Archive for December, 2012

“Our Hearts Are Broken”–Enough to Take “Meaningful Action”?

We watched the developing story, refusing to believe and unable to turn away. A gunman had invaded a Connecticut  elementary school and killed twenty six-and-seven-year-old first-graders and six adults. Earlier that morning the alleged shooter, twenty-year-old Adam Lanza, had killed his mother, with whom he had lived. Finally he shot himself.We saw the President speak, wiping away tears, struggling to remain composed. “Our hearts are broken,” he said. We saw interviews with experts, first responders, clergy, teachers, assorted officials–and parents. Those parents resolved to hug their children a little tighter when they tucked them in bed–even the big ones who tuck themselves in.

Our hearts are broken at the thought of 28 people dying senselessly. Our hearts are broken for those families in their overwhelming grief. Our hearts are broken for that school that lost 5% of its student body in mere minutes. Our hearts are broken for parents everywhere who will not feel completely safe sending their children off to schoool on Monday (or ever?), and for children who now have one less “safe place” to go.

Our hearts are broken. So is the heart of God. What do you say to those families who had lost someone at Sandy Hook Elementary? “There are no words,” most television coverage concluded. Our simple presence speaks volumes. Quietly sitting with someone, helping out in simple ways, listening when someone wants to talk–or cry. If I were in that situation, I’d want them to know–with presence first, with words when the time was right–that God shares their hurt more deeply than they know. God shares the hurt of each of us and all of us who grieve this tragedy. If Christmas means anything, it means that in Christ God has entered our life more fully than we can comprehend in order to share the fullness of human life.

President Obama didn’t stop at “Our hearts are broken”. He said the time has come for “meaningful action” to stop this cycle of violence.  Our first “meaningful action”, of course, is to comfort those who grieve. The Newtown community needs time and space for memorial services and other ways to grieve its loss. We don’t need a lot of political jousting while that happens.

Another meaningful action I urge you to take is to counter a hurtful message being spread by some alleged Christians. Conservative broadcaster Bryan Fischer and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have both linked the shooting to the removal of prayer from public schools.  Fischer says, “We’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen [sic].” Huckabee claims that we have “systematically removed God” from public schools and shouldn’t be surprised at the results.

THEY’RE SO WRONG I’M ABOUT TO RANT AGAIN! The God we know in Jesus isn’t sitting on the sidelines pouting because Fischer’s hyper-narrow view isn’t the only game in town. The God we know in Jesus didn’t orchestrate this and other mass killings as a wakeup call for a nation that’s moved beyond Governor Huckabee’s “good old days”. Huckabee’s God is as unspeakably cruel as the mass shooters. Fischer’s God is a big passive-agressive baby. Neither reflect the God we know in Jesus. Please use every opportunity to offer a different perspective if this comes up in a conversation you’re part of. Butt in if the conversation’s going on and you’re not part of it. This poison cannot go unchallenged. I’m positive God’s heart breaks when those who claim to know and love him take his name in vain this way and distort his purposes so blatantly.

I believe the climate of violence in our culture breaks God’s heart over and over. Gun regulation is one piece of the puzzle. Can we now finally have an honest, civil, beyond-politics conversation? Can we admit that the Second Amendment’s vision of keeping muskets in citizens’ hands in order to provide for “a well-regulated militia” no longer applies–and move on? Can we involve some gun-owning and non-gun-owning parents and grandparents of first-graders? How about some NRA members in that category?

The climate of violence in our culture goes far beyond the gun store, of course. It includes video games, movies and television, boxing and its wrestling/martial-arts hybrid cousins, and the toys we buy our children for Christmas. It includes every situation in which force is the preferred method of problem-solving, from families to foreign policy. Legislation has limited effectiveness here. Schools, religious groups, and every organization that works with families can be extremely effective if they have the will, the courage, and the love to address this complex issue.

Let us also address mental health issues. Adam Lanza apparently had mental health issues, as have many other mass shooters. Is it possible to be mentally healthy and do such a thing?? Progress will require creative public-private partnerships. How about starting by giving mental health services and research enough money to do something meaningful? The field’s been cut repeatedly in most jurisdictions. If we can send people to the moon, we can surely figure out ways to prevent mass shootings by identifying and preventively treating those who show warning signs of this behavior.

Our hearts are broken by the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. So is the heart of God. It’s enough for now to comfort one another and to prepare our hearts to welcome “Emmanuel”–God-with-us who comes to us even where we think we’re beyond God’s reach. Let us invite God’s powerful Spirit to empower us for action to heal the brokenness in Sandy Hook and in our nation. Let that powerful Spirit inspire and empower “meaningful action” in our families, our communities, our churches, our schools, and in government.

Are our hearts broken enough to take meaningful action? Time will tell.

A RANT ON THE THEME: “DOES THE CHURCH STILL SEND MISSIONARIES?”

