Monthly Archives: August 2016

Is It un-American to Sit Out the National Anthem?

There are very few things closer to the American spirit than football. If anybody wants to see quintessential Americanism, they need to hang around during football season. They’ll get a dose of American hyper-competitiveness, parties, wagers, fist pumps, plenty of yelling at the TV and just 60 minutes of the fun, fast brute violence of highly paid gladiators slamming, pushing and scraping for points on the gridiron. Now that’s America. (Oh yes… Go Skins!)

Equally American is a certain pre-game ritual at almost every sporting event. For a few moments there is absolute silence as a lone voice performs one of the most difficult songs for a vocalist to sing, our National Anthem. One is expected to stand, gentlemen to remove their hats, and face the flag while placing their right hand over the heart. That’s the standard thing for any American citizen to do. At the bare minimum, everyone in attendance is expected to stand as a sign of respect. Refusing to stand is often scorned as dishonorable and decisively un-American.

Or is it? Can we give that another look?

The American experiment has been a struggle between competing values. That has built our greatness and has continued to define American excellence. For example, at our founding, we made a radical declaration that all people are created equal with inalienable human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; meanwhile 20% of our population were forcibly enslaved. Even after the abolishment of slavery 151 years ago, we have still struggled ensure equality and dignity for all African-Americans. That struggle has pushed us to live into our credo.

Another example: We want and need efficient representative government, but there’s also this keen vigilance in the American spirit to be on guard against any governmental intrusion into our lives. We celebrate our freedom and rugged individualism while despising even a hint of tyranny. However we expect our government to protect those freedoms and “promote the general welfare”, with force if necessary. Just don’t tread on me.

Colin KaepernickRecently a national football player put himself into the middle of another clash of competing American values- American patriotism vs. our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Enter the San Fransisco 49ers starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a very talented athlete who at times has been no stranger to controversy.

During the playing of the National Anthem at a preseason game, Kaepernick refused to stand with everyone else. His sit out was widely noticed and roundly booed. Later he stated,

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

As expected Kaepernick has been fiercely criticized for his sit out of the National Anthem. People have accused him of being un-American and furthering disunity. We’ve heard the usual refrains of, “If he doesn’t like our flag, he’s free to leave.” “There are thousands of soldiers and sailors who have died under that flag protecting his freedoms. He’s dishonoring them!” And of course, the internet trolls came out en masse to graffiti his Twitter account with racial epithets.

Were Kaepernick’s actions and statements justified? Was his behavior un-American? Those are two separate questions.

Without commenting here on the justifiability of Kaepernick’s sit out, I do say this:

Colin Kaepernick’s conscientious sit out of the National Anthem demonstrates what is best about America.

There have been and continue to be kingdoms, empires, and nations who would have severely penalized Kaepernick’s behavior as disloyal and even treasonous.

But that would never happen in the United States. In fact, embedded in our founding documents are Kaepernick’s rights to freely speak, even against his own country. He can pontificate. He can refuse to participate in patriotic exercises. He can even burn the flag of the country who guarantees his right to do so. And while he does any of that, his country’s law enforcement and entire legal system stand by to arrest and prosecute anyone who threatens his wellbeing or his ability to speak freely.

As a Christian, I have had brothers and sisters throughout the centuries who been restricted by their government to assemble, worship, and speak out when necessary against the evils and injustices of that country. I am blessed to live in a nation that protects my right to conscience, even if my loyalty to Jesus ever kept me from participating in patriotic exercises.

That reality alone builds my pride in what is best about America.

So Colin, as a fellow American, I salute your right to sit out our National Anthem as a very American thing to do. For my own reasons I won’t be joining you, and later on I might share why. But in the meantime, you have my support to exercise your conscience. I will defend you for it, too. But far more importantly, the United States of America, including those who defend and uphold your liberty, stand behind you, too.

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The Treasure of a Human Life: Lessons (Re)learned

As a pastor, I have conducted so many funerals for both older people and younger people. I’ve lost count of how many. People ask me how I manage to do that, especially for someone I don’t know. The answer to that is another story. But the one thing that continually compels me when I memorialize someone is the effort to capture the existential substance of their being, the worth and reason of their life. I look at each life as a stained glass window through which God can shine. The questions: how did God shine through this person? Who benefited from that light? How does this person reflect who I know God to be? The answer to those questions become the substance of what I share at a funeral.

Justin Kurlychek

Justin Kurlychek

Admittedly, all this can come to be routine until I’m smacked in the face with the death of a friend like Justin Kurlychek. Justin died early Tuesday morning. We were just 7 months apart in age. We graduated from high school together. We sang and acted together. We shared a wild and crazy senior beach week together. (Tales untold!) We spent many hours on the phone together in recent years. He left behind two beautiful daughters. As I mentioned in a tribute I wrote, he was a beautiful, creative soul, even with all his troubles and demons.

As many times as I’ve gone through grief like this- I’ve lost several good friends to death including a fiancée almost 20 years ago- I’m always awed at how one person deeply affects the world around them. My tribute for Justin went viral in a matter of hours by hundreds and hundreds of people who were grieving Justin’s death. On top of my own grief, I felt both honored and inundated by the number of people who reached out to me in the last couple of days. But the sheer magnitude of the response to Justin’s death was something I had not anticipated. It has affirmed how many people loved Justin, how many people he loved, and the ways he sincerely impacted us all with his presence and his gifts.

