Prayer of Lament

O God! We have added Austin to our awful litany of mass shootings. I pray for the victims, the first responders, the survivors, and for whatever demons the shooter or shooters are dealing with. I also pray for our society where this tragedy barely makes a blip on the radar of our consciousness. We are so numb to this senselessness that it has become a ho hum normal occurrence. Please shock us into caring again, to mourning again, and revive our consciences and our desire for peace. Trouble our souls deep in denial. Call us to compassion for victims and passion for doing our part to create your peaceable kin-dom here on earth as it is in heaven.

The alarm is ringing again. It is not good to keep hitting the snooze button. It is not OK to pull up the covers and pretend this is just a bad dream. Wake us, give us ears to hear the cries of your children and the clarion call for all people of faith to put prayers and thoughts into action. Hear our prayer and disrupt our false sense of security. Make our fear a motivation for change and not an excuse to avoid the cold, harsh truth. Christ have mercy. Amen

“Hurt People Hurt People”

“Hurt people hurt people.”  I first heard this piece of wisdom from Brene Brown, a popular speaker and author.  Brene is a research professor at the University of Houston who spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. I thought about her  words this morning when I awoke to yet one more horror story of 8  people shot to death at an Indianapolis Fed Ex facility. After reading the news article I decided to google that phrase to see where it occurs in Brown’s writing.

I didn’t find it which means I probably heard her say it in one of her podcasts.  But what I discovered is that dozens of people have expressed that phrase in a variety of ways.  One that especially caught my eye was this one: “Hurt people hurt people. That’s how pain patterns get passed on generation after generation after generation.  Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion and cruelty with kindness.  Greet grimaces with smiles.  Forgive and forget about finding fault.”  That quote is from Yehuda Berg, a contemporary Jewish Rabbi and author, and his words reminded me of a key Christian teaching.  

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:38-39.)  Nowhere in the Bible is the stark contrast between the different ethics of the two testaments more clearly stated.  Interestingly as different as the older quote in Leviticus 24:19-21 is from Jesus’ teaching; both represent radical new thinking for their time and context.  In the Hebrew Scripture an eye for an eye was an attempt to set boundaries on the amount of revenge a person could take on someone who had wronged him/her.  In other words its aim was to redefine justice so the punishment fit the crime.

Fast forward approximately 600 years and Jesus attempts to set an even higher standard by urging his followers to “turn the other cheek.”  Suffice it to say this is a very high bar to live up to, and most of us who call ourselves Christians fall far short of emulating the sacrificial love of Jesus.  What I like about Berg’s quote on this theme is that he unpacks what it means in terms of how the retaliation ethic results in generation after generation passing that way of living on to their children and grandchildren.

I have no way of knowing what motivated  this recent shooter to commit his violent act, and we may never really know since he, like many of the other mass shooters, killed himself.  We have now learned that he was a 19 year-old man, and that is significant because research into male emotional and mental development has shown that young men are not fully developed in those areas until their early 20’s.  Obviously this young man was not responsible enough to have a gun, much less an assault rifle.

It seems to me the rash of gun violence may have something to do with the stress we have all been under for over a year now due to COVID-19.  We are all hurting, some more than others, from the restrictions, grief and fear from this invisible enemy that has killed 560,000 Americans and millions more globally.  If we are all hurting and hurt people hurt people it makes sense that the stresses of this past year could account for some part of this awful trend. But if that is true why have we not seen similar violence in other countries?

Knowing that it can take less stress in a pandemic to trigger a violent response to others is complicated by the number of guns in this country.  In Moses’ day when the Levitical laws were developed the only weapons available to folks were clubs, swords and spears which could of course be deadly, but they were weapons designed for one-on-one combat.  They could knock out a tooth or put out an eye, but they were not capable of killing multiple people in a matter of a few seconds.  And I would note that weapons had not advanced into the ability to create mass destruction and killing by the time our second amendment was written.

My theory is that the fears and dis-ease of the pandemic motivated frightened people to own firearms, including assault weapons.  There were more guns sold in this country in 2020 than ever before.  Coincidence?  I think not.  And the fact that many radical members of the Republican party want to still live in the days of Levitical law makes the spiral of violence begetting more violence all the more dangerous.  Since I began writing this blog this morning there have been two more incidents of gun violence that I know of in this country.  One was in a Bob Evans restaurant in Canton, Ohio and the other in a routine traffic stop in San Antonio, Texas.  There have been at least 45 mass shootings (which means 4 or more people killed or wounded) already this year.  45!!  That’s about 3 per week.

