What are you hearing about gun violence?

Gun

How many different messages have you heard about violence since the Las Vegas massacre? In particular, what have you heard from the pulpit about our latest mass murder?

Did the leader of your faith community talk about the deep darkness in our society? Or, did they say nothing? Did you hear prophetic words about how we need to heal and change? Or were the words limited to a generic prayer and nothing more?

There is something terribly wrong in our society. If our religious leaders won’t find words to address it beyond superficial sentiment, then they – and we — are contributing to the sickness. We need to hold them accountable.

We have a divided, violent, gun-soaked society. We can’t seem to disagree without being disagreeable. Our streets and offices and churches and nightclubs and public squares get spattered with more blood every day. More graves are dug every day.

We must talk about all of this. And the pulpit must be an important part of it.

The conversation isn’t just about guns, although that’s certainly a huge part of it. We need to look at the bigger picture of how we’ve made violence our norm, how we endorse and encourage it in so many ways.

We must talk about all this

Our children shoot imaginary people in video games, treating killing as entertainment. We normalize violence through our television shows, our movies, our monuments. We sell guns as the solution – we need more “good people” with greater firepower and better aim.

Forget about God’s everlasting presence; in guns we trust.

We applaud warriors and dismiss peacemakers as out-of-touch dreamers. We conclude that the one with the most bullets and bombs gets their way, so we spend mountains of money making more of them.

We’ve reached the point where we can’t send a loved one to school, to church, to work, to a mall, to a nightclub, to a concert without concern that they could get gunned down by a deranged person with weapons.

Even many “religious” people advocate for “holy” war to eradicate perceived enemies, even though war is always the ultimate blasphemy.

How did we get so lost? How do we find our way?

We need prophets like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who forced us to confront the ways we glorify guns and violence and thus create a “morally inclement climate” in our culture. He challenged the many religious leaders who refused to speak up.

For too long, a lot of religious leaders have shied away from prophetically challenging their communities. Some have done it, and we applaud them. But many others look the other way when it comes to our culture of violence. Why is that?

They’ll speak out on other issues. They’ll campaign to protect life in some forms. They’ll lobby for religious rights. But they won’t give the same attention to the lives extinguished and the rights erased by one pull of the trigger.

Healing wounds, not wielding weapons

While the pulpit is a good starting point, we all need to be promoting this conversation. We need to say in as many places and as many ways as we can: This must change. We must put away our weapons, stop glamorizing violence, and give up our infatuation with conflict.

If we don’t say it, then our faith is nothing more than noise.

Jesus lived in times that were soaked in violence, weapons and conflict. Romans killed for domination and pleasure. Crucifixion was commonplace. The religiously observant also advocated violence – death by stoning for breaking certain rules.

Jesus told everyone to drop their stones, put away their swords, resist the temptation to treat anyone as an enemy. Those who live in his spirit use their hands to heal wounds, not to wield weapons. We need to hear that message again and again, even though it’s widely unpopular in our violence-addicted culture.

Are you hearing that message in your faith community? If not, this is a good time to ask why not. And to spread the message yourself in every way you can.

Hashtags and prayers are only the beginning

Bullet

The achingly-familiar reaction started before we knew all that had happened. Posts on social media encouraged us to pray for Las Vegas. Tweets sent #prayers to the victims and their families.

It’s all so unacceptably familiar.

Columbine. Aurora. Fort Hood. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. San Bernardino. Orlando. Las Vegas. What place will be next?

We see the horrifying images that remind us of the horrifying images from the countless other shootings — different place, different massacre, same sick feeling. We dust off our “Pray for the people of (fill in the blank)” and hashtag a prayer their way.

And then we do nothing to prevent it from happening again. Which means we’re really not praying at all.

It’s not enough to mourn the victims of gun violence, say a prayer, and move on. That’s not how prayer works. Prayer always involves an openness to be God’s answer in changing the status quo.

Prayer always involves change

What are we going to do about it? Will we work to change our society’s embrace of guns and violence? Or will we do nothing and simply wait for the next, even worse massacre?

This is on you and me.

