons in lamentation that we could never learn in celebration. Stop to smile in the midst of your pain knowing it is doing its job and you’ll be better for it. . “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” – Barbara Brown Taylor . #barbarabrowntaylor #inspiration #truth #grief #sadness #mourning #lament #theology #Christianity #honesty #quotes #Christianquotes #newyear #newyears (📸: @kaylajohnsonphoto)

A post shared by Jonathan Merritt (@jonathan_merritt) on

Sometimes,…we should refuse to be comforted. That’s hard to hear, but more and more I am accepting it. Sometimes things don’t get better. Sometimes there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes all you are left with is lament. Lament is not the same as despair, but it is about not trying to put lipstick on a pig when life just sucks.

The thing is, being a Christian doesn’t mean bad things will never happen to us. Just because we think God is in control doesn’t mean that evil will never harm us or that the sun will come out tomorrow.

But the thing is, God will be with us as we lament. God can take our tears and fears and sit with us in the dark. It is a God that will be with us even if the worse happens.

I don’t know what 2018 will bring.  Maybe there will be war. Maybe not. Maybe other things that will happen that could bring calamity.  That is a time for lament and sadness.  It is a time to be like those mothers mentioned in Matthew 2 who refuse to comforted after Herod kills all the baby boys in Bethlehem and not try to talk about things passing, because they just might not.

But even in our lament, even in our fear I know paraphrasing the Apostles Creed, that I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, I believe in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Amen.

Should We 86 2016?


I wrote the following for the church website and I’m cross-posting it here.
“Let’s 86 this year.”

That’s something I heard a lot about 30 years ago in 1986, especially in the days following the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger some 73 seconds after liftoff.  A number of events took place early in the year that made people want to just get the year over with.

Three decades later, I’m hearing a 21st Century version of 86-ing.  Go on Facebook and you will see a number of people saying that 2016 was the worst.  The reasons we see this passing year as a dumpster fire ( a very 2016 phrase) is because of the election and the deaths of several well-known celebrities, including David Bowie, Prince and most recently, Carrie Fisher.  We want 2016 to be over and done moving on to the next big thing in 2017.

But was 2016 really the worst?  Well, it really was the worse for those living through the Syrian Civil War.  It was the worst for people in Venezuela who see their economy melt down and find it hard to purchase food.  It was the worst for people living in parts of Chicago who are dealing with a rising number of homicides.

2016 did see an unusual number of high-profile deaths and for the fans of musicians and actors it can be a little heartbroken.  I for one will be watching Episode VIII of Star Wars with a hint of sadness, seeing Leia and knowing Carrie Fisher is no longer with us.

But 2016 doesn’t have to be the worst.  Whenever I couldn’t sleep, my mother would tell me to read Psalm 121.  This psalm is one that could be used as a blessing before car trips to Louisiana to see relatives.  In fact it was used many times before we pulled out of the driveway. “I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?”  We know the answer.  The psalmist tells us that no mater what we do, God is there with us.  None of this means bad things will never happen, but it does mean that we never face them alone. God was with us through the election.  God was with us as some of our favorite artists passed from the scene.  God was with us when a parent or grandparent died.  No matter what, our help comes from God above, meaning that the world can throw its worst, because we know God is there to help us face down the powers that seek to oppress us.

Was 2016 the worst? Before I answer that, let me tell you a story of a death that many of you might have forgotten.  The death of Bob Ebeling.  Most people wouldn’t know Ebeling.  He wasn’t a singer or actor, but an engineer who worked on the Space Shuttle program.  On January 27, 1986, Ebeling and four other engineers made a plea for the shuttle launch scheduled for the next day be cancelled.  The knew it was going to be very cold the next morning and they were worried that the O-rings on the fuel tank would fail causing an explosion.  NASA didn’t listen to the engineers and on January 28, the Shuttle exploded.

Ebeling blamed himself for the disaster and carried that shame for the next 30 years.  As he neared the end of his life, he shared this pain with the listening audience. Because of this people from around the nation wrote in to give Ebeling encouragement.  But what really lifted his spirits was when officials from his old company and NASA absolving him of any blame.  He died a few days later, but without the burden of shame.