What is unique about Americans that we cannot resolve this issue?  It took just 1 mass killing in Australia in 1996 to institute strict gun control.  It also only took 1 in New Zealand 2 years ago for them to do the same.  The rash of killings this time in the U.S. began at Columbine in 1999 and has run unabated ever since. Why can’t we Americans agree on common sense gun control?  If guns made us safer we could be the safest country in the world, but that is certainly not the case. 

It is obviously more important in 2021 than ever before and perhaps harder to “Meet anger with sympathy, contempt with compassion and cruelty with kindness.  Greet grimaces with smiles.  Forgive and forget about finding fault.” This seems so hard if not impossible to do, but individually for Christians and other pacifists turning the other cheek and breaking the chain reaction of violence is the only way we will survive without creating a whole population of blind, toothless or dead people. 

Pastoral Prayer in Response to Parkland Shootings

O great comforter, we are a nation in mourning.  On Valentine’s Day when we celebrate the gift of love we were devastated by yet another senseless violent act at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Words are simply inadequate to express the pain and grief we feel and we can only imagine how much all of those directly impacted are suffering.

It was also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance.  With the funerals for two police officers in our own community and the tragedy in Florida our Lenten theme of being in the wilderness seems all too real just now.  This is one of those times when we are so grateful for the Scripture’s assurance that you “help us in our weakness so when we don’t know how to pray the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

We humbly ask O God that you will grant healing mercies to those physically and emotionally wounded by these tragedies.  And we pray also that our time in the wilderness will help us draw closer to you that we might be agents of healing and comfort to any we meet who are hurting.  And please O Holy One show our leaders and all of us how to live according to your will that our broken nation might come together in peace and cooperation that benefits all.

We pray for those named in our own prayer concerns this day with the assurance that you know our needs even before we ask.  Our needs are many but today we especially pray that those who mourn will be comforted as we name those who died on Wednesday in Parkland:

Carmen Schentrup, Meadow Pollack, Peter Wang, Nicholas Dworet, Christopher Hixon, Aaron Feis, Luke Hoyer, Alaina Petty, Jaime Guttenberg, Martin Duque, Alyssa Alhadeff, Helena Ramsey, Scott Beigel, Joaquin Oliver, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, and Alexander Schachter.

Lord, in your mercy hear our prayers in the name of Christ who taught us to pray…..

Bump Stocks and Log in My Eye

Some of my readers have probably been pleased that I have been less “political” in what I’ve posted in recent weeks. There are several reasons for that, but one of them is not that I am less concerned about the state of our nation and world. I became a part-time pastor again this summer and that has affected my writing in a couple of ways. Given more pastoral duties means less time for other things, including writing. The writing I have done has been primarily sermons and prayers. Secondly with the privilege of being a pastor of a congregation comes an expectation to handle political matters tactfully and in a non-partisan way.

I did not realize how much I felt constrained by that non-partisan expectation until I retired and wasn’t serving a congregation. I felt liberated to speak my mind more freely, and now that I am back in a formal relationship with a congregation that freedom is one of the things I miss most. As a student of persuasive communication I know full well that effective communication requires a meeting of minds, a shared understanding and respect for one another’s ideas and feelings. That’s a quality of community that is sorely lacking in our bitterly divided nation and world.

No meaningful communication occurs across the chasm of ideological extremes where we view others as enemies (political or foreign) instead of as fellow humans doing the best we can to make sense of the lives we have been given and the world we inhabit. So my philosophy of ministry is one of trying to understand what people believe and why they hold those beliefs so I can then facilitate a process of faith development that moves all of us toward the peaceable kingdom God covets for us and all creation.

I am not always successful at being empathetic and understanding, and as one who is very uncomfortable with conflict I fear I have been too timid during most of my ministry to share my true thoughts and feelings because I feared that to do so would be unpopular. I greatly admire my colleagues who have the courage and faith to speak prophetically about controversial issues.

I recently saw a list of the 15 most popular hymns of all time. I don’t know how the list was compiled or how scientifically valid the methodology was for surveying people, but the list was pretty much what I expected it would be: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Garden,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “It is Well With My Soul” etc. All 15 hymns on the list focused on personal salvation and holiness. What was lacking was the other half of the Gospel, what John Wesley called “Social Holiness.”