The words of a prayer are only a starting point. Those words can be empty, or they can become the most powerful thing in the world. It depends upon whether we’re willing to become the answer.

Prayer always involves change — change in us and in our world. It always involves taking a risk, which is why prayer is such radical stuff at its core.

Prayer is more than a request; it’s a commitment. If we’re not willing to engage ourselves and our world in a challenge to do better, then we’re the ones falling down on the job.  Saying a prayer and moving on is never sufficient.

Prayer is powerful and personal and always involves a response on our part.

That’s how prayer works

We pray for the person who is hungry, and then we feed them. We pray for the person who is bleeding by the side of the road, and then we help them. We work to change our systems so that we have fewer people hungry and fewer people bleeding in our streets and in our schools and in our churches and in our nightclubs and in our music festivals.

Look, we have a pretty good idea of what God is waiting on us to do. What parent wants their children murdering each other daily? It’s up to us to change it.

We don’t do that by accepting violence and clinging to our weapons. Nor do we do it by defending the status quo. Or by being indifferent. Or by throwing up our hands and saying the problem is too big.

And it sure doesn’t mean waiting for God to wave some magic wand to make it all go away. That’s not the way it works. We created the problem; God has already given us all that we need to fix it.

You’ve prayed for peace and healing? Good! Now start working for it.

This is on you and me.

Instruments of change

Yes, advocating for peace is exasperating and makes us vulnerable, but that’s how it works. We have to be patient and persistent. Love is patient and persistent. We have to have the audacity to respond to hatred and fear with an unflinching love that heals and shows a different way.

All of those prayers in the past two days? We’ve already received our answer: God wants to use us as instruments of change.

We make the guns. We glorify the violence. We accept the status quo. It’s on us to fix this. God is with us and has given us all that we need. The rest is up to you and me.

Time to get off our butts and do it. Time to get off our hashtags and start praying for real.

What’s your recurring bad dream?

Fears

Gloria and I were eating at a cafe by the side of the trail, enjoying a warm September evening after a bike ride. Our server was a young man named Phillip, a recent college graduate who is adjusting to his new phase in life — and new nightmares, too.

“I’ve started dreaming that I’m headed to class, but I don’t know which class or where it is,” he said. “I’m lost.”

We laughed with him and reassured him that’s a universal dream that stubbornly refuses to go away long after you’ve left school. It spans generations and haunts our sleep.

And not just school dreams.

A minister friend recently posted on Facebook that one of his recurring dreams for many years had him standing in front of a congregation with no sermon prepared. When I started as a sports writer, I’d dream that I was covering a game which just ended, and I didn’t know what had happened so I had no idea what to write.

It’s funny how so many of those dreams involve being lost or unprepared.

I’ve had other types of bad dreams.

When I was a boy, I’d dream that something was chasing me and I couldn’t run – my legs wouldn’t move. Or I’d dream about falling from a great height. When I got older and started flying as part of my job, I’d dream that I was on a jet coming in too low for landing, darting between narrow buildings.

The scary things that chased me never caught me, the plane never crashed, but the dreams left me unsettled when I woke up.

Our subconscious fears don’t stay locked away at night. They find the key to the cell door and escape. We get visited by ghosts of things that we regret from the past, fear in the present and worry about in the future.

Universal fears come out at night

Sometimes, we think that we’re the only one with bad dreams, especially when we wake up in the middle of the night and feel alone. Others on the block are having the same toss-and-turn moments as well.

It’s universal. You just have to raise the subject of bad dreams to find that out.

I’m glad Phillips had the courage to share his frightening dreams. One of the best ways to deal with them is to talk about them, bring them into the light of day, confront them and laugh at them.

That’s one way to break their subconscious grip on us. The alternative is to let those below-the-surface fears run our lives.

I wonder if we’ve become so divided and alienated lately because we’ve stoked those fears and let them direct our decisions. Our fears become driving forces in our politics, religion and society.

The fear of being lost, overlooked, alone, threatened, vulnerable, hurt, helpless – the plot twists for our bad dreams _ can settle into our waking hours, too, if we let it. We’re the ones who make our bad dreams come true.

