Friday, December 28, 2012

Digging In Our Heels On Controlling Gun Violence

Chicago just recorded its 500th homicide this year.  The NRA and other similar groups are spinning issues around controlling gun violence as being about whether or not people have the right to protect themselves.  And the beat goes on.......

Here are some thoughts to chew on:  
  • If you can't shoot well enough to protect yourself with a six round clip, you certainly don't shoot well enough to be spraying bullets everywhere with a 30 round semi-automatic
  • Why not have a "gun show" law that says, "Pay for the gun.  We'll do the background check.  Once you pass, we'll ship the gun to you; if you fail, your money will be refunded within 30 days."  Sounds simple doesn't it?
  • Do you really want to be out deer hunting in a blind next to a hunter who's got a 30 round clip?  You rarely get more than a single shot at a time with a deer anyway.
  • Remember the last time you were in a wreck?  Remember that moment of 'freezing'?  Multiply that X10 and you get a firefight with live ammo.  Even folks who spend lots of time on the range but aren't trained in dealing with a firefight situations (as military and police are) freeze, shoot wild, and occasionally shoot the wrong person.
I'm not going to take on the whole gun control issue.  People should be able to hunt.  If you think you need a handgun to protect your home.......I disagree, but hey! Not the biggest issue for me.  But I think we could make huge strides in preventing massive gun violence by doing three things:

  1. Limit the amount of rounds in ammo clips for civilian persons and make it illegal to own a gun that can be changed into an automatic weapon.
  2. Reform (not abolish) Gun Show laws.
  3. Deal with (and this is probably the most radical change) the mental health crisis in this country.  State as well as Federal budgets have cut so far back on mental health as to be almost non-existant.  Waiting lists are long and the first line of defense is to give you a pill.  Where do you find someone to talk to?
Now I'm really going to go to meddling.  The Church needs to re-examine its stance on pastoral counseling.  Many of us were taught that "3 sessions and then refer" as though it were an edict handed down from God.  Perhaps we can't afford that edict any more.  Maybe we need to make sure more seminary graduates are equipped to deal with the traumas and crises being faced in their communities.....since finding referrals that people can afford is getting harder and government support for mental health is dwindling.  Great strides have been made in what are called Short Term Psychotherapy or Short Term Counseling models.  They don't require that pastors become Analysts or spend 4 years doing therapy with some one once a week.  They do require learning basic counseling skills and some ability to do focused work in a problem oriented fashion.  This, coupled with the ability to spot the persons that need much more advanced help might go a long way in helping to (at least temporarily) affect the mental health crisis.

While I truly believe that the day will come when we "beat our swords into plowshears and our spears into pruning hooks,"  I also believe that doing our part in bringing about the Kingdom where "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" calls for some action in bite sized chunks.  Perhaps the suggestions above will spur folks to think about what those might look like.

Can you imagine a year without a mass killing?  That would truly be a Happy New Year.  What can we do to make that a reality?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Views of Peace

This past Friday, a week after the Sandy Hook shootings, the NRA, through their Exec. Director, Wayne LaPierre, offered their thoughts on how to keep our children safe by stating, "the only way to stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun."
We should not be suprised that this is their argument; not because it's the NRA, but because it's an idea as old as the Pax Romana.  The emperor Hadrian was probably the first to use it, saying, "peace through strength, or failing that peace through threat."  Ronald Reagan used it.  Conservative politicians and groups continue to use it.  The NRA's version appears to be "peace through firepower" but it's close enough.  It's one of the historic arguments for how peace is achieved.
Another historic argument has been lifted response to the shootings; one could think of this as the "Peace Thru Purity" argument.  It says that the absence of peace, the presence of violence, the horrors of natural or human caused disasters is that humankind has offended God and God, in retaliation has rained down violence and destruction.  This argument didn't begin with James Dobson or Mike Huckabee.  It is as old as the Pharisees and the Essenes.  These groups believed that the disaster of Roman occupation....taxes, census, Roman control....are the result of failures of purity.
These two views are often merged in militant religious expressions.  These expressions can be found in nearly every religious group-including christians.  The idea is that 'we will use our strength to force our definition of purity on the rest of folks and thus bring peace and the golden age of blessing.'
Both of these views are represented in some form in Luke's account of Jesus' birth.  The census calls for Joseph to go to his ancestral home (I know Luke probably got the date wrong, but he's making a point that should be clear: God uses even the evil oppressor for God's own purpose).  And the shepherds are people whom the Pharisees and Essenes would have seen as unclean because they dealt with the blood and feces of life in the wild and could not observe the rituals of washing and purification are the ones that get the first message that the baby king has arrived.  You'll notice that Luke doesn't wave a giant flag to point to them, he is much more subtle.
Luke's account offers a third view however.  It is the view of the vulnerable God who comes with neither armies nor demands for purity.  It is a God whose birth is announced to 'unclean ones' who will journey to see this same God laid to rest in a feeding trough.  That was the sign they were given as proof that they weren't having some sort of group psychosis induced by moldy bread eaten at lunch out in the fields....."you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger." 
God's peace shows up in the strangest of places doesn't it.  I stumbled across an expression of it today while sitting in my car waiting for Carole to finish some shopping.  I was looking at Ted Talks on my Android and stumbled across this:
The "Peace of God which passes all understanding" comes to us in countless ways and expressions.  The trick is to be able to see it.   Like the shepherds.  Like the folks on facebook in Israel and Iran.  It won't come with "swords loud clashing, or roll of stirring drum."  It won't come with demands for purity and isolation from an impure world.
God, through Jesus, our "God with us", has joined us in vulnerable impurity.  God makes our world pure, not by aloofness, but by joining us in the blood and flesh of life.  God continues to call us to join God in acts of vunerability....not acts of force and violence.
Our God as Christ has joined us in human form.  We celebrate that coming.  Merry Christmas.....and Shalom.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Response To Sandy Hook Tragedy