A benevolent wrinkle in cyberspace provides me with the ELCA Gulf Coast Synod’s “Connections”. I receive about a half-dozen specialized mini-newsletters each month. I love seeing how different Christian “tribes” do church. The latest newsletters included an article entitled “Does the Church Still Send Missionaries?”  Peggy Zahn, author of the article and Assistant to the Bishop, must have heard the question one time too many. Well-meaning church folks wanted to know if the church still sends missionaries “out there” [beyond our comfort zone, where “our kind” dare not go, to lands teeming with “those people” living out their miserable existence].Peggy’s informative article clearly explained how ELCA missionaries work in partnership with nationals in various countries, and how they connect and engage churches in the synod with ministries all over the world.

But the title pushed my buttons—hard! I am not typically a ranter, but this theme deserves a rant. “DOES THE CHURCH STILL SEND MISSIONARIES???” ( ALL-CAPS is like yelling on the web, in case you didn’t know.) The question perfectly diagnoses the church’s sickness-unto-death. Decades after Ken Callahan, Bill Easum, and many others began urging  us to wake up and face post-Christendom reality, we still prefer to hit the snooze button and burrow deeper under the covers. I am aware of some courageous exceptions, but I know too many Christians and churches that still refuse to confront this disturbing (for some) new world. The church has been squeezed out of the center to the margins of society. While we still send missionaries “out there”, the inescapable new reality is that we live on the mission field–all of us. Our culture contains a rich and sometimes confusing mix of different languages and dialects (e.g. rap/hiphop, Spanglish, etc.), cultures, and belief systems. Christian missionaries have faced these challenges since the first century—and now it’s our turn.

Tragically, too many Christians and churches are still singing, “La-la-la I can’t hear you!” with their fingers in their ears.[Again,I’m thankful for notable, hopeful exceptions. Let the exceptions become the rule!] Too often we try to get by with cosmetic changes that upset no-one–and make no real difference. Or we seek to become more “welcoming”—in other words, fine-tune our sales and marketing.  Some brave folks make more substantial adjustments in worship style, Sunday schedule, etc.—with far more roaring and screaming from “the saints” than the changes warrant. They (we) talk a good game about wanting to reach out to new people. But they (we) still believe in our  heart of hearts that taking care of church members matters more than building relationships with “outsiders” . You can check this out in your own situation. Take a look at your church’s and pastor’s calendars. Look at your church’s finances—not that idealistic dream budget but where the money actually goes.  If I were a gambler, I’d lay very attractive odds that the bulk of both time and money are spent on members and maintenance. To the extent that’s true, we are not “missional” churches and people, no matter what our strategic plans say.

“Does the church still send missionaries?”  Some churches have a slogan above the door through which most people leave the sanctuary: “You are now entering the mission field.” The church sends missionaries into the world every time the benediction is pronounced and we head for the door!  Wherever we live our lives is the mission field where God has sent us to serve alongside his Risen Son. (“Missionaries” are the “sent” ones.) We proclaim the Gospel or deny it in every personal interaction, both face-to-face and electronic. Sometimes we use traditional religious language. Always the spirit and tone of our presence either proclaim Jesus or deny him.

None of this is new stuff. And none of it is rocket science. So why am I moved to rant? BECAUSE NOBODY’S PAYING ATTENTION! NOBODY’S DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT! (BOLD CAPS IS BEYOND YELLING.)  Again, I’m thankful for notable and hopeful exceptions I see. Bishop Mike Rinehart of that Gulf Coast ELCA Synod writes about “Rethinking Everything”. The article is a progress report on the Synod’s Strategic Plan. Why a new Strategic Plan? “It would be so much easier to just keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them,” Rinehart writes, “but that was not getting us where we needed to go…We are swimming upstream against a cultural current of secularism and declining confidence in the church as an institution.” In other words, Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more! We can’t control external circumstances. But we can choose our response. We can whine and complain forever. We can demand and even pray for the return of the “good old days”. Or we can accept the fact that the world has changed and the church must respond to that change in order to accomplish our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.

What determines our choice? It’s not rocket science.  Effective missional change will not happen in us and in our churches until  nothing matters more than loving our neighbors as much as God in Christ loves us. Other loves have gotten in the way. Let’s be completely honest, we’re talking about idols. We love ourselves and our religious comfort zone more than we love our neighbors who are starving for love. We love “the way we’ve always done it” more than we love our neighbors for whom Christ died. We love stable, convenient familiarity more than the wondrously messy transformation the bible calls “new birth” (1 Peter 1:3).

Speaking of stables and birth—Christmas is the story of God’s missionary journey to an obscure corner of an obscure planet in an obscure corner of Creation. In Jesus God came and entered fully into human life—our life. “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 The Message) Bishop Rinehart describes his vision of “…re-rooting congregations in their communities. We simply cannot serve or evangelize communities we do not know, and with whom we are not deeply engaged.” How can we as disciples, how can our churches (at least a pilot group initially) “re-root” ourselves and become “deeply engaged” as God became “deeply engaged” with us in Christ? How can we get to “nothing matters more than loving our neighbors as much as God in Christ loves us”?