By contrast, if we acknowledge our fear and talk about it, it loses some of its power over us. We begin to make decisions based upon hope and goodness rather than our nightmare scenarios.

A few days after our trail-side chat with Phillip, I drove past a local college campus. A group of students crossed at the corner. One backpack-toting student looked very young – a freshman, I assumed – and seemed to be very uneasy over something.

I thought about my first few weeks on campus – far from home, living with someone you don’t know, every part of your life turned upside-down. You’re challenged in ways you never imagined.

Keeping fear where it belongs

You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Unfamiliar things are all around. And those fears begin to form in your subconscious like a sludge that sticks and stays and gums thing up.

That young man will start having those lost-on-campus dreams soon, if he hasn’t already. If he shares them, he’ll realize he’s not alone. Others are here to reassure him and help him live beyond it.

That’s how we keep fear where it belongs – only in our dreams.

Pardon? Or forgiveness?

Forgiveness2

The recent discussion of whether President Trump could pardon his family and himself got me thinking about how pardoning and forgiving are two contrary things.

A pardon protects someone from punishment for their behavior. Forgiveness seeks not to protect the one who has fallen short, but to touch them and to change them.

Pardoning erases an outward debt. Forgiveness transforms a person or a world from within.

A pardon moves on from the moment without requiring a price paid or a heart changed by the person involved. Forgiveness seeks to redeem and change the person and the moment.

Forgiveness isn’t about avoiding a punishment; it’s about reconciling and renewing relationships. Forgiveness transforms recrimination into reconciliation, division into unity. It replaces rejection with acceptance and hurt with healing.

A pardon? All that does is keep you out of jail.

Two different things

Forgiveness does what pardon can’t do because it originates in a totally different place. Pardon is rooted in the law and legality; forgiveness springs from the heart and is based on love.

Pardon keeps a record of appropriate punishment and then erases it. Forgiveness doesn’t count or keep track; instead, it offers unrestricted reconnection.

Pardon says you deserve punishment, and you should just be happy you’re not getting what you deserve. Forgiveness says you deserve love, and you are getting what you deserve.

It’s unfortunate that our concepts of pardon and forgiveness – two very different things – have been twisted around. We confuse one with the other, or we think that one substitutes for the other.

For example, we see it in the fundamentalist thread of Christianity. Forgiveness has been replaced by pardon, and legality rules instead of love.

It wasn’t that way in the beginning. Classic Christianity was much different, emphasizing love, compassion, reconciliation and unlimited forgiveness.

As Bible scholar Marcus Borg noted, the theory of “substitutionary sacrifice” didn’t become a main thread in Christianity until 1098. It was based on the feudal system of the time in which a lord couldn’t just forgive a servant who had disobeyed because it would encourage further disobedience.

Instead, a price was demanded to obtain a pardon. The substitutionary sacrifice theory reduced Jesus to a commodity in a business deal – someone dies, you get your pardon.

Essentially, God is depicted as a feudal lord who is incapable of actual forgiveness — if strings are attached, it’s not forgiveness.

Of course, the story of the prodigal son — proposed a thousand years earlier — reminds us of how forgiveness actually looks and acts. The ungrateful son returns home with no remorse – he’s not sorry, he’s hungry – and yet his father runs to him, embraces him, declares him a full son again and throws a lavish party in honor of his return.

Forgiveness has no strings attached

The son is warmly, passionately, happily forgiven. The father lavishes him with love and is ecstatic over their reunion. Why? That’s the nature of love. It seeks only to reconnect and transform.

The father also tries to transform the older son who complains that the wayward son is getting off without any sort of punishment. The father responds to the older son with nothing but love as well.

The parable’s point: No matter what we’ve done, we get forgiveness wrapped tightly around our necks like a hug. And there’s a party awaiting us with great food and drink and music and dancing.

The parable’s other point: Just as the father forgives both sons, we must forgive ourselves and each other the same way.

It means we pay attention to our shortcomings not to beat ourselves up or mete out punishment or earn some pardon; rather, we do it so that we can grow in love and learn how to join the divine party more willingly.

