Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Waiting for Dawn

I don't often post sermons here, but today I am posting this one, preached last Sunday. I wept for Aleppo today, as the city is back in government control, as people pray for a way out, as innocent people are dying. I say again, I have no doubt that we are sitting the shadow of death.

The text for Sunday was Luke 1:67-80, the Benedictus.

I have no doubt that we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

This week, a man walked into Community Christian Church in Tempe, shouting about the gay pride flag hanging from their belltower. He threatened to pay picketers to come to the church, and spread rumors about pedophiles in their church. He said he felt empowered to stop and say something because Trump is the president elect and he knew most people agreed with him. For those of you who don’t know, our church exists because of Community Christian Church.

I have no doubt that we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

Last Sunday, a woman I went to college with was murdered by her husband, who then committed suicide. They left a 10 year old, 5 year old and 3 year old behind. The two youngest of the three girls were later found alone in their home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio by the aunt who called 911. Hours later, the bodies of their parents were found on an access road to a park near their home. No one knows for sure why it happened. Unlike most of these stories, there was no history of violence in the family.

I have no doubt that we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

I spoke with a woman this week who was looking for a place to give snuggly baby clothes and toys in honor of her nephew, who died during birth. Her sister has requested that their friends and family honor and mourn Jacob in this way, by giving items appropriate for the age he would be had he lived. Last year, Jacob’s mother, Martha, stopped to give Christmas clothes and toys appropriate for a 3 month old to a charity when a young woman with an infant came in, asking for clothes and toys. They’d just entered transitional housing. Martha was sure she saw a glimpse of the Christ child.

I have no doubt we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

Undoubtedly, this imagery of the shadow of death began with the idea of Sheol, the place of the dead where everyone went, regardless of how their life went. Like the Greek Hades, it was a shadowy place, never day nor night, just as it was neither good nor bad. Sheol, for ancient Israelites, was at the end of the waters at the edge of the world, held back by gates. Shadows literally came with death. We, who I’d guess have as many thoughts on the afterlife as people in the room, and maybe more, definitely don’t think about a shadowy place at the end of the world, though there have been a couple scifi movies who put it at the end of the universe. And still, I can say: I have no doubt we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

My family is waiting for a woman who has been part of our family in some way for over thirty years to die. Her story, including the cancer that is slowly killing her, is a story of alcohol and drug abuse, of imprisoned partners, of prostitution and jail time. It’s also why I say she’s part of our family in some way because those ways have been varied in those thirty years. Both of her sons have nearly died in the last year from drug-related illnesses. Their livelihood was based in drug trafficking, so the money has dried up as well. The foster system failed them, too, removing and returning them to her multiple times in their childhood, but never getting them somewhere that allowed them to leave their mother’s habits behind. 

I have no doubt we’re sitting in the shadow of death.

And as I tell these stories I’m struck by their sheer rawness, and difficulty, and impoliteness. These aren’t things we talk about often, or together, or publicly. These are the things we keep quiet and hope they never happen again, knowing they probably will. As I drive down the road with “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” coming from the radio, the song seems wildly out of place in some way, not just because nothing here looks like Currier & Ives.

We often read from the prophet Isaiah during Advent. Today, I remind you of the call of Isaiah 64, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

There’s a fabulous, raw Advent devotional you can check out, with the #rendtheheavens, drawing from this prayer from Isaiah, this prayer for something else, for divine intervention here and now.

Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
So that the mountains would quake at your presence—
As when fire kindles brushwood
And the fire causes water to boil—
To make known your name to your adversaries,
So that the nations might tremble at your presence!

Tear open the heavens and come down! Or as Zechariah puts it: save us from this shadow of death.

It is why we celebrate Advent before Christmas, after all, hoping that God will tear the heavens open and come down among us. It’s why we first name the brokenness that means we need a Savior, rather than jumping ahead to something far more pleasing, like an infant in a manger.

And here, I am grateful for the wisdom and goodness of God, who did not opt to give us exactly what we wanted. Instead, we get these words from Zechariah, upon the birth of his son, John, a prophet before Jesus:
You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
                  for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
You will tell his people how to be saved
                   through the forgiveness of their sins.
Because of our God’s deep compassion,
 the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
                    to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
                    and in the shadow of death,
                  to guide us on the path of peace.”

We get the promise of the dawn from heaven breaking upon us, the dayspring that makes it into many of our hymns. The shadow of death is chased away, yes, but not in a violent ripping open to end what is happening now. That’s a solution of brokenness, after all. That’s like mom coming in thanks to the screams in the bedroom where kids were playing and no one being happy once it’s over. God’s solution is one of wholeness: a dawn from heaven, which promises something new rather than destruction.

It’s a reminder that God creates, not destroys. And God creates for us, out of deep compassion for us.

We’re promised the opposite of tearing open the heavens, coming down, and everything trembling at the power of God: peace, shalom, wholeness

It’s hard to know exactly what those words mean. We know they point away from violence, and addiction, death and loss. We know they point toward love. We know they heal what is broken, replace what is shattered. We need the Christ child to help us understand more fully. Remaking the world in our own image tends to make things worse, not better. We rend the heavens; God sends the dawn of a new way of being.

Now, as we sit in the shadow of death, waiting for the dawn, the coming of Christ, we carry with us this deepest hope and trust: the shadow of death does not prevail.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Christmas Gifts

My church is doing Advent cards this year from SALT project, instead of a traditional Advent calendar. Today's challenge, "Find a little--or a big!--way to be generous today: hold the door open for someone, pay for someone's coffee, do a stranger a simple favor."

I confess, it didn't change my plans for today. It did make me think differently about one of my plans: stopping by the local community center. It's not one of the city run community centers, but a nonprofit. Its services are things like reading classes for kid and helping people get on SNAP and WIC. Today, I was dropping off peanut butter from my church and gifts for Christmas from my partner, Matt, and me.

We collect the peanut butter once a month, so I most always have some small stash to drop off. Today, it was around fifty pounds of peanut butter, which will be used to stock emergency food boxes for families. The gifts are a tradition Matt and I started the first year we were dating. Our gift to each other is limited to an ornament, spending $20 or less. Instead, we spend money on a family without resources to give gifts to their kids.

As we're shopping, I'm aware that, in some ways, this is a selfish choice. It's really fun to shop for Christmas presents for kids. We're shopping because a parent or caregiver isn't able to shop. We get to decide what it is best for the kids. We feel good about it when it's all done. It's also something most people would think of as an act of generosity.