     End of Rant

“How Long Can You Tread Water?” (Corrected)

(The original post referred to Bill Cosby as “late”. Thankfully, I was reminded that he’s old but still very much alive and therefore no more “late” than any of the rest of us. Maybe I’ll make it up by writing about Cosby soon. If you’re young enough to have missed him in his prime, I encourage you to check him out on YouTube or other sources.)

 

Sixteen days ago Dianna and I arrived back in the US after our trip-of-a-lifetime visit to China. Walking through LAX, I turned on my cell phone and found two messages. One was a voicemail from a sheriff’s deputy about “a water issue” in our home in Arizona. The other was a text message from our daughter in Las Vegas: “Everybody’s fine, everything’s OK. Call me as soon as possible.” I flash-prayed that both messages addressed the same disaster. They did. A hard freeze had hit Northern Arizona on Veterans’ Day weekend. A water line had broken and sprayed water all over the attic. The water drained down through the ceiling into the main part of the house, down the stairs into the basement, and through the top floor onto the basement ceiling which mostly collapsed. A neighbor saw water running out the door of the walkout basement and called the sheriff. He entered the house, discovered The Flood, and found our daughter’s phone number on the refrigerator. When Karin (our youngest) heard about the “water issue”, she called her big brother Paul (our oldest). He and his wife Paula fiercely threatened their teenagers regarding any inappropriate behavior during their absence, then drove the 250 miles from their home to ours. They found the “water issue’s” super-soggy mess. More important, they found our insurance papers, called our agent, and got the cleanup process started. Paul and Paula boxed up “anything that looked important” in terms of papers and files, as well as winter clothes (for the season that’s taking its sweet time to arrive this year). Our kids decided not to call us in China and ruin the trip, since we couldn’t have done anything anyway. We have great kids—including our other son David who stayed warm and dry in his home in Maine!

When we stepped off the plane (midway through our 40-hour Saturday that began in Shanghai), it was time to deal with The Flood. Monday morning we saw our home for the first time. Nobody had exaggerated.  While clearly of sub-biblical proportions, The Flood was still very bad. Every room of our large house except our bedroom suffered major damage. We met with the three(!) insurance adjusters and the cleanup crew (very caring and professional). We began learning the rules of the insurance system that has suddenly become our new reality. We discovered that we’d be out of the house up to SIX MONTHS during reconstruction. We’d been talking about remodeling and clearing out clutter, but not this way!

Somewhere in this nightmare I began hearing a voice in my head. (Yes, it’s enough to make you crazy, but this was memory, not mental illness!) I heard the great Bill Cosby’s classic “Noah” routine. The only explanation Noah  offers his curious neighbors for the boat in his front yard is, “How long can you tread water?” Later, when the project gets too hard and Noah complains, the exasperated LORD rumbles, “Noah—How long can you tread water?”

That’s what we’re doing these days—treading water. Not literally, thank God. But spiritually and emotionally we’re just trying to stay afloat. Everything’s harder. Everything takes longer. Daily routines are disrupted.  We’re learning how to do things without most of our useful, familiar, comfortable stuff. Best case, it’s in one of three large storage containers in our yard. Worst case, it was ruined and tossed in the dumpster. We’ve gone from a couple of nights with generous church friends to staying with our kids (which we’d planned to do at Thanksgiving anyway) to a few nights in a motel and now a rented home about 3 miles from the site of The Flood. We’re grateful for both good friends and good insurance! Two weeks after our return, we had our first home-cooked meals in the place that we’ll call home for a while. Maybe we’ll call this place “The Ark”!

“How long can you tread water?” Not very long all alone with no land in sight. But as long as we need to “with a little help from our friends”. We’re aware of lots of people in lots of places praying with and for us. We’ve heard from friends who had a similar experience recently. As I mentioned, some generous church friends contacted us as soon as they heard of our situation and invited us to stay with them. Their hospitality was helpful and greatly appreciated. They also let us stash stuff at their place. When we moved into our rental this week, the “muscle” from Chino Valley UMC–the guys who move chairs and tables and do most of the hard work–showed up to do an all-day job in a couple of hours.

Our other church family–Green Valley UMC, our daughter and son-in-law’s church in So. Nevada–helped more than they know just by being themselves and doing what they do. We left Southern California  early on Sunday morning after our return to see and thank our children in Las Vegas. “I need to go to church today,” Dianna said. We drove straight to the church. We found what we needed. We were cared for and healed. (Not fed. I have a problem with folks going to church to be “fed”, but that’s a separate issue.) The next Sunday, after Thanksgiving with our family, we were back because we both needed and wanted to be there. Green Valley UMC consistently provides focused, creative, thoughtful, welcoming worship. They know folks come every week in the midst of living through all sorts of issues—even treading water! We’re grateful for their ministry.

I told someone God’s sense of humor is absolutely out of control this time. Dianna and I don’t believe God burst that pipe in our attic. We do, however, believe Paul’s wisdom in Romans 8:28 (CEV): “We know that God is always at work for the good of everyone who loves him.” I’ll keep you informed as we discover the ways that happens for us. Consider this post the first in an intermittent series. Perhaps we’ll call it “Flood Journal”—or maybe “Treading Water”.


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