Was 2016 the worst?  I don’t know. It didn’t seem that way to Ebeling. Yes, he died, but he did without the guilt he carried for decades.

But I do know that God was there even during the “worst times.” I do know that no matter what might be thrown our way God will not leave us abandoned.

I hope 2017 is a better year.  But everything is good when God is the author of our faith.

My help comes from God, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Dennis Sanders
Pastor

Stay With Us

I wrote this for our church blog last week after hearing the news about the shootings at Emmanuel AME.

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I’m not one that says much, in that way, I’m a lot like my Dad.

But this week’s slayings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina left me without words. A young man was welcomed to take part in a Bible Study. The attendees sat with him for an hour as people discussed scripture and prayed. Then, as the meeting ended and the people prepared to go home, the young man took out a gun and did the unspeakable.

A wolf disguised in sheep’s clothing entered the fold. Nine of God’s children were gunned down.

There is a lot to talk about in light of this week’s events. We can and will talk about the perniciousness of racism. What did this man learn that told him that a group of people were seen as problem to be “solved” rather than a people to be loved?

But while we deal with the shock and anger of such an act, it is important to remember something- something that has been forgotten in all of the news coverage. The name of this historic church says it all: Emmanuel, God with Us.

It might seem that God was absent as the shots were fired, but God was there. God wept over the nine people who died. God was also with the a white woman outside of Charlotte, NC who spotted the suspects car and was able to aid police in his capture. God was present a the memorial service in the Presbyterian Church down the street where people of every race and hue came together as a community to mourn. God was there when three women, two African America and one white who were strangers, came together in front of the church to pray.

The fact is, that even in the wake of such horror, at a time when it would not be out of place to wonder where God is, we are reminded in the name of a church that God has not abandoned us, evil will not win. It will never win.

None of this means we won’t ever faith heartache or even worse. But in life and in death, we are never alone.

I am reminded of the hymn “Stay With Us,” written by the late Lutheran Herb Brokering. It’s been years, but I can remember that last time I sang it; sitting in a church in St. Paul on the even of September 11, 2001. It is a hymn of comfort during a trying time. I can’t find the lyrics, but I can remember it being truly what was needed in a time of confusion, sadness and anger.

God still Stays with Us. God is with us. Even if we lose our lives, God is always with us. Evil will not win. Hate will not have the day.

God is With Us. God is With Us. God is With Us.

Amen.

-Dennis Sanders, Acting Pastor

The above photo is a composite photo of the nine shooting victims, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Rev. Daniel Simmons and DePayne Middleton-Doctor.

With A Heavy Heart…

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On January 31, I got the phone call that you always dread, at the what I’ve been dreading for nearly 10 years- that call at 4 in the morning.  Long story short, I learned that my father had died.  As Daniel and I got ready to fly from Minnesota to Michigan, I left a text with John Paulson just letting him know I wasn’t going to be at church this Sunday.  I don’t know what all John did, but he was able to marshall the forces of the church to make sure church went on smoothly.  Retired Pastor Paul Ficzeri preached in my stead.

My Dad had been in declining health for years.  Congestive Heart Failure and COPD wore him down.  He entered the hospital on New Year’s Day with really low blood pressure.  He was taken to a transitional care facility to recuperate and hopefully get well enough to go back home.  His time at the facility wasn’t easy.  Unlike other hospital stays, he wasn’t bouncing back.  I had started to think he might end up at this facility permanently- something Mom had wondered as well.

He actually was feeling better the day before he died, my Mom said.  She offered to stay the night, but he wanted her home.  A nurse came into wake him up on that Saturday morning to get him ready for the day and he didn’t respond.  Dad had died in his sleep after 85 years on this earth.

IMG_1028Grief is something that always fascinates me.  I’ve always wondered how different folk grieve a loss.  I’ve also been interested in how someone on the autistic spectrum mourns.  People might think that those on the spectrum don’t feel anything, but the fact of the matter is we feel a lot.