It also means that when we’ve hurt someone, we facilitate forgiveness by going to them and working it out. Those moments transform and heal.

Extending forgiveness is much, much harder than granting a pardon. Forgiveness involves great humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to heal anything that ruptures our relationships and ourselves.

A pardon spares someone from consequences without changing them. Forgiveness saves and redeems everyone involved by transforming them.

A pardon sidesteps love; forgiveness embodies it.

Forgiveness

On the same shelf

Same shelf

Young voices fill the old United Church of Christ building. More than 40 children energetically and noisily move about the basement room that serves as a cafeteria.

It’s another morning at the inner-city church’s summer youth program.

Kids from neighboring families come to the church each morning. Church members and college-age volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA play with the children, teach them, and remind them that they are loved for who they are.

Then, everyone eats lunch together.

The church’s small kitchen brims with packages of food and all manner of pots, pans and utensils. Shelf space is limited. As you can see from the photo above, the communion cups are stored with the food offered that day.

Food and faith on the same shelf.

That powerful image sticks with me and reminds me that there are two types of religion.

Through us, with us, in us

One type is self-centered and future-oriented. You follow a code of conduct to get some reward when you die. Many Christian churches teach that you don’t get to meet Jesus until you die, and then only if you’ve behaved like a “good Christian.”

And the code-of-conduct for being a “good Christian” varies significantly among denominations and is constantly changing. What was deemed unacceptable yesterday is tolerated today. It’ll change yet again.

Often, these codes of conduct ignore or contradict Jesus’ passionate teachings about how we must treat each other and care for one another, especially for those who are needy, lowly and hurting.

That’s one approach.

Many other faith communities are committed to living the message of incarnation — God feeding, healing and transforming the world through us.

People of incarnation recognize God’s presence through us, with us and in us. They try their best to embody the love, grace, forgiveness, peace and healing that the world so desperately needs.

Through love and love alone

People of incarnation recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t some reward that you get when you die, but a place you can enter now. Your heart is the door. Everyone is invited to enter and enact God’s kingdom through love and love alone.

That part never changes.

The inner-city UCC church has a picture that sums it up. Across the street from the church is its food pantry. There’s a drawing on the wall that shows a line of people waiting to get into such a food pantry.

Waiting in the middle of the line is Jesus.

Churches of incarnation take Jesus seriously when he says he’s right here with us, especially in the poor and the needy. Faith is about recognizing and responding to that presence.

So they respond by feeding the hungry as close family, listening to the troubled and offering help, providing a hug and a moment of hope to someone who’s feeling despair.

Hope, a plate of food, and an experience of God. All coming from the same shelf.

Moments of awe and wonder

Lake Erie sunset

As the sun slid slowly toward the horizon, the clouds above and the lake below sparkled in brilliant, changing colors. I was back home in Cleveland for a few days this week and went to the beach to watch a sunset.

It had been a long time since I experienced one of my favorite things.

There’s something about standing on a beach at sunset that makes me feel both very small and very important at the same time. Being connected to the sky, the water and the earth gives me a sense of belonging and gratitude.

Others walked along the beach and splashed in the waves as the sunset performed its magic. I stood there and watched with a sense of wonder and awe.

All I could think was: Wow!!! Just wow!

When the sun slipped below the horizon and the sky’s colors started dimming into shades of gray, I turned and headed away. And I asked myself why I don’t do this more often.

The sun rises and sets every day in such spectacular ways. Why don’t I pay more attention?

Caught up in wonder

I’m bad at math, but by my calculation I’ve been given the gift of 22,570 sunsets and sunrises in my lifetime. Think of that – more than 22,000! Yet, how many of them have I actually noticed?

Very few, to be honest. I get so busy and caught up in the everydayness of life that I don’t remember to stop what I’m doing, look up and go: Wow!

And I’m the one missing out.

Deeply spiritual people remind us that those moments of awe and wonder bring us an experience of the Creator as well as the amazing creation. Such moments are drenched in holiness. They’re always right with us and available to us; we just need to notice them and allow ourselves to be swept away by them.

