Archive for the 'Tragedy' Category

RESPONSE TO ROSEBURG–PEACE-FULL ACTION

Last Thursday shock and horror at 2015’s forty-fifth school shooting shook our nation. That’s a horrific pace of more than one a week. “Prayers for Oregon” memes flooded Facebook. A visibly shaken and angry President Obama spoke to the press and the nation about our collective failure to take meaningful action to stop this deadly trend. Self-interested parties on all sides immediately restated their long-held polarized positions. Mr. Obama’s sentiments echoed the many spiritual leaders who called challenged us to move beyond prayer to action. Sixteen years after Columbine, ten years after Red Lake, eight years after Virginia Tech, the millions of words we’ve thrown at the issue as we’ve talked around and past each other have failed to prevent 142 school shootings since Sandy Hook.          blessed-are-the-peacemakers_t_nv

Yes, for God’s sake and the sake of potential future shooting victims, let’s move beyond prayer to action. “Beyond prayer” doesn’t mean not praying. For me it means maximizing the synergy of active prayer and prayerful action. Prayer informs, shapes, and fuels our action. Action drives us deeper into prayer as we seek God’s will while we are active in many different ways and settings. A colleague of mine shared this prayer on her Facebook page: God of love, you give us minds to think, hearts to love, and a soul which longs to know you. Help us listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen. (Rev. Sharon Ragland, 10/3/15) 

Beyond prayer to action—what action? Let us who claim to follow the Prince of Peace covenant together to return to our roots as a peace-full people. Let us take seriously Jesus’ call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), to love our enemies, (Matthew 5:44-45), to choose reconciliation and restoration over retribution (Matthew 5:17-48). Let us grow together into a peace-full people marked by peace-full words, deeds, thoughts, and prayer. We talk constantly about personal “peace with God” and “peace of mind”. But we haven’t learned (been willing to learn? been taught?) a robust biblical understanding of Shalom that embraces all human activity and indeed the whole creation. Peace-full people refuse to isolate personal “peace with God” from God’s continuing mission to bring peace and wholeness to all Creation. As long as any of God’s precious children are caught up in chaos and violence, my personal peace as a follower of Jesus, a peace-maker, is disturbed.

The Hebrew word “Shalom” is frequently translated as “peace”. But the word’s complex meanings include “peace”, “soundness”, prosperity”, “wholeness”, and more. Eirene” is the predominant Greek word for “peace” in the New Testament. It carries Shalom’s richness and enriches it further with insights like this: “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.” (Ephesians 2:14-16 CEB) Yes, the passage speaks about the Christian community. But that process of reconciling a broken human family is God’s mission for the Church and God’s dream for all humankind (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

Peace-full action by a peace-full people involves (re)discovering and (re)committing to peacemaking and “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). What a stark (and welcome) contrast to “…the violence which permeates our culture…”! United Methodist Bishop Robert Hoshibata wrote to members of our Desert Southwest Annual Conference shortly after the Roseburg shooting. One of his suggested steps “beyond prayer” was Bible Study. He lifted up a three-session study, “Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities”. Of course three sessions are just enough to start the conversation. But no journey begins without that first step. Let us also rediscover the peacemaking tradition in Christianity. It includes early Christians who found service in the Roman army incompatible with their faith; historic peace churches like the Mennonites and Quakers, and more contemporary advocates of nonviolence including Thomas Merton. Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and many more. Let us reclaim our fundamental identity as peacemakers and reconcilers in the Spirit of Jesus. We will experience invaluable “on-the-job training” as we share deeply-held convictions, seek common ground and shared truth, and struggle to understand and love brothers and sisters with whom we disagree passionately.

Our beginning conversations about how we follow Jesus as peacemakers in this society will lead us into deeper dialog regarding our attitudes toward war and the military; the depiction of guns and violence in contemporary culture; about whether allowing our children playing video games (or watching us play) where the object is to kill a human being (even a cartoon) is compatible with becoming peace-full people; about capital punishment and prison reform; about how we live peacefully in our congregations with diverse and sometimes polarized opinions; and much more.