My sign of mourning is a physical one: I feel what I can only explain as a heaviness of heart, as if my heart is crying even though I’m not visibly crying.  I felt that way a few years ago when my Uncle David died, and I felt it again when my cat Morris died a few months later.  When my other cat, Felix died a year later, the heavy heart was there again.

Over the last week, I noticed that my heart was truly heavy again.  I might not be crying up a storm, but my heart was…is  weeping for my Dad.

I share this because we all do grieve differently.  For some grief is a slow process and for others it’s “faster.”  Some people cry visibly, others cry in secret.  Those of us with Aspergers also grieve in ways that might seem odd, but it is grief.

I miss my Dad. I think that my heavy heart will come and go for a time.  But a smile comes to my face as well: my heavy heart is a sign that I am truly human after all.

Note: The top photo was taken by my husband, Daniel shortly after we arrived at my parent’s apartment.  On one of the bed posts were my baby shoes.  This is what Daniel wrote on Facebook describing the photo: A father’s love for his son…hanging on his father’s bedpost are Dennis’ childhood shoes.”

The bottom photo was taken with my Dad in November 2013.

Aspies and Grief

Gavin Bollard has a great post on his blog regarding how persons with Aspergers grieve.  Maybe one of the big things about those of us on the autistic spectrum is that we don’t have emotions.  The reality is we do have emotions, but they are expressed very differently than most neurotypicals.

Gavin shares a recent trauma, how it affected him and how others were affected by him:

We all deal with strong emotions, such as love, anger and grief in our own ways. My wife tends to cry things out but I often internalise them and take them on board as stress and at times, self-harmful behaviour. In the kids, these emotions can manifest as meltdowns or as general destructive behaviour. Sometimes there’s nothing to see on the surface at all.
The point is that although we each feel these emotions and we feel them at similar strengths, our reactions vary widely both in intensity and visibility…
For some reason, our society seems to think that it’s okay to quantify emotions based on visible reactions. If an event occurs to two people and the woman is crying while the man is not, then the woman needs the most care and attention because “she’s the one who is really hurt”. The solution is to talk in a quiet voice and bring lots of cups of tea and chocolates.
The man, by contrast isn’t bawling his eyes out, so he’s obviously not hurt. There’s nothing that you need to do for him. There’s no need to tread lightly because “he’s not even upset”.
In fact, if the event is of an appropriate level, for example the death of a loved one, then anyone not outwardly grieving is “fair game”. You can take things out on them and you’re more or less expected to say “what’s wrong with you man?”. The words “you don’t care” should also be used in conversation to him.
Sound familiar?
It’s something that many neurotypicals do and yet so few realise how wrong it is.

 Gavin’s point is that just because someone is not crying doesn’t mean that they are not feeling any emotion.

I saw this a few days ago and was planning to write something about it.  Like Gavin, life stepped in a provided an object lesson.  Late Wednesday evening, my Aunt Nora died.  For the last five years, she suffered the horrible affects of Alzheimers and was being taken away from her loved ones bit by bit.  I’ve known this woman since I was a baby, so of course it is sad to me.  But, I’m not really bawling my eyes out.  I’m rarely the one that is overly emotional in times like this.  For a long time, I wondered if something was wrong with me.  It’s not that I didn’t feel sad- it’s just that I didn’t react in the same way others did.
We live in this world where we expect people to grieve in a certain way.  But there isn’t one way to grieve.  Those of us on the spectrum do feel sad and sometimes we can feel sad in ways far stronger than neurotypicals.  But we don’t show it in the way that others do.
I think about this as I think about my Dad.  All of his sisters and brothers are now dead and he’s the last one.  I know that he is grieving, but typical him, he doesn’t show it.  I don’t think this is because he is autistic, but he is the typical male of his era.  
But as someone that doesn’t express emotion like others, I do understand and I will let him grieve in his own way.
Sometimes the tears don’t show on the outside, but they do appear in our hearts.