I imagine that such a list might have inspired the prophet Amos to proclaim the lines that are part of the lectionary for this week: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (Amos 5:23-24) I don’t know how long Amos would have lasted in a church pulpit but I do believe that we dare not ignore the biblical imperative to be agents of social justice.

I cringed this week when I saw a Facebook meme that hit much too close to home. To paraphrase it said, “Don’t be nice. Jesus wasn’t crucified for being a nice guy.” I often encouraged my preaching students to heed the advice of Ephesians 4:15 that tells us to “speak the truth in love.” Looking back on my career as both a preacher and teacher I fear that I have erred on the side of love in that equation and sugar-coated or omitted hard words of truth. As a pastor I often criticized myself for sacrificing prophetic truth in exchange for a parsonage and a pension.

Ironically it has almost always been the case that when I have dared to speak my true understanding of God’s will about controversial issues of social justice someone that I least expected to agree or appreciate those views has let me know they did. For example in today’s news there is not much that is more divisive than people’s views on gun violence and the second amendment. It has become a partisan political issue when it should be seen as a basic human problem to be solved. But most politicians are afraid of the NRA and dependent on financial support from the gun lobby. So even though a majority of Americans are in favor of stricter gun legislation a majority of Senators and Representatives are unwilling to risk their office and its perks to oppose a vocal and powerful minority.
This morning I read an article in the Columbus Dispatch that reported that Congress has passed the buck on dealing with the sale of “bump stocks” that transform semi-automatic rifles into automatic rifles/machine guns (which are illegal) to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives instead of acting on it themselves.

Immediately after the massacre in Las Vegas there was widespread agreement including even the NRA that those devices needed to be banned or “restricted.” But as the news cycle moved on to sex scandals and other mass killings, the mood shifted, the NRA changed its mind, and Congress lost its political will to act.
After reading that article I wrote the following note to my two Senators and my Congressional Representative: “I was appalled to read in this morning’s Columbus Dispatch that Congress has done nothing about bump stocks after the Las Vegas massacre. Stop passing the buck and do something to stop this insanity of gun violence. It is way past time for someone to have the courage to stand up to the NRA. We need to reinstate the ban on assault weapons but in the meantime banning devices whose sole purpose is to circumvent the law should be a no-brainer.”

I also posted that message on Facebook with some fear and trepidation that it would be too “political” for a preacher. But again I was pleasantly surprised at the number of “likes” and even some “loves” I got in response. Some of those positive responses were from people I didn’t expect would agree with me. I would never have known had I not had the courage to say what I was feeling.

I wrote the above part of this post in the wee hours of the morning, and then when I went to bed and couldn’t get to sleep I realized that I had been guilty of seeing the “speck in my legislators’ eyes and ignoring the log in my own” to paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 7:5 and Luke 6:42. As is often the case I am often most judgmental about things in others that I don’t like about myself. It’s easy to criticize political leaders for not living up to the profiles in courage standards I expect of them, but much harder to admit I do the same thing. I don’t always say what I truly believe, and I certainly don’t always live up to the values I hold dear. Peer pressure, societal or professional expectations and other human weaknesses get in the way of speaking the truth in love. If I am honestly and fairly judged by my ideal goal of living up to the profound standards of Micah to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” I am in deep trouble.

When I shared my late night insight about being guilty of living out of integrity with my values with my dear wife this morning Diana cut to the chase as she does so well. She said, “That’s true of every job. We all have to make compromises and concessions to employers who control our livelihood.” If those compromises create too much cognitive dissonance or inner turmoil with our consciences we can say “no” to that employer and choose a different path. Those are very hard decisions that try our souls, and that is why we all stand in need of a generous helping of God’s grace.

Well, this blog certainly took an unexpected turn. It was good for my own introspection. Thanks for listening. If it was helpful for you too that’s a bonus.

The Unbroken Circle of Life II

IMG_1150 I have rarely reposted a previous blog here, but in searching for some inner wisdom to cope with life today I was drawn to one I wrote just 3 months ago in October of 2015. It still sounds good and maybe even more relevant now than it did then; so it is copied as written below. My only additional preface is a comment I made in my journal recently as 2016 has gotten off to a bumpy start for me, my family, and the world: “The cycle of life keeps turning and there are no stations to get off till you get to the terminal.”