Bishop Hoshibata’s letter quoted the hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory:

“Cure thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to thy control;

Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul…”

Bishop Bob (as he invites us to call him) stopped there, but I’m sure he’d support adding the final verse:

“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.

Let the search for thy salvation be our glory evermore.

 Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore,

Serving thee whom we adore.”

May Harry Emerson Fosdick’s words open us to “…listen to your voice in addressing the violence which permeates our culture, and give us the strength and will to do what you ask of us, to bring hope and healing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

 

 

“Look for the Helpers”

This morning, the day after the Boston Marathon bombing, I heard a television personality ask the question on every parent’s mind: “What do we tell the children?” I don’t know a better answer than these words from the wise and beloved Mr. Rogers“…”Look for the helpers.”  We saw them in the first shocking seconds of video–police and other first responders in their neon-green vests running toward the explosion victims; a race official running to help a runner knocked down by the blast’s shock wave; ordinary folks doing whatever they could to help the injured around them.

Inspiring and encouraging stories of “helpers” continue to emerge from Boston. A recently-returned soldier used his combat experience to move the people around him toward safety and help them stay calm. An emergency room doctor who’d come to support his marathon-running friend sprang into action helping the injured around him. Runners ran beyond the finish line to the nearest hospital to offer blood donations and other support. Emergency room personnel treated to-MISTER-ROGERS-HELPERS-QUOTE-570he 150+ injured with the skill and compassion they bring to work every single day. Leaders of many faith traditions offered resources and facilities to support the victims and their loved ones.

“Look for the helpers,” Mrs. Rogers told young Fred—and all of us. That’s Easter faith! It doesn’t deny the reality of evil. Bad things happen–to the good, the bad, and the average. Eight-year-old boys like Martin Richard run to congratulate their marathon-running fathers and a bomb blast snuffs out their lives. Friends come to watch friends run and a terror attack obliterates their legs. Bad things happen and the power of good (the power of God!) replies, “Death is strong, but Life is stronger. Life, not death, is the last Word!” I’ve just seen an interview with long-time Boston reporter Mike Barnicle (yes, that’s the correct spelling). He talked about the resilience of Bostonians. Many who witnessed the event, Barnicle said,  will retain more than the image of the bomb blast’s carnage and chaos. They will hold in their minds what he called “a freeze-frame of strangers helping strangers…” Don’t ignore the chaos and tragedy. It’s real. Do “Look for the helpers”. They’re equally real  signs of God’s presence and power.

Bill Richard, Martin’s father, may not be ready to hear that yet. He not only lost his eight-year-old son. Both his wife and daughter were also severely injured. This evening (Tuesday) he released a statement asking for patience, prayer, and privacy for himself and his family. I suspect that the helpers are already beginning to make themselves available. The most effective ones will be quietly present but willing to give him plenty of space, sensitively and unobtrusively helpful, and fiercely protective of the Richard family’s privacy. Those helpers may be friends, family, hopefully their faith community. They will be there when the family is able to recognize and receive their help.

Tragedies like Boston drive many to seek God more urgently. Numerous vigils and prayer services are being held or planned by various faiths. United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar invited New England United Methodists to pray with him, “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble.” (Ps.46:1). The Rev. LaTrelle Miller Easterling, Superintendent of the UMC’s Metro Boston Hope District, reminded the people she serves that “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:8)

Sometimes when we “look for the helpers” we see—ourselves. Hundreds of folks have had that experience in the early aftermath of the Boston attack. It will happen often as the injured make the long journey toward wholeness. It will happen as the whole community mourns its losses and moves toward healing. Some of the best “helpers” are those who have suffered themselves. Most “support groups” simply share the wisdom of those who are at various stages of dealing with grief, addiction, weight loss, or some other issue. Those who found helpers when they looked, or perhaps when they thought they were beyond help, have healed enough to become helpers available to share someone else’s struggle. Your best credentials for being the “helper” I need are your own battle scars from a struggle like the one I’m going through right now.