This year, we dropped off a bag near filled with a set of books, a toy, an outfit, and a pair of shoes for each child in the family. The center is trying to get some consistency across gifts, so there were fewer things than in years past. I still think the kids will have a decent Christmas even if their mom can't come up with any other gifts. When I tucked the gift receipts into a Christmas card for her, I debated whether or not to sign our names. I ended up not. "Abby and Matt" wouldn't reveal much, but I felt better with her not knowing, letting her imagine who else cared about her kids.

I think about that nudge to be generous in some way today, and it feels weird. In part, at least, it's because generosity seems to always imply money. I like that the creators include things having nothing to do with money. Apparently, I look like I know where I'm going, so people often ask me for directions when I'm walking places; I'd never counted that as generous.

For me, what many would also call generosity is better called faithfulness. I think of generosity as giving extravagantly. My resources don't allow me to do that. Instead, I give regularly, faithfully, and rarely impulsively--at least when it comes to money. Even this Christmas gift adventure was part of how I was taught that.

As a child, when my family was barely making ends meet, we bought gifts for the children most in need in our school. If I remember correctly, grandparents and an aunt and uncle participated, too. Likely, they bore the bulk of the financial burden. This was before angel trees existed. In a rural community, people know. As children, we were included in picking out gifts for our classmates, including many conversations about how we should never, ever mention this at school. Gifts were dropped off at homes, quietly, along with food for the holidays. One year, a boy in my class brought the Beetlejuice house shoes I had chosen for him to school to show off. He had no problem telling everyone where they came from, which I told my mother as soon as I got home.

In a season when there is pressure to buy, and maybe buy some more, and then pick up something for that person you forgot, we would do well to turn to our faithfulness rather than a fleeting desire to be generous. What have we chosen to do with our resources? What are we investing in beyond ourselves? Which of our hopes for the world are we fulfilling with what we have to offer?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Happy Holidays, Y'all!

The holidays are officially upon us, with Thanksgiving falling tomorrow.

Folks, these are the days for which Jesus exists. Yes, I'm aware Christmas/Jesus' birthday/all that/yada, yada, yada. That's not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about holidays. I realize there are many people who get extra warm and fuzzy and think this is the best time of the year. If you let me wrap all your packages, I may become one of those people. As is, I want to cuddle with the Grinch a reasonable amount of the time.

Y'all know what I'm talking about. "No, grandma, he's not my roommate. He's my boyfriend. You know that. We've been living together for ten years. I'm not interested in girls. I told you that twenty years ago. It hasn't changed."

Of course, there are the classics: "When are you getting married?" "Have you met a nice boy/girl yet?" "Oh, you can't fool me, I see that bump. I won't tell anyone until you're ready!" Surprise, nope, not a baby. That's sugar cookies. Specifically, that's all the sugar cookies I'm currently stress eating to deal with you, Aunt Hilda.

These are the days that you need Jesus. Now, Jesus only commanded to you love your neighbors, realizing that family is far harder. For family, he went with "Anyone who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." Based on personal experience, I would not recommend quoting this particular passage to your father or mother. It has a reasonable chance of not ending well.

I also do not recommend passive aggressive actions, which tend to be my go-to coping skills. Hiding the remote control, for example, to annoy your football watching dad. Or just walk to another room when the conversation becomes unbearable. It's especially fun when the conversation was primarily one person peppering you with questions.

Again, not me, but Jesus. Jesus said to love your enemies. (Cough, that one cousin.) Jesus said to pray for those who persecute you. Persecution may even include Uncle Joe, at least for the next month. The other eleven months, not so much.

Most of all, though, Jesus can help you find your people. There's a reason Jesus-following people hang out together. Those people will give you a chance to do good for people in need. Those people will give you a chance to talk about all your family crazy. Those Jesus-following people will remind you that there's a whole bunch of stuff beyond you, and turn you toward that. Jesus can help you find your people, who will love you and your significant other, no matter who they are. Jesus can help you find your people who ask just the right amount of questions. Jesus can help you find the people you need.

So seriously, this holiday, find Jesus, or at least some Jesusy people. They'll redeem the crazy siblings, the off-kilter in-laws (I should note, my in-laws are amazing. I have to say this. They read my blog.), the cousins you see once a year at most. They'll redeem the drunken uncle or the very, very dry holiday gathering that would be better if you could just have a little tequila.

In this season, when it's easy to get sucked inward, to get stressed out, to be driven mad by those people with whom you share a bloodline, you need Jesus. You need Jesus to remind you there's something else that matters, even when you're on your fourth Thanksgiving dinner thanks to your particular version of family.

I'm reminding myself of this, too, as I'm over here stockpiling chocolate to stress eat.

Oh--and Happy Holidays, y'all!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Woman at the Well

The story of the woman at the well is one that haunts my imagination. Do you remember it? She's only in John's telling of the Gospel. She comes to the community well in the middle of the day, apart from the other women of the community. Jesus asks her for a drink of water and she is shocked. After all, she is a Samaritan and he is a Jew. They talk and he knows all about her. It reasonable to think most people do, given that she's been married five times and the man she lives with now is not her husband.

She's not the likely character for a theological conversation. She and Jesus have one any way, talking about living water. When she leaves the well, she understands better than the disciples do. She tells everyone in the city about Jesus.

In recent years, commentary has moved away from worrying about her sexual sins to talking about her being exploited. Ancient customs aside, women who have been married several times tend to have been exploited by their partners. Her story is far too common in the world we live in. Our concern about the number of baby daddies a woman has makes that all too clear.

I don't know what the story of her five husbands was, but I know the stories of others.

She had a baby at fifteen with her high school boyfriend. Their high school taught abstinence only; they didn't know there was contraception. Well, that assumes they had much information at all about what they were doing. She got kicked out of her parents' house, but he said he'd get a job and they'd figure it out. Before she was seventeen, he was gone.

Within a couple of months, she was living with their next door neighbor. He was much older and creeped her out, but he would take her in. There was money left over at the end of the month sometimes to buy extra things. There was always food in the house. She couldn't make it on her own, any way. One night, when there wasn't money left over or food in the house, he hit her. It happened a few more times before she landed in the emergency room. The social worker helped her get to a shelter. The shelter helped her find a job.

All of that wasn't enough, so she moved in with a man she thought she loved a few months later. They wanted a baby together, so they had one. He told her all the time how lucky she was to have him, how good it was that she could find anyone willing to take her in. She knew he was right, so she didn't push back very often at all. When he hit her the first time, she knew she deserved it. He told her he'd get both her kids if she ever tried to leave. He had to be right. He was always right. When bruises showed up on her oldest, a teacher reported it. The social worker removed her kids and offered to get her help as well.

