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...

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Being Safe

After much deliberation, I called the police and told them what had happened. It wasn't a big deal, all things considered. A guy had called my church, upset that the local meeting of the Democratic Party happens at my church. In his opinion, it violated our 501(c)(3) status. Yeah, it doesn't. I answered his questions, he kept asking the same questions, so I said, "I've answered your questions, sir. I'm hanging up now." 

"You can't hang up on me," he replied. "I'll come take you out." 

Because, well, I'm me, I answered, "Did you just threaten me?" He backed down. 

"No, no. I'll take you out of your job." He apparently doesn't understand church polity very well. We hung up soon after. I used *69 (yes, it still works!), got his number, called the police and gave it to them. I still have great love for the officer who said, "Well, he's getting a talking to." I had no doubt about that woman's ability to carry her weight and then some in a male-dominated profession. 

I let a few church people know what had happened and a few Democratic Party folks know what had happened so they could be prepared should the dude show up at church. That was the end of it. 

It's the only time in my life I've been threatened. I've been uneasy, sure, but never threatened. The worst part of that reality: it's a place of privilege. 

I had the privilege of growing up in a two parent household. Once, I saw my dad pick up a chair to throw at my mom; he threw it at the stove instead. Gently. My dad is 6' 4" and a farmer. If he'd felt like breaking the chair to smithereens that day he could have, no tools required. My mom doesn't even remember this. That's all the violence that ever occurred in my home in the eighteen years I lived there.

I have the privilege of being white. The police respond when I call. When I drove an old pick-up truck, cops would drive on past once they saw who the driver was. I've been questioned in a store once; I was carrying a backpack. It took me a few minutes to realize that the clerks were worried I might be stealing, when they asked me so many times if I needed help.

I have the privilege of being cisgender. Sure, I'm female and that has its own problems. I'm pretty sure people are quicker to help me, though, because I'm female. They carry things for me, and open doors, and while that's it's own kind of sexism, it also means that most every time I ask someone for anything viewed as help, they give it to me. And maybe it's time I stop elaborating and just make a list of the things that give me privilege in society: being straight, being born in the US, speaking English, being Christian, being well-educated, and my income bracket. 

All of those things have nuances of course. A lot of them were things in which I had no choice. The things that are a choice were easier because of the things that weren't. And they all had up to one and only one pretty mild instance of being threatened. They all add up to me always being safe. 

Being safe should not be a sign of privilege. 

Yet, I'm so aware that it is. I knew it before this weekend. Forty-nine people murdered in a nightclub makes it all the more evident. They were forty-nine people who were murdered for being other, by someone who was also other. How long would it take if we talked about all the facets of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, and religion wrapped up in one horrible event? 

I'm in one of the places with terrifying rhetoric about the LGBTQIA community and the Muslim community. One of the preachers claiming the shooting at Pulse was sent from God is right here. (I must say that he is perverting Christianity at every opportunity.) We have English only laws and Joe Arpaio. Just two days ago, I passed a sign in a store window touting their ability to defend themselves, "Nothing inside is worth dying for." There was an image of a human shaped shooting target riddled with bullets to prove their point. What we say about each other and do to each other is terrifying. 

Can't we at least agree that being safe is not a privilege? Even if you find someone deplorable, can you still see that person deserves to be safe? I don't think that's a Christian value or a Muslim value or a Buddhist value. I don't think it's the value of Democrats or Republicans. I think it's the bare minimum expectation of simply being a human walking around on this planet all together. 

For the love of all that is ordinary--going to work, going to sleep, seeing people you love--can't we agree that being safe is not a privilege?

In the meantime, I'll go back to worrying about my friends for whom being safe is a privilege. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Echo Chamber

I've been planning worship over the last few days. A lot of my time has been spent on the story of the Good Samaritan. I now have about a bazillion reasons we shouldn't use that title, but at least when I do, you know the story I'm talking about: a man traveling on a road is robbed and beaten. Two people who should have helped didn't; the unlikely one did.

It's a story of ethnic bias, or religious bias, or some other kind of bias depending on who you ask. When the story was told early on, there was an immediate recognition of the Samaritan as other and as evil. It's the guy in the black hat in a western, the person who shows up after the music in the movie switches to a minor key. It's the person who could never possibly be good.

This morning, as I was reading the news on my phone, as I do many mornings as I wake up, my tiny screen was full of images of Donald Trump. I read one international news source that is held in high regard, one US based liberal-leaning news source, and one sometimes news source geared toward Millennials that, well, also includes a fair amount of cat videos and tips on adulting. There is some balance in the sources I read and intentionally so. There are four more online magazines and news sources I check regularly in addition to the ones on my apps. Trump's face was featured prominently by all of them.

I understand a presidential election is a big deal, especially when it's in this country. Like it or not, what happens in our election season can affect the world. Empire, though, is reserved for another day, much like my personal opinions on Trump.

Here's what the story of the Good Samaritan makes me wonder: what has to happen for someone to become a cultural symbol? Think about that. I can tell you the historical differences between Jews and Samaritans. Primarily, it's a disagreement about scripture and where to worship. But what has to happen to create an agreed up assumption that this is true about a particular person or group of people?

It doesn't happen overnight. For most things, there's no single answer why certain views are held. It's an entire system, usually with decades if not centuries of build-up to get there. The Samaritan certainly didn't start out as evil; a few centuries of Christian tradition turned him into undeniably Good. He's so good, in fact, that Google suggests it and Microsoft Words autocorrects to capitalize both those words.

Plenty of people are willing to blame the liberal media for things and plenty more are willing to blame the conservative media for things, especially when it comes to our biases and what we think about things. We're not as good at recognizing how we are compliant with the system. We forget how good we are at just listening to the echoes in the chambers--maybe even the echoes we like to hear.

Of all the things that bother me about Trump filling my screen, what bothers me most is what isn't filling my screen. What things are being ignored in the interest of echoing just a few things? I'm pretty convinced the presidential election isn't the only important thing going on right now. I can't help but think that this sort of intense focus on something significantly contributes to what we view as good and bad.

As people of faith, we might just be called to step outside that echo chamber.