Last weeks tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT has left many in our country reeling in grief, anger, and disbelief.  For days I avoided writing anything about it because I wanted to be able to grieve without trying to talk about how to "fix" anything.  Last night's televised Memorial Service at which President Obama spoke was a big help to me in being able to do part of that....though I believe I'll be feeling the pain of this for a long well many people of faith.

Another temptation is to remain silent because of the complexity of the issues involved.  But if we stay silent, there will be no movement toward solutions; merely knee jerk reactions and diatribes.  So here are my thoughts.  They are not, by any means, my final thoughts or total answers.  But they are an attempt to share ideas....ideas that I am also sharing with three of the primary Baptist denominational leaders in my area in an effort to do more than just beat my gums about these problems (particularly the ones concerning mental health).

Theologically there are two things I'd like to say: 1) God neither caused nor condoned this tragedy.  God wept at the death of these children and suffered with them; 2) as the Body of Christ we are called to work toward the Kingdom here ("may your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven") and that includes concrete actions that resemble what we believe Jesus represented to us about that Kingdom in His life and death and resurrection.  Building on those beliefs I would suggest the following:

There is no room in our society for the private ownership of assault weapons....none.  You don't need them to hunt.  Their purpose is combat.  If you want to learn to use one, maybe there should be ranges where you can go shot one there.  But an assault weapons ban and one on semi-automatic weapons makes a lot of sense.  Do crimes occur in countries with gun control?  Of course; but you only need to look at the statistical comparisons to know that we can lower the risk of repeated tragedies with some reasonable limitations as to the kind of firearms we're willing to have out there....cause you can be sure that if they're out there, they're going to fall into the hands of folks you don't want having them.  If you don't think this is a faith issues, ask yourself, "are there assault weapons in the Kingdom of God?  Is the Kingdom of God a place where mass murder is made easier by the availability of such weapons?"

Next, and frankly closer to my own heart, is the issue of mental health.  We need to be careful not to let the politics of mental health get in the way here (and trust me, every clinician I know can tell you horror stories about the politics of mental health care, diagnostic fights, insurance claims). 

My call is for local clergy to become more proficient and involved in their contact with families dealing with mental health issues.  If 'Joe Smith' has cancer, the pastor will early on become involved in being present to 'Joe' and his family around his illness.  We need to train and support local pastors in how to reach out to individuals and families struggling with mental health issues of all kinds.  Persons being cared for in community, persons not isolated in shame and/or lack of understanding are much less likely to hurt themselves or others.  They  are much more likely to be able to live productive and healing lives in communities that resemble the Kingdom where the "trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations" are reflected in the compassion and understanding of both pastors and lay persons.

Will getting to either of these goals be easy?  No.  Are the answers complex? Absolutely.  But we are called, as God's people in this time and place to action.  Grieve, weep, act.  Otherwise, we will be like the group in the Book of Revelation to whom the Angel of God said, "because you are neither hot nor cold (because you do nothing) I will spew you out of my mouth."  In other words...or failure to act, to risk being wrong or making a mistake, is nauseating to God. 

So let's come together.  Let's risk-even risk being wrong-for the sake of the Kingdom and the God who calls us to be representatives of God's love and will.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas Wasn't All That "Christmas-y"

I was driving into work this morning.....the road was clogged with traffic; a pick-up truck ahead of me kept belching dark smelly exhaust; and the temperature is way above what it should be normally in December.  Add to that the fact that my wife's schedule and mine are working at cross purposes so that the usual Christmas things haven't been done yet....and you'll understand why I was remarking to myself as I drove that it just doesn't feel like Christmas at all.