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
I attended a Bluegrass Festival with some friends a few weeks ago and have been singing or humming “May the Circle Be Unbroken” ever since. Bluegrass is not my music of choice; so I’ve been pondering why that song has stuck in my head. There are good memories of singing that song around campfires when I was a youth minister many years ago. But it has taken on a deeper more pervasive meaning lately. Some of that became clearer to me this week after a depressing visit with my 94 year old father who has outlived his mental and physical faculties and is miserable. Is there a better day coming for him and his wife suffering from dementia?

I don’t think it’s in the sky but where? What? How? Those questions become more relevant as morality pounds harder on my door each day, in aches and pains, friends in surgery, cancer diagnoses and biopsies, longer list of things I can no longer do. I’ve toyed with the lyrics of that song by changing the “e” to an “i” in “better,” i.e., “There’s a bitter day a coming….” That’s what happens when we turn in on ourselves, we get bitter and go victim. “Why me?” “It’s not fair!” “Why didn’t I take better care of myself?” “Let’s try one more miracle supplement that flows out of the fountain of youth!” Fear springs from the unknown “in the sky” or in some place of darkness, from regrets over a lifetime of sin or just dumb mistakes we can never erase.

Fear is epidemic in our society. I was at a wedding reception recently where I was told one of the men at my table was carrying a concealed weapon “because you never know what might happen.” The next week my relatives at a family gathering were discussing preparedness drills for an active shooter at their little country church and in their schools where children are being taught to throw anything they can find at a shooter ala David versus Goliath–only Goliath didn’t have his NRA sanctioned AR 15.

A father was shot dead last Friday in front of his six kids and wife in a burglary in our affluent “safe” suburb. And today Ted Koppel was on the morning news talking about his new book Lights Out, about the coming cyber-attack that will paralyze our society. The temptation to buy some guns and a generator and become a survivalist is so strong even I feel it tugging at me. There is a little solace for me that I’m old enough I may not have to deal with the worst of the Hunger Games scenario, but I fear for my kids and grandkids and feel hopeless and helpless to do anything significant to help them.

Will the circle be unbroken? Or has human depravity and selfishness reached epic proportions that strain the bonds of civility beyond the breaking point? Is Jesus’ pacifist advice to turn the other cheek and put away our swords just naïve idealism? Those are not verses that fearful Christians cite when they turn to Scripture for comfort. I quoted Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) once to a life-long Christian, the verses about “beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks,” and she said that in 60 years of going to church she didn’t remember ever hearing those words! Unless prophetic voices stand up to the fear mongers and proclaim a message of hope and reason to a world gone mad, the circle may indeed be broken.

I remember being this depressed about the state of the world back in 1972 after Nixon’s landslide victory in spite of Watergate and the protests about the Vietnam War. I wrote a letter to the editor saying that all we could do now was “wait for the inevitable judgment of God.” 43 years later we are still here. We’ve survived that war in SE Asia, the resignation of Nixon and his Vice President, 9/11 and a host of other terrorist attacks, too many mass shootings to count, a huge economic recession, and at least so far several ill-advised wars in the Middle East that have only fanned the flame of hatred in that cauldron of religious and ideological conflict that is the eternal flame of human strife and animosity.

The circle is frayed and contorted out of shape, but it is still unbroken; and that last paragraph is a micro-second in the eternity of the cosmic circle viewed from God’s perspective. As we scroll backward in time through Holocaust, Civil War, Slavery, Genocide of native people, the Dark Ages, the Crusades, Roman, Greek, Syrian, Egyptian, Ottoman Empires, the rise and fall of numerous Dynasties in China and Japan, Exile and Exodus, Stone Age and Ice Ages, and all the other eras of our planet’s history that I missed in history class, our current fears and woes are put in better perspective.

In every generation there have been concerns about the elasticity and tenacity of the circle, and it is still unbroken. That is not an excuse to blithely bury our heads in the sand or in our parochial platitudes. We must counter the fear mongers with words and lives of hope and visions of peace in any way we can. And remembering the great circle maker and sustainer gives us the courage to witness to our faith even when fear and doubt threaten to overwhelm us.