I only wish Justin knew how valuable his life was and how people would respond to his untimely death. That’s the value and power of one life. Just one.

During times like these, it’s only natural and necessary to mourn our loss. It is a horribly painful thing to lose a person like Justin Kurlychek. Many have said that he is finally at peace. That may be so, but I mourn the fact that he knew so little of it while he was alive. I mourn the terrible time Justin had valuing himself for the beautiful gift he was. And I mourn the unfulfilled wish of having spent more time with him in the last few years of his life.

But if there is a gift to pick up from the ashes of our grief and regrets, it’s the reaffirmation that each of our lives is a sacred gift to be lived, treasured, and shared. Since that is true, what will we do in the aftermath of Justin’s memorials and tributes? Will we return to life as usual? Or will we make more of a concerted effort to value each life in our network, love them, spend time with them, and at the same time, give away the best of what God has made us to be as a blessing to them?

How many times have we said, “Yeah, we need to get together and hang out!” only to find that months later, nothing has happened? Or how many times have we held back from giving our very best to the ones we love out of fear, pride, misplaced priorities, or even shame? For me, Justin’s death has brought those questions into a much brighter spotlight.

I think that it’s a wonderfully divine irony that the shadow of death can invite us into the endless treasure of life. I hope you and I can discover and claim this treasure for ourselves.

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My Tribute to Justin: a Beautiful, Troubled Life

Justin Kurlychek (10/15/74-8/23/16)

When I was in high school, there was this guy, Justin, who always seemed larger than life to me. He was incredibly creative, offbeat, funny, musical, dramatic. He was not a part of the super “in” crowd, but nevertheless, everyone- and I mean everyone!-  liked and appreciated Justin. And I’ll never forget the moment I realized that Justin liked me, too, and considered me a friend. I was very humbled by that, and I still am today.

I met Justin Kurlychek in South River High School’s drama club. For two years I played in the spring musical pit band, supporting people like Justin up on the stage, but then encouraged on by some friends I auditioned and got parts in the fall play and spring musical right alongside Justin. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He could act, sing, and dance. And no matter what he did, he knew how to own an audience’s attention. Justin took the stage and kept it. All eyes were on him.

Justin also played in bands and was a natural front man singer and guitarist. He wrote and performed his own music. After high school, I participated in a local battle of the bands. The band I was in lost to his band by a landslide. I wouldn’t say they were more talented than we were, but Justin was the magic ingredient. He could gather and keep a crowd on their feet. That alone won the day.

In our senior year of high school, I began to get to know Justin better. I began to see that underneath all of his wacky charisma and charm were troubled waters. I never knew how troubled or the causes of his turmoil, but something always haunted him and never stopped. This darker part of Justin gave him the capacity to love anyone, to be compassionate, and to remain completely non-judgmental. I had just hoped that somehow he would extend this troubled beauty to himself, but I don’t think he ever did.

After high school, decades went by and I had always wondered what happened to Justin. No one seemed to know. And then Facebook came along. A few years after that, there was Justin on Facebook. Precious little about him had changed. He was still the same Justin I knew in high school. Life, however, had taken its toll on him.

Justin became a father, married, divorced, and also suffered a few strokes that debilitated him. Even with all of that, his same humor, passion, love, and crazy creative talent were still there. And so were his demons. I spent hours talking to Justin, especially during his times of crisis. My heart would break at the depth of his pain and his inability to forgive himself, love himself and to think that God could do anything else than torture him.

Eventually though, through time, the love of others, and yes, the love of God who loved him more than Justin would ever know, he was able to get his strength back, get back to playing music, and have meaningful relationships. Things were always tipsy turvy for Justin, but I could see that he was getting better, and above all, becoming more happy with himself.

And then this morning, I heard the devastating news that Justin had died from a heroin overdose. I had no idea that Justin had a drug problem. If he had, he seemed to be getting stronger. It was the end of a beautiful, tumultuous life that ended much too soon leaving wonderful memories and tragedy in its wake.

It’s far too easy to look at Justin Kurlychek’s life and make our judgments. “If only he had done [this], he would be happy and alive.” “If he had not done [that], he could have had a better life. What a screw up.”

When I reflect on my friend Justin’s life, I’m reminded again that life is hard. Life is hard for everyone. For reasons I don’t understand, some people have it a lot harder than others and suffer through a lot more. Whether that’s due to things that have happened beyond a person’s control, decisions a person has made, or both, I’ve come to see that it doesn’t really matter as much as we think it does. What matters is doing the most good and being the greatest blessing to others with the gifts and opportunities we’ve been given. In that respect, each of us are both accomplished and guilty, productive and wasteful.

So who are we to be the ultimate arbiters of another person’s life? Each of us has our own to life to live with our share of victories, defeats, broken relationships, bridges burned, moments of grace, gifts of magnificence and decisions for good or ill that will determine how each of us will die one day. Ultimately we will all stand before God our creator and redeemer, and he will make the final evaluation. And God has far more capacity for mercy, justice, and truth than you or I have.

My friend Justin blessed my life with his love, his respect, and his loyalty. I’m a better person and a happier person for having loved and been loved by Justin. Many of us could say the same. I am devastated that this blessing has died far too soon. But I cherish the times I did have with Justin, and I pray for God’s peace and healing to embrace Justin’s loved ones, his children, his family and each of us.

Justin used to say to me, “Owens, I love you buddy.” So I say to my friend and brother, “Kurlychek, I love you back and always.”

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