Have I wandered long way from “What do we tell the children?” The link at the beginning of this post leads to some good wisdom about helping your children deal with tragedies like Boston and Newtown. You might even find yourself talking about how each of us can be a helper for others. We more mature children of God can reflect on the two-sided message of Mrs. Rogers’ wisdom for Freddie and all of us. 1) “Look for the helpers” because their presence is a sign of God’s presence with us in a scary time. Look to other people and look deep into the resources of your faith. 2) Expect to find yourself called to be that “helper” for someone within your reach. You’ll be the one in just the right place at just the right time with just the right help for the person who’s “looking for the helpers” with no real hope of finding them.

“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.

Giving God the Silent Treatment

Recently I asked for feedback about topics I wanted to address in this space. My firend Lois spoke up first. She wanted to hear abou the woman who prayed her way through a tough time. Actually, she wanted to hear how little I knew about how a woman prayed. But I don’t presume to know how a woman, or any person, prays beyond what they share publicly.

In fact, I don’t claim any special knowledge of the workings of the female species. If I claimed any expertise in the field of Mars-Venus relations, I might point to nearly 45 years of marriage to the same woman. But my greatest learning from this lifetime of experience has been this–Any man who claims authoritative knowledge in this field simply doesn’t know what he doesn’t know!

Now about this woman who gave God the silent treatment: Celeste Peterson’s daughter Erin was one of 32 people killed in the April 16. 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University. Losing one’s child is always excruciatingly painful. Having it happen because of such senseless violence must be nearly unbearable.

That unbearable pain struck Celeste Peterson and her husband on April 16, 2007. They were solid, well-grounded lifetime Christians. Erin had caught their contagious faith at an early age and continued to mature in Christ. When she went off to college, Mom and Dad watched and prayed eagerly to see what God would do in their daughter’s life–until it ended suddenly and tragically.

Celeste’s honest and frequent conversation with God shriveled to grudging acknowledgment of God’s presence: “Thank you for this day. I’m not talking to you. Amen.” We talk about experiencing the silence of God in our prayer life. But Celeste says, “I know you’re there–and I’m not talking to you.” She turned the tables. It’s God’s turn to wait on her silence. The Good News is that God waits as long as necessary.

One day the Silent Treatment ended. Celeste was ready to talk. No, I don’t know how long it took. Celeste says that when she reopened divine-human relations, “I never felt like I had missed a beat. He knew how I was feeling at the time.” God’s first words weren’t “It’s about time, young lady” or “How do you think I feel being ignored?” God said simply, “Welcome back. I’ve missed our talks.” Recently we visited with friends we hadn’t seen in years. We were able to pick up right where we’d left off. We were immediately comfortable with each other. What a great gift! Celeste’s experience suggests that such a welcome waits for all of God’s estranged friends.

“I told [God] that I thought he left me high and dry,” Celeste says, “And he told me that he had a plan.” Gotta love these two friends’ honesty! I doubt that God offered an explanation for the tragedy. We wouldn’t understand this side of heaven. I don’t think the “plan” God had was a detailed blueprint going back to the beginning of time. I suspect the plan was more like, “Yes, what happened to your daughter and all those other people was an unspeakable tragedy. But human freedom is also part of my plan. Now, use your freedom to work with me and we’ll bring great good out of this terrible event.”

That’s God’s Godness. God’s power brings great good out of monstrous evil–a way where there is no way; light in the darkness; life out of death. God’s plan included Erin’s parents forming the Erin Peterson Fund. This non-profit organization provides college scholarships to deserving high school students. God’s plan included the “jubilant gospel concert” the Petersons and their church held on the first anniversary of the shooting and every year since. The concert celebrates Erin’s life and her commitment to helping others. The plan also includes the Petersons’ active involvement in the community of those impacted by the Virginia Tech shooting. Their hopeful presence must have opened up some dialog, perhaps even helped some folks resume–or begin–conversations with God.

Sometimes life hits us so hard that we don’t want to talk–to God or anyone else. Just this morning I heard that a friend may have fallen into that category. When it happens–not “if”, but “when”–go ahead and give God the silent treatment if that’s where you are. Know that God waits with us through our silence and waits for us on the other side of our silence. Know that all God asks is that we be ourselves–the ones God already knows and loves more than we comprehend.

But don’t think that’s the end of it. God waits with you through the silence. God has much more for you on the other side of your silence. Expect God to take the worst moments in life and bring out of them more good than we dare to imagine.

 


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