[originally written October 27, 2015]

Blowing in the Wind: Hiroshima and Our Addiction to Violence

hiroshima
With so much political posturing dominating the news this week there seems to be little notice in the U.S. that today is the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan. I’m sure the date is not forgotten in Hiroshima. August 6, 1945 has been a somber day for me ever since I learned about it in school. Even though I wasn’t born until 15 months after it occurred, what happened in that Japanese city at 8:15 that morning changed the world I was born into forever.

Diana and I visited Japan several years ago, and the horror of that event was made even more real. As we stood on the very spot where so much death and devastation took place, we saw pictures and read accounts of the unbelievable power unleashed on that city, of the 70,000 people who were annihilated by the blast and perhaps 200,000 more who died later after horrible suffering from radiation poisoning.

Many arguments about the pros and cons of the decision to drop that bomb and the one 3 days later on Nagasaki have been offered, and I appreciate that ethical and political debate. The truth is that whether dropping the bombs was justified or not, the atomic genie can’t be put back into the bottle. The question as always is what to do now with the reality we have.

I am haunted by Einstein’s assessment of the significance of this day. He said, “The splitting of the atom changed everything, save man’s mode of thinking. Thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.” Yes, we have managed to avoid nuclear annihilation for 70 years, and that’s a good thing. Except for the people unfortunate enough to live near Chernobyl or Three Mile Island or Fukushima the human race has been smart enough or lucky enough to avoid nuclear disaster. We will probably never know how close we have come on many occasions, and the tensions with Russia and Iran and North Korea, not to mention the threat of nukes falling into the hands of terrorist groups, mean we still have not changed the mode of our thinking.

Why has humankind always used every new technology to develop more deadly ways to maim and kill each other? Every advance in science seems to carry with it a dark side of destruction. Chariots, horses, airplanes, ships and rockets become delivery systems for death. Chemical gases, Nobel’s invention of dynamite, even pressure cookers can and have been turned into weapons—just the opposite of the biblical vision of beating “swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

A friend emailed me a piece today about the positive uses of drones to deliver medicine with the comment that drones have been getting bad publicity lately. My response was, “No, some idiots flying drones have been getting bad publicity.” It isn’t the technology that is the problem; it is our failure to use it wisely. And that failure usually stems from fear.

Fear is the enemy of the moral courage to change the way we think and stop the madness of violence as the default solution to our conflicts and problems. Another wise friend sent me these statistics yesterday. “In the US we had about 34,000 gunshot deaths in 2013, two thirds of which are actually suicides. Germany had about 200, and Canada and Britain had even less. Somebody has to have the moral courage to say that this is crazy, to have 300 million firearms in one nation, and that all it does is to lead to thousands of deaths.”

There is an old folk song that asks a question that is as relevant today as it was in 1945 or when Bob Dylan asked it in 1963: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” Dylan’s answer was that “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.” I don’t know if Dylan knew that the Hebrew word for wind, “ruach,” is also the word for “spirit” and “breath.” So that song for me says the answer is blowing in the life-breathing spirit of God, and only there.

The answer is not more and bigger bombs. The answer is not more guns. The answer is to examine our fears that drive us to build gated communities, to propose building walls on our borders to keep others out. Instead of repairing roads, educating our children, alleviating poverty, and addressing social injustice, we spend obscene amounts of money and resources on defense because we are afraid. The gun lobby sells more and more automatic weapons that have no purpose but to kill other people because we are afraid. Wealthy lobbies buy more and more congressional votes because our legislators are afraid to take courageous stands that will cost them their office and lifetime benefits. The church is silent about being peacemakers and turning the other cheek because we are afraid those unpopular views will cost us members and contributions.

I started a series a few months ago on Pentecost and the power of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2 (see posts from May 26 and June 14). I haven’t finished that series because other issues keep grabbing my attention. I didn’t realize when I started this post that I would come back around to Pentecost.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:1-4)

The forces of fear are powerful and real and require an even stronger power to overcome them. They cannot be conquered by any human technology or ideology. Fear paralyzes our ability to reason and recognize the futility and foolishness of our attempts to save our lives and our stuff through arms. We can learn a valuable lesson from Alcoholics Anonymous about our addiction to bigger and badder weaponry or security systems. AA knows we cannot conquer an addiction without surrendering to a higher power.

That higher power blew through Jerusalem on Pentecost and changed lives and the world forever. And the answer to stopping the violence in our theaters and schools and churches and to defusing the nuclear nightmare is still blowing in the ruach of God.

Blow, holy wind, blow away our fears.