Then it hit me:  it probably didn't feel very "Christmas-y" that first Christmas either.

There they oppressed, over taxed young couple with a pregnant wife living in an occupied country.  They've had to make this trip to meet government requirements; and finally, the place they were going to stay is so crowded that they wind up bedding down with the livestock and placing the newborn in a feed trough.

The point I'm trying to make here is that beyond the obvious conversations that we usually have this time of year about how Christmas has become so over commercialized that we have to struggle to regain its religious meaning (it has); we also miss the starkness of the moment when God burst into our world and took up bed space in the room reserved for the family goat.

When we grasp this particular truth about Christmas we may be able to really re-claim the meaning beneath the tinsel and the sappy songs about babies that don't cry.  That truth is that God show up when we least expect it.  God shows up when things are at their worst.  God shows up when God's people are at the end of their rope.  God shows up where and when our need is greatest and we are driven to our knees by the anguish of day to day live in horrible situations.

I've been asking myself this morning: if Christmas had happened today, in 2012, where would Jesus be born?  The Sudan?  Ethiopia?  Maybe in one of the rag picking shack towns between the U.S. and Mexico.  Or maybe......????  Give it some thought.  Thinking about that one question has altered some of my sense this morning about this whole Christmas-y thing.

So as we send the cards, buy the presents, decorate the tree....let's remember what God jumped into the middle of when Jesus came, and that God is still jumping into the middle of the messiest and the lowest and the most difficult....because that's where we need God most.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What About Mary

It's a story that gets told ever year.  Over and over and over.  There's Mary; there's the angel; here comes Jesus.  Then come the questions: what does the Bible mean by "virgin"?; was there really an angel?: what does it matter?

My answer to these questions (at least the first two) is "I don't know."  I have some thoughts; I have some things that I personally believe; but they aren't things that I would say are requirements for others to believe for them to be Christian.  My answer to the question, "what does it matter?" is a little different.

From our best guesses and what we know about the customs of the day, Mary was probably 14 (give or take a year either way) when the angel visited her.  Since it would have been very unusual for a strange male to speak to a female in that time, the response that "Mary was very perplexed" is probably putting it lightly.  On top of that, of course, is what he told her.

Now we could look at the fact that the word "angel" in Greek means "messenger."  And without stretching too far, we could say that "a messenger was sent to Mary to tell her about her upcoming pregnancy and the birth of Jesus."  Except, of course, the fact that Luke tells us that this was Gabriel, who shows up in Daniel as well as Luke, and is identified in all the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Baha'i) as an archangel who serves as the messenger of God. 

Now my friends who say that the things in scripture that do not pass their test for Enlightenment understanding are 'metaphors' would say that speaking of the angel Gabriel is a metaphor for times when a particularly powerful message is recieved that one attributes to God.  Now while I would personally disagree with this definition,  that argument is for another time.  What I think we would agree about is that Mary was sent a message.  A message so profound that it was delivered in a fashion recorded only three times in scripture (to Daniel, to Zecheriah, and to Mary).  Joseph doesn't get the message from Gabriel, but in a dream.  So let's agree about the quality of the message.

Now, what about Mary? 

I think that there are three things (yes, I'm probably going to have a 3 Point Sermon on Sunday) that can be said about Mary and this message.  The first is that Mary was open to hearing it.  For whatever reason, and we have no idea really as to why, Mary listened.  The second is that Mary said, "yes" to what was being presented to her.  She heard the message she was open to, and she agreed to what was being asked of her.  The third thing is that she was radicalized by it.

One only has to read the passage in Luke 1:46-55 to realize just how radicalizing this experience was.  The Magnificat is a political/religious statement.  On the lips of a 14 year old female of an oppressed people, it is a radical folk song.  The music of Peter, Paul and Mary (wonderful and revolutionary as it was) pales by comparison.

You can probably see where I'm going here......and where I'll be going on Sunday.  How open are you and I to experiences in which God comes to us with a message...a call....a be part of what God is doing in the world?  Do we say "yes" when that message comes?  Or do we hedge our bets, look around for a better offer, try to find  'safe' way to live out a radical calling?  And finally, do we let that calling transform our view of the world?  Do we let us change us in ways that go to the root of our being?

Even if one only believes in the metaphoric interpretation of Mary's encounter with Gabriel; there is a reality behind the metaphor that we are forced to respond to.  There is a reality to the call.  Our response cannot be merely metaphoric.  It, like Mary's, must be willing to give birth to something brand new.