The housing projects she ended up in were better than she imagined, at least for a while. She had her kids back with her now. And here, her story would repeat. Abusive cycles tend to repeat themselves, after all. That's just the rule. The next partner could start selling drugs or using drugs or something else that comes often with people living in poverty. One of the most horrifying stories I've ever heard was about a woman who was told to marry her rapist. She wanted an abortion, but ended up at a Christian pro-life clinic thanks to a bait and switch. They told her it was her fault and she needed to marry him if he'd have her. That would fix everything. That story has been told in a million different ways throughout history.

I let the story of the woman at the well haunt me because I've met too many women like her. Maybe they'd only had one or two terribly failed relationships, but they were used to the guilt and shame. They were used to the whispers and the looks. The story of the woman at the well reminds me that women's issues are the church's issues.

The day following the election, I signed up to be in a local production of The Vagina Monologues. It was one of the most tangible, immediately available ways that I could imagine to talk about violence against women and other women's issues. Actually, there are all sorts of things it brings up that aren't often part of polite conversation. If the President-elect gets away with joking about sexual assault, though, you better believe I'm going to talk about the horrors of sexual assault and all the other terrible things done to women.

If I wanted to, I could talk so many things related to this choice, including plenty of secular feminism that we don't talk about enough in church. At the end of the day, though, I'm doing this on behalf of the woman at the well. May the unwritten parts of her story haunt us all.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

On Election Day

I waited until today to vote. Early voting just doesn't feel right to me for some reason. For all the incivility of this election season, as I got ready this morning, I was struck by the civility of this process.

I checked my wallet for my driver's license and voter ID card. I double checked my precinct since my polling location is home for two precincts. I added a number to call if there was a problem with voting into my phone, not for my own sake, but because the people voting in my precinct are racially diverse, speaking a few different languages. I'm also aware that being well-informed and feeling like you have recourse is too often a place of privilege. I well remember two years ago, when voter turnout wasn't nearly as high. Still, I helped a young woman figure out her documentation in order to vote. She had everything she needed, but her English was limited. Signs, of course, are only in English.

This morning, it wasn't needed. The poll workers were plentiful and helpful. The line for my precinct was much longer than the adjacent one, where people just walked in. Still, it was all of a fifteen minute wait to vote, if not a little shorter. The poll workers would occasionally come out and make an announcement to ensure everyone was in the correct line. I helped one woman sort out her precinct. There was a young man doing the same; I'm pretty sure it was the first time he ever voted.

The lines moved; we were ushered forward with gentleness and kindness. A scripted question echoed after presenting ID, "Do you need any help with your ballot?" At least I think that was it. I deposited my own ballot into the machine and was thanked for voting. I was the 182nd person in my precinct to go through that process today. I imagine it was much the same for everyone.

I remember a line from The West Wing in an election cycle, "Every four years, we get to overthrow the government. Vote!" In a totally different episode, Sam Seaborn reflects on the civility of the Boston Tea Party, complete with calligraphy and parchment.

I am reminded today that this experience is one of incredibly privilege. A hundred years ago, I could not have voted. For all the calls to violence that have happened at various points in this season, we still operate on the assumption that we will go to the polls, we will vote, the votes will be counted, and we'll learn to live with the winner. We anticipate a peaceful transfer of power come January, even in our presidential election.

For the most part, we will continue to live in the same communities, no matter what. Our kids will still go to school together. We'll shop at the same grocery stores. We'll drive on the same roads. While we may be anywhere from annoyed to angry, we'll figure out life together for now.

As someone in a religious tradition that has splintered into no fewer than three (and perhaps more) versions of the Church, from a tradition that broke off and splintered a few more times, I wish we'd taught the story of unity better. I wish we'd taught the story of choosing to live together through difficult times and places better. I wish we'd lived out what we have long professed: that Christ unites us more than our differences.

No matter how this election goes, we have the chance to do that better.

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus."

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Things We Do to Poor People

On the first Sunday of the month, we put out gray buckets and collect change that goes into a discretionary fund. If you read my last post, you know how I feel about Christians' duty to care for the poor. We started collecting change because some of our own congregation members were going through difficult times and I realized I had no way to help them out of church funds, even though I thought we should. Since then, I've been able to help the people stopping by, hoping for a little bit of help.

Because of our location, it doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen. We sit together, talk together, often pray together, and most everyone who comes through asking for help needs a hug in the worst way. I realize that many of us are blind to the poverty and struggles around us. Because my soul is often wounded by their stories, I'm sharing some of the horrible stories I've heard.

  • "I was staying in a hotel and was kicked out with no notice." Other versions: I was staying in a hotel and it went bankrupt, so I became homeless. I was staying in a hotel and I got bed bugs. I was staying in a hotel and didn't feel safe, so I left. (By hotel, they're usually talking about flophouses. There are several about three miles west of here.)
  • "We were doing ok and then I got sick." These are stories about waiting on approval for disability benefits, or being denied disability benefits and still not able to work. The bills mount. Households combine to try to survive together. Every utility is near being shut off.
  • "I'm in the wrong zip code." I happen to live and work in Maricopa County, where two-thirds of Arizona's population also lives. In other parts of the state, it's referred to as "The State of Maricopa." We have services here. But if you live in an adjacent county, you're often out of luck. Access to services is even worse in the rural areas. 
  • "I thought this car would be better." A tax refund becomes a down payment on a POS car. (There's just no polite way to talk about these cars.) The problems have been hidden, so someone drives off the lot thinking they're fine. Then something major goes and there's no money to fix it and no expectation it would have to be fixed so soon. The interest rate is insane, of course, because that's also what we do to poor people. In one case, the payment on a 2003 small SUV was the same as my 2013 small car. 
  • "But they started using." Drugs aren't usually the problem with the people who make it to my office. Well, at least they aren't using themselves. Instead, a partner started using and the household collapsed. Or a child. Or things have been wrong for as long as they can remember because drugs are part of their parents' stories. 
  • "I used all my paycheck already." There's this idea that poor people squander money when the truth is there's just not enough of it. They're used to having to defend themselves and what they do with the few financial resources they have, so they bring documentation and run down the list. "My paycheck was $254, so I paid my car insurance for thirty days, the electric bill, put gas in my car, and there's nothing left." It's amazing, actually, to sit with people who know down to the penny what needs to be paid and how much work they need. Many of them are hoping for $9 and looking for the jobs that offer at least weekly pay; they'd prefer daily. It puts "give us this day our daily bread" in a whole new context. Also, a forty hour week at $9 an hour is $360 before taxes, just in case you hadn't bothered to do the math. 
  • "Work is bad." Someone lands one of those $9 an hour jobs they've looked so hard for. Of course, there are a few teenagers working alongside them. One or two of those teenagers are the ones whose parents made them get a job, but the household is far from falling apart without the income. It's easy to pick on the person who is sleeping in their car. It's easy to make life miserable for the person who really needs the job. (These stories are actually the most horrifying for me.)
I'm well aware that some of these stories may be lies. I happen to think that Jesus was serious when he said, "Give to everyone who begs from you." He never said, "Give to everyone who begs from you after you check out their story." Also, the stories above aren't unique. One person has several of those things happen to them, usually. I hear the same sorts of stories consistently, too. Often, if only 10% of the information I'm given is true, that person desperately needs help. I'd wager that most of it is if they make it to me. Again, our location means needy people don't come by as often as they do in other parts of town.

Still, y'all, the things we do to poor people.

We have to do better.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Values Voting

Election season is in more than full swing. Occasionally one of my friends with a poorly curated list of Facebook friends will post something about who to vote for. At that point, I'm just there for the comments.

My own political affiliations are complicated, to say the least, but I won't go into all of those. Suffice it to say I don't talk about politics with my family for the most part. Every once in a while we'll go down that road of values voting. It's at least more civil than the Facebook explosions I occasionally get to watch. There are always two things that come up immediately: same-sex marriage and abortion.

I could hash out the ins and outs of those with no problem. However, I'm far more worried that those are the two values that are compelling your vote.

Let's be clear: I think gay people should be allowed to marry, divorce, adopt, and everything else right along with the straight people. Ditto for trans folks.  And if you want to talk about the biblical model of marriage, let's go for it. There's nothing quite so thrilling as prooftexting for this former fundamentalist, even if I know it only goes so far and is unconvincing in the end for most people. We can do the same with abortion. At the end of the day, we'll probably still disagree.

Also, there are other deeply Christian values that demand your vote if you want to be called by the name of Christ.

Let's talk about those. Actually, let's talk about one.

As a Christian, the love of Christ compels you to care for the vulnerable among you.

Full stop.

And worth saying again: as a Christian, the love of Christ compels you to care for the vulnerable among you.

You. In everything you do, you are compelled to care for the vulnerable if you call yourself a Christian. That includes all your resources: your time, your money, and your vote. (If you are among those who thinks that it is the church's job, not the government's job, to take care of people, great. Let's have your five billion dollars and make a game plan! You've got friends who can throw in a few billion more, right? Each?)

Because I'm a former fundamentalist who still likes a good prooftext now and then, here are a few things to consider:
  • "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:27)
  • "But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind." (Luke 14:13)
  • "For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish..." (Mark 14:7a)
  • "You shall not  deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow's garment in pledge." (Deuteronomy 24:17)
  • "Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts." (Malachi 3:5)
  • "Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'" (Matthew 25:35-36)
  • "'Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.' All the people shall say, 'Amen!'" (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Time and again, scripture reminds us to care for the vulnerable among us. In fact, read through the prophets if you want to hear lots of curses rained down on those who don't care for the vulnerable among them. If that is not part of your faith, then your faith is not Christian. Then, we're left with the question: in our time, who is most vulnerable?
  • Children, of course: the poorer they are, they more likely they are to go to underfunded, crowded schools. They don't get enough to eat or healthy things to eat. They are, by merit of being children, vulnerable. Let's face it, you could drop kick a two-year-old with no problem. (You shouldn't, but you could.) By merit of being children, they're dependent on someone else for, well, most everything. 
  • Women: yes, the elderly women named as widows are vulnerable, but keep in mind that women still earn far less than men. Women whose male partners aren't present are penalized further. Women are more likely to raise children on their own. Women are more likely than men to be victims of intimate partner violence. 
  • Immigrants and refugees: move to a new place because your home is no longer safe. Surround yourself with people whose language you barely understand. See if you feel vulnerable. Never mind that many people are fleeing things those of us in the United States couldn't imagine. 
  • Elderly people: I mean, don't you go check on your grandma? 
  • People of color: you've heard about the crime that is driving while black, right?  
  • The poor:here's a lot of overlap with the other categories of vulnerability, but fewer financial resources mean more vulnerability. Choosing between food and toilet paper is no one's idea of fun. Getting evicted because you had to pay for a car repair might be worse. Being sick and unable to take off work to go to the doctor or buy a $5 box of over the counter something doesn't sound great either. 
  • LGBT folks: I said I wasn't going to talk about same-sex marriage, but yeah, you can't talk about vulnerability without talking about LGBT folks. Homeless youth are disproportionally LGBT. Trans folks are murdered at an alarming rate. 
Of course, I'm speaking broadly about groups here. For every case, there are a few people who break the rule, but many more who prove it. We have a culture with plenty of vulnerable people in it, often made more vulnerable by the systems we perpetuate.

If we even stopped the list at the clearly biblically ascribed categories of vulnerable people, you still have plenty of people to be concerned about. So here are my questions for you: what are your values? Who has informed your values? What has informed your values?

Does Jesus inform your values?
Do people who like to use Jesus' name without paying attention to what he said inform your values?

The answer might have a lot to do with your vote in a few weeks. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Co-opted Faith

I went to vote in the primaries this week. I took the ballot representing people most at odds with my values, hoping for the least offensive candidates to end up on the ballot in November.  I did my homework. I did lots of homework in fact. It was exhausting to read so much about federal overreach, construction of walls, and deportation.

This morning, I went to a city gathering. In a room of Jews, Christians, and Muslims--and those are just the faiths I'm certain were represented--we had two conservative Christian prayers. We were asked to pledge the flag. I neither prayed nor pledged. I sat respectfully with my Muslim sisters during the prayer. I stood respectfully during the pledge. After a presentation on the upcoming holiday drives, I gritted my teeth as the chair of the event talked about how this helps the deserving poor and makes sure they aren't given too much.

It's been a rough week, especially when there was a soul-crushing judicatory body meeting thrown in for good measure.

I've spent a lot of this week deeply offended--not the angry, go fix it sort of offended, but the kind of offended when you realize someone has missed the point entirely. I'm in pain as I sift through the ways my faith has been co-opted.

It's been co-opted by people who want to build walls to protect borders. Never mind that our current border patrol means fewer people try to cross but more die in the desert because they're crossing in remote, dangerous places. The life of a person only matters in certain cases.

"Don't oppress an immigrant. You know what it's like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt." Exodus 23:9

My faith has been co-opted by people who are certain that anyone who isn't Christian is out to get them. Muslims will destroy us, if not with their bombs then with the spreading of their faith.

"The Samaritan woman asked, 'Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?' (Jews and Samaritans didn't associate with each other.)" John 4:9

My faith has been co-opted by people who blame the poor for being poor. Maybe, just maybe, people work every angle possible to get extra stuff at holidays because that's when the people in power are ok with giving it away.

"Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him." Proverbs 14:31

My faith has been co-opted by people who preach fear, fear, and more fear. They preach it unrelentingly and at every opportunity. The immigrants, the Muslims, the government will all come to get you. They might even bring the boogeyman along with them for good measure.

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love." 1 John 4:18

Somehow the Christian faith, not just my faith, has been stretched, distorted, and mangled so that it perpetuates patriarchy

"When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles." Luke 24:9-10

and neglects the poor

"Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again." Luke 6:30

and tells the stranger they are not welcome

"I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Matthew 25:35

and forgets that the reign of God is not just about the future.

"Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Matthew 6:10

In fact, this faith that I call my own has been co-opted by people who ignore large swaths and overarching themes of the Bible. There's just no way around it.

"I'm convinced that nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or figure things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. " Romans 8:38-39

My faith is between the lines today, not in them, because hearing Christ's call for love, justice, and mercy seems so far away from the lines themselves.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Be Subject...

Some people, when faced with adversity, ask, "What would Jesus do?" I prefer, instead, "What would Jed Bartlet do?" In both cases, freaking out and flipping over tables is a viable option.

I've been thinking about this scene a lot lately. Bartlet can interpret scripture better than many preachers, and he hits a home run on Ephesians' teaching to, "Be subject to one another."

I was at a conference this week. Mostly, it was a very good conference. There was one speaker whose ability to interpret scripture was sadly lacking. Bartlet would wipe the floor with him. And then there was that guy in another session--the older, white, straight guy who needed to share his wisdom with everyone present. In a discussion on racism, he spoke more than anyone else in the room other than the presenter. I'm sure in his mind, his Teva sandals and ponytail meant he wasn't part of the problem. Surely someone who has clearly shunned the trappings of patriarchy, or a certain version of society, hasn't fallen prey to its problems.

You're welcome to roll your eyes here.

I didn't confront him because, in that space, I couldn't think of way to do so that wasn't, "Please shut up."

Did I mention we were talking about racism and racial equity?

And so I've been thinking about "Be subject to one another." A guy at my church and I spent a while talking about racism the other day. I was reminded again this week that there are plenty of white people in my world who don't believe racism exists. Their privilege means that they've never encountered it, and often, no one has been brave enough to talk about it in front of them. Some of them are even willing to listen, because it just has been off their radar for the most part.

I think about the neighbors I've eaten with who told me what it was like to be homeless, which most always meant unwanted. I'm pretty sure I could sit in a Wendy's for hours before anyone said anything; they get kicked out quickly. There's never been a movie about getting rid of people like me or public policy that does the same.

When you have privilege, you often don't know it. You're used to being safe, being listened to, and being able to go where you want. If you're not sure you have privilege, or maybe you think all this talk of privilege is bullshit, then chances are you do have it. So here's the challenge of scripture: be subject to one another.

If you don't know where to start, then keep it simple: listen to other people. Listen to their experiences, their concerns, and anything else they want to tell you. Allowing more voices to be heard is a simple and concrete way to relinquish some of your power and be subject to someone else.

That also means you might have to shut yourself up, which we should all do from time to time.

Be subject to someone who otherwise wouldn't have power over you because you might just find yourself closer to the reign of God if you do.

And in the meantime, vote Bartlet 2016.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Playing the Long Game

Do you remember Sawyer in Lost? He was the bad boy hot guy in the show. You were intentionally never quite sure if he was good or bad. I think of him often, mostly for the phrase "long con." He had been a con artist before the island, and the long cons were the ones that really paid off. You built relationships, won trust, waited a lot, and the payoff was months maybe years later. When the payoff came, it was a big one.

While I'm not aiming to be a con artist, I am incredibly intrigued by the idea of a long game.

I readily confess that delayed gratification is not one of my gifts, patience is not one of my virtues, things like that. I've been annoyed by lack of instant downloads of books for nearly ten years. Actually, my list of annoyances stemming from this one larger issue is pretty long, so we'll skip it. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone.

In fact, I'm pretty sure our culture is creating more and more instant gratification expectations every day. One of my friends booked her entire wedding on her phone in under five minutes. It's just how we work now. I can even get most things I need delivered to my house in under two hours if I don't want to leave. Two hours sometimes seems like a very long time. Yes, I'm the reason Amazon is testing drones. We're taught to play the short games.

Faith is about playing the long game. I think that's true no matter what religion you practice, but am certain it's true about Christianity. This is the long game. I'm preaching on Hebrews this week. Every once in a while I decide I'm going to memorize the entire book because it's just that amazing--one of the most eloquent sermons ever. There's more Jesus as sacrifice than I'd like, but I can even deal with that.

My sermons taking a different turn this week, but here's the line I'm not preaching on that I kind of wish I was, "All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them." (Hebrews 11:13) Before and after that sentence, there are descriptions of acts of faith from patriarchs and judges--people whose stories are deeply embedded into the Christian tradition. It's this disturbing and awesome reminder: you might die before this thing you worked for bears fruit.

I've had conversations with plenty of frustrated people about why on earth everything Jesus promised hasn't happened. "It's been two thousand years! How aren't we there yet!" Hearing the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote seems to inspire more doubt than not lately, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Maybe the most frustrating and hopeful confession I make as a pastor and a person of faith is, "I'm playing the long game." We're playing the long game.

Just because something can't be completed today, doesn't mean it doesn't get done. I'll feed this person today, while working toward families being able to afford their basic needs on their own. Or I'll feed this person today, while working toward a less individualized community where we all share needs and resources. I won't sit by and do nothing, but the little something is never the end. The sandwich or the hot shower or the place to sleep is never the end thing.

We're playing the long game. The long game plants seeds and waits. The long game gives water when it's needed. The long game knows that there's another season coming. The long game is sometimes a very long game.

And somehow, the long game is the one that matters even when it's overshadows by the short games in between. We make promises. We stand firm. We do the holy work that so many before us have done. We're playing the long game.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Deborah, HRC, and Women

It is not recorded of Deborah
That she settled down with Barak,
Raised a tribe of Children,
And left off judging Israel. 
                      -Janet Ruth Heller

I always love it when someone finally reads this poem that is hanging on my office wall. It's a large picture, so they miss it only because people tend to walk by these sorts of things. The look after reading it is always enjoyable, whatever it is. 

Even for a Bible nerd like me, the first time I read the poem, it jarred me a little. I'd never considered the fuller story of Deborah, or what did or didn't happen. Her husband is mentioned once in her story, and never again. There's no record of children. Four short lines remind us that Deborah was a badass. Undoubtedly, today, someone would call her a bitch because she'd be too competent, too direct, too powerful for our world to respect her. 

Her story gets two chapters in Judges. She was one of the judges of Israel, the rulers before there were kings. She summoned the general of the army to her office (the tree where she judged) and told him he was to go into battle. The Lord had proclaimed it. He'd only go if she went with him. So she did, telling him that this meant the general whose army would be defeated would be killed by a woman. Israel's general, Barak, is totally good with that plan. So he and Deborah go up to fight, along with the army, and are victorious. The other general flees, finding his way into the tent of a woman named Jael who hammers a tent spike into his skull, killing him. Meanwhile, Deborah and Barak lead the people in a celebration of their victory. 

The number of unnamed women in the Bible is jarring if you read it closely at all. The number who are celebrated because of their role as wife and mother is staggering. The names most people know readily are known because of the sons the gave birth to: Mary, Elizabeth, Hannah. If you're protestant, the honor of the women is diminished even more. For all the accusations of Mariolatry in the Roman Catholic Church that I've heard, there's also great reverence for her. 

I struggle to even name women who were not honored for their children or for being an important man's wife. Most of the women I can think of get only a mention, no long narrative. The two chapters that Deborah receives are astronomical in comparison. I remember Huldah, Miriam, Anna, and Junia readily. I started to type a few more, then remembered the men they were attached to. I can't help but point out that many scholars will fight to the death that Junia was actually a man named Junias, and some translations follow suit. The world would surely crash down if the Bible named a woman as an apostle. 

I could keep going and going, talking about the elimination of women's names and stories from the history of the early church--and the later church and the current church for that matter. I'm sure there have been many books written about it at this point. My own story of sexism in the church is deeply intertwined with my call to ministry. Lest you think being in a tradition that ordains women fixes a lot of those problems (and if you do, then we should probably talk face to face for a few hours), here are just a few of the things that have happened because I'm a woman: I have been hit on by male parishioners; I have been yelled at on a weekly basis by someone in the community who didn't qualify for help; my weight has been brought up in performance reviews; no one assumes I'm the pastor.

For all the institutional sexism of the church, of our Scriptures, of the things we do every day, never doubt that it is only a mirror of our larger culture. In fact, it is a mirror of a larger culture formed by Christianity, and all of our problems are only magnified there. Yesterday, Hillary Clinton became the Democratic presidential nominee, the first woman nominated by a major party. The response is as revolting as much of the rhetoric over the past months during her campaign.

Here's the things: you can dislike her. You can dislike her husband. You can complain about the people funding her campaign. You can use hard facts all you want. You should also consider if you have a problem with her just because she's a woman, or if the media telling you things about her has a problem with her being a strong woman. If a news story has an intentionally unflattering photo of her, that's not facts; that's sexism. If there's any mention of her dress, actually, that's a problem. If you dislike her demeanor, think she's not polite enough, wonder why she said it like that, yeah, it's sexism. If you call her a bitch, you've completely fallen prey to a world that says women should be anything but strong leaders. 

Never forget, though, that if you're Christian, your Scripture devotes more than a few verses to one woman. One. You'd do well to consider how that alone has shaped your world and ours. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Embracing Pokémon Go

Yeah, I had to up my data plan this month thanks to Pokémon Go. That's definitely something I wanted to confess. (Note: sarcasm font. Seriously, why doesn't that exist?) It all started when a young woman from my church popped her head in the door and excitedly told me that the church is a PokéStop. I mean, I pretty much had to download the app so that I could understand what it's all about. Really, it was a pastoral duty. 

I now have eggs hatching in incubators, my Pokémon regularly getting kicked out of gyms, and am still slightly miffed about the critter in my Pokédex that is just an outline. I spotted it, caught it, but then the app froze and I haven't seen it since. (Also, I totally get a life award for self restraint for not typing the previous sentence in all caps.) I know the three areas closest to my house that are teeming with PokéStops and often have lure modules on them. 

If none of that makes sense to you, it's all good. No worries. I promise. In fact, if none of that makes sense to you, sit back, relaxed, and don't get sucked into the black hole of Pokémon Go. But maybe let me know if you suspect there's significant Pokémon activity in your neighborhood. 

I suggested to my evangelism chair the other day that we do something in response to Pokémon Go. (Actually, in my church, we call evangelism "Good News" because evangelism makes us nervous, but that's a whole other conversation.) We couple place lure modules for a couple hours so that the Pokémon hunting is good, offer water, let people use the bathroom, play via wifi, and charge their phones. It's an easy offer to the community that we'll likely make in the next week. 

I don't know that it translates to visitors. If it does, great, if not, ok. You see, this week, I was also at the Prevent Child Abuse Arizona conference. Although my job is not counselor or social worker, sometimes my job is counselor or social worker until I can get someone in need to those people. (I was there as part of my service on a regional council for First Things First.) For all the good takeaways from that conference, the best reminder was that social isolation is dangerous for all age groups. In fact, most abuse happens when people are isolated--both children and adults. The younger the victim, the more they assume that what happens at their home is normal. 

I am convinced that the more we can do to create community, the better off the people around us are. I don't know that Pokémon Go is the answer, but I do know that it helps. Sure, it has its problems, like the fact that people who live in poorer neighborhoods aren't as likely to have easy access to things like Pokéstops. There's the problem of needing a smart phone with a decent amount of data. Still, last night, parks close to my house were teeming with people. There were kids as young as eight or ten all the way up to adults my age, several of whom were pushing strollers, too. Some of the teenage boys who play regularly in one of the parks are very amused by yelling, "Who's here playing Pokémon, say 'Yeah!'" Gradually, they're getting people to respond. 

In general, there's some talking among players. People share power cords and work out who is going to place lure modules to increase the number of Pokémon to catch. Maybe it's the geek in me, but I'm reminded that this is what certain fandoms and pieces of pop culture do: they create community. I mean, there's a person in my neighborhood who has a smart car painted blue and TARDIS painted on it, along with a couple Doctor Who decals in the window. If it wouldn't be super, super creepy, I'd follow them home to see if we could be friends. (Yes, I'm aware it would be super, super creepy and will never, ever do this.) The fact that this is an app played in public means those connections can actually happen. 

Maybe (for once) I'm being overly optimistic. But I am convinced that this is one of those things the church should embrace, play along with, and pray that the community created through this game is life-giving. After all, isn't that part of God's reign? 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Learning Racism

On Facebook the other day, a colleague challenged her friends to name the ways we have been taught racism. It's one of the worst questions I've ever been asked because, well, those are the things we learn without realizing we're learning them. It's strange how childhood memories become marred when you realize the brokenness associated with them.

Still, in the tradition of confessing sins--I sometimes wish my tradition had formal rites of repentance--I'm confessing to you that I am not innocent. I'm formed by and complicit in a system of racism. I have benefited from a racist system in countless ways. And here's how I was taught that system.

I've said this before, but it remains one of the things I just can't get over: when I was a child and misbehaved, my grandfather would tell me he'd go buy him a little nigger girl instead. I was an adult before I realized the implications of that threat. Some days, I still can't believe a man I loved so deeply thought a system where people were merchandise was ok. I didn't realize there was a racial slur thrown in until I was seven or eight. Also, it's fair to remind you that I'm 31 years old. 

When I tried to correct my grandfather one day after using that slur again--probably around seven or eight when I realized what he'd said--my mom quickly shushed me. She was doing my hair at the time, so very quickly, her hand was over my mouth and I got a swat with the hairbrush. I don't remember everything, but I do remember it was a rant about NBA players.

Most of the time, nothing I was taught was so overt.

Because I grew up in a very, very white world, much of the conversation about people with dark skin was in theory. It also meant everyone talked about "they" and "them" because in a world where everyone has light skin, the people who didn't were always other. The veterinarian in town and his wife who ran the office were both African-American. They were respected, trusted, and very light-skinned. I don't know how it would have been if they weren't so needed in that rural community. I was in fifth grade before I saw another child who wasn't white.

Before that, my only other memory of a person of color in my community were missionaries my church supported. I remember being fascinated by how very dark their skin was. I remember struggling to understand their accents. They were from Africa, but I can't tell you where exactly. I remember it was a country that grew cotton. For many years, my mom had some of that cotton in a box. It was as other to me as the people who brought it. Now that I think about it the conversations about they and them stuck with me more than anything.  I remember an uncle sincerely asking, "Do you really think they're like us?"

Occasionally, when I was older, we'd go to Lexington, Kentucky for something. It was not as large or diverse as Louisville, but my sister went to school there. To get to the University of Kentucky, we drove through the housing projects and shabby parts of town that looked like no place I'd ever been.  The people walking on the streets all had dark skin. I certainly didn't want to stay in those homes.

When my best friend and I were watching The Cosby Show or Oprah, as we often did after school when at her house, we had to quickly change the channel when her dad walked in the house.

A coworker of my mom's found out that in the teeny, tiny little town that was the county seat of the rural area there was a street where all the black people lived. I don't remember the street, but I do remember my mom disliking the woman's response that this was racist. After all, this was where they wanted to live. In that era, I doubt there were any housing laws. But in high school, when I was at a small town festival, walking around with a friend, we walked over there to where her family hanging out. When we walked over to that street--the name of which I no longer remember--we crossed the tracks to get there. I'd never seen a family that wasn't white before. Yes, my friend was African-American. At most, I think there were four children of color in my high school. This world was one I didn't know existed. Now, I realize the across the tracks housing was no accident, even if my white mother no longer remembered the reason.

I don't know how I was taught that I should tense up when a black man got on the elevator with me, but I was.

That's pretty much how all of this goes. No one ever sat me down to teach me racism, the way I was taught a million other things. I learned it just the same. I had it reinforced time and time again so that I learned this lesson well. Those lessons didn't stop just because I reached adulthood. I was stopped on a shuttle at my graduate school, the driver asking if I was in the right place. When I looked around, I saw I was the only white person in sight. I was chastised by a friend for getting off a train at the wrong stop; I'd jumped on the wrong line and needed to switch. In the middle of the afternoon, I didn't think twice about getting off and waiting ten minutes for the next train. I stood next to a little old lady for the entire time.

So I confess that I am part of the problem. (It worries me that many people refuse to confess there is a problem.) Can you, too, name some of the ways you were taught racism?

Thursday, June 30, 2016

On Independence Day

I haven't celebrated July 4th in years. Well, not really. I don't begrudge anyone else their hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie, and fireworks. If I had lived closer to family over the last years, things might be different. My mom really does make amazing apple pie. My favorite childhood memories of Independence Day are of sparklers and fireworks at the state park. I still wouldn't mind seeing fireworks, but living in an urban area is actually a great deterrence to attending. Merely the thought of that traffic makes me shudder.

There's a strange sensation inside me as I watch American flags pop up in new places and creep into stores on the strangest of merchandise. A paper plate bearing the flag strikes me as downright offensive, but I think I'm in the minority on that one. Regardless, the overwhelming display of patriotism creates a knot in my stomach.

I've never managed to figure out exactly why. I know part of it is my faith. I'm one of those people who is just fine with being called Christian without any nuance. Sure, you can call me a lot of other things some people prefer like follower of Jesus, or a disciple of Jesus, but I'm good with Christian. That identity also demands my highest loyalty of any other identity. The churches that taught me that are the ones that also have flags in their sanctuaries and said the pledge to the flag before Vacation Bible School each summer. We threw in the pledges to the Bible and the Christian flag, too. We honored veterans and graves in the cemeteries besides the churches had flags, too. Still, somehow they managed to communicate that this was secondary to our faith.

I no longer can imagine doing any of those things in worship. I still remember the horrible feeling when my neighbors in seminary told me that they couldn't go home for the winter break because they were afraid they wouldn't be allowed back in the country. One of them received his student visa only 48 hours before he was supposed to leave for the US. Both men were from Afghanistan, both doctors, both with small children at home, missing their dads for several months. Nine months is an unbelievably long time in the life of a two, three, or four year old. They were earning degrees public health, hoping to building a medical infrastructure upon their return.

My roommate, a German exchange student, often worried about doing anything that might result in deportation. Even then, when I was much less aware about many things racial and political, I assured her, "You're from Germany. Don't kill anyone and you're fine." They were words rooted in an assumption that the US considered Europeans different than many other people. Mostly, though, I remember that the fear among those people from other countries was palpable. It diminished over time, but never completely disappeared. Now, in my church where there are a couple immigrants, a couple kids adopted from other countries, and a Spanish-speaking church meeting in the afternoon, I feel even stranger about the marriage of patriotism and worship. In community, especially Christian community, that community trumps other divides like nationality. It just does.

There's also this sinking feeling I have every time I realize I live in the Empire. Yes, I realize I don't live in an Empire technically, but practically, yes. Biblically, I live in Rome if you're reading the New Testament. There are a list of places that could be named if you're reading the Old Testament, but none of them are portrayed well. If you're a Hunger Games fan, I live in the Capital. The majority of people who read these words live there, actually. Our country's decisions force other countries to react to us. We have a strong military presence the world over, especially in places with resources we need. Civil unrest gets our international aid if we have an interest in that place, especially that place's oil. We use more goods than any other nation and demand that we get them cheaply. Even as I write, I'm wearing a shirt from Old Navy. I shudder to think about the exploitation behind this single piece of clothing. It also takes a deep, deep commitment to buy clothes the don't cause exploitation. It's one of the costs of the system we live in. I shudder a bit more as I think about the high, high price of maintaining an empire.

For all the narrative of "Christian Nation" that happens, we largely ignore the Gospel. Obviously, we're not setting foreign policy based on my faith, but it doesn't stop the conflict within me, especially when Christian and the US get blended so thoroughly. I'm reminded of the parable of the wedding banquet in Luke, when Jesus says that the people who much is given, much will be demanded. I think of the foreign aid we don't give. I think of the citizens we don't take care of. I think of the neighbors I have loved who have lived in fear. I admit, I'm sometimes embarrassed by it all. I also don't know how to fix it, nor am I remotely invested in the US identity of being a Christian nation. Actually, I think that phrase is an oxymoron. It's all sorts of complicated.

So my sermon this Sunday will be on the evils of greed. I don't think anyone would like the sermon very much if I talked about that in relation to Independence Day, even though I could come up with quite a bit to say.  I'll also see Independence Day: Resurgence this weekend, as well, which I'm sure won't feature any crazy displays of patriotism or unnecessary violence. (Where's the sarcasm font?) On Saturday, I'll make a casserole for the homeless people not cared for by their country and on Monday, I'll enjoy a day off. And in between it all, I'll try to live faithfully in hope of the One who makes all things new.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

So, Yeah, About Those Guns

I mostly don't talk about guns in public spaces. I'm one of the people with a strange relationship with guns. There's not one in my house and I fully intend for it to stay that way indefinitely. I might change my rules in some apocalyptic scenario, but I'll worry about that then.

This week, preparing to preach, I've been thinking a lot about security, and what lengths people will go to in hope of preserving their own security. These thoughts about security have come in response to the parable Jesus tells in Luke 12:13-20 about a rich man whose barns are overflowing. They are overflowing so much in fact, that he must build new barns. He imagines he can make himself secure for the future. Those adamantly in support of guns eerily echo his sentiments. This is about me, no one else.

So back to my strange relationship with guns. I grew up with guns. They were kept in closets and behind doors, not safes. I'm pretty sure not one of those guns could be shot more than twice without reloading. My uncle and grandfather would occasionally go out in the backyard and shoot targets. My grandfather would send me back in for more ammunition. I remember the green shells were more powerful than the red ones. They were in the top drawer of the chest in the downstairs bedroom. I still remember the way they felt in my hand.

My uncle liked to 'coon hunt (yes, one only hunts 'coons; raccoons are wonderfully cute but sneaky and mean little creatures). He kept hunting dogs and would take them out at night in pursuit of the 'coons. Another uncle hunted deer and grouse. My dad occasionally fired a shot to scare away deer from our garden, but rarely. The road was too close to do it safely. He's never been a great shot. Now, he owns a pistol to carry with him when he goes back in the hills alone. There's still at least one rifle in the downstairs closet.

I was far, far too young the first time my grandfather put a gun in my hands. It was a single shot pistol that he would later give to my mom for us to keep at the house when we were there alone. By "we" I mean my sister and me. The first time, I was tiny, and shot only at the ground. I never managed to hit the groundhog my grandfather pointed out.

State troopers came and taught gun safety at a day camp when I was around nine years old. We were given BB guns and targets. They were a bit surprised by my marksmanship. Later, we'd have BB guns out in the back yard at my grandparents' house and my best friend's house. We'd set up old pop cans on the fence for shooting. My best friend's dad gave us permission to kill all the starlings we could. We never even tried to kill anything. I also don't remember any adults watching us while we were out with the BB guns, even though we had the metal BBs that can do a reasonable amount of damage.

Gun racks were common on the pickup trucks in my high school parking lot. And when I say gun racks, yes, they had guns in them. Some of the boys went hunting early in the morning before coming to school. They parked in the far parking lot. In later years, there was a lot of discussion around this practice.

Here's the thing that happens when you grow up in that sort of gun and hunting environment: guns are for killing. No one is hiding that fact. No one pretends that isn't the purpose of guns. Pointing a gun at someone or something is never, ever a joke. I've known that as long as I can remember. Guns are powerful. There was pride in the skill of shooting well, especially without all the different tools that facilitate hitting a target. I knew at least one guy who built his own musket and made his own bullets.

With all that history, here's my question: can we admit that this version of owning guns is different from the guy living in downtown Phoenix? Or LA? Or New York? Or any place with a population of half a million or more? Can we admit that there are some guns that are made for the sole purpose of killing people? Can we admit that if a gun isn't legal for hunting, then it only exists to hunt people?

Most of all, can we confess that the majority of the narrative around gun rights isn't Christian? The narrative that we have to protect ourselves demands that we ignore the command to love our neighbor. Jesus will turn your world upside down if you then follow up that command with the question, "Who's my neighbor?" The narrative that guns are good and necessary flies in the face of the promise of the prophets Isaiah and Micah, "He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." Can we profess that the United States Constitution is actually secondary to our faith? Including the second amendment?

Can we confess that God's reign calls us to something different?

So, yeah, about those guns...