Why don’t we do it more often?

One of my favorite quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is a reminder that such moments are at the core of what it means to be truly alive.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted,” the rabbi wrote. “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And those moments aren’t just individual experiences, either.

Such sacred moments

A few years ago, I was walking along Siesta Key in Florida as the sun was setting and transforming the color of everything around it. Perhaps a couple hundred people were enjoying the beach sunset with me.

Some of them were jogging. Others walked along listening to their music. Each of us was in our own little world, caught up in our own thoughts, doing our own thing.

People ahead of me stopped in place and started pointing toward the gulf. I stopped and looked as well. A pod of dolphins was playing in the sunset-tinged waves, splashing about in a way that made you smile.

Soon, most of the people on the beach had stopped to watch and talk to one another and marvel. It was a true “awe” moment that made you go: Wow! Look at that!

This diverse group of people – different ages, different backgrounds, different religions, different political outlooks – stood on the beach together and shared a collective moment of wonder. Strangers smiled at one another and talked to each other.

Our sense of awe overcame our differences and brought us together. It was a sacred moment in every sense.

We need more of those moments, don’t we?

Our collective awe

There’s so much frustration and division in our societies. It’s easy to feel like nothing can bring us back together and help us remove the walls and artificial divides we’ve spent so much time and so much energy erecting.

Maybe one way to do it is to get our heads out of the busyness of our daily lives and make ourselves aware of the wonder all around us. Allow ourselves to get caught up in the bright blessed days and dark sacred nights, as Louis Armstrong described them.

As we do, we’ll get the attention of the person next to us – the one who might feel so alienated from us – and simply say: Wow! Look at that! Aren’t we blessed to be able to experience this together?

Our shared sense of awe can humble us and reconnect us.

Grace in aisle three

Food

We found the aisle with lentils — aisle three, as it turned out — and surveyed the many choices. Which type would a Muslim most likely use to break the Ramadan fast?

Clayton and I didn’t know. We’re not Muslim. We’d never done this kind of shopping before.

Clayton is the interfaith liaison for our church, which has a close relationship with the local Islamic center. Last fall, we partnered with them on a winter clothing drive for refugee families settling in the area.

Now the Islamic center was having a food drive for needy families, many of them refugees. Clayton mentioned the food drive at the end of our church service last Sunday, and people grabbed donation envelopes and stuffed cash into them.

In the blink of an eye, we collected $200. Now, we just had to buy the food. We found a halal market near the mosque and went with a general list of things that we found online – lentils, flour, dates, cooking oil and so forth.

But which ones? Which types? How much? We didn’t know. After a few moments of indecision, we went to the checkout register and asked the manager for help.

We told the man what we were doing. He smiled. He dropped everything he was doing and threw himself into the project. He went to the back of the store and pulled out a box of cooking oil, which would be easier for us to carry. He rounded up bags of flour and packages of lentils.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

While other customers waited patiently, the manager filled several carts with food items worth more than the $200 we’d given him. And then he helped us push the carts to the car for loading.

On the way, he paused, took out his wallet, grabbed a $50 bill and handed it to us.

“This is a personal donation for your church,” he said.

Standing there in the parking lot, all of us blinked back tears.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

There are so many loud and shrill voices in various religions today, ones filled with fear and self-righteousness and arrogance and judgement and hatred -– the very things that faith tells us to avoid. Those voices try to divide us and diminish us. They twist religion into the opposite of what it’s meant to be, hoping to advance their personal agendas.

And then, there are all those other people – most people, I like to believe. The ones who actually get it. The ones filled with a spirit that makes them try as best they can to love one another as equally beautiful and beloved children of God.

They understand that every act of love, no matter how small, is an encounter with the God who makes all people beloved and all things blessed. Such moments are holy and sacred, transforming and inspiring.

Like the one just now in the parking lot.

With our boxes and bags of food loaded in the trunk, we headed to the nearby mosque. Just a week earlier, the mosque had been picketed by an anti-Muslim group toting signs that were hateful and hurtful.

The Muslims responded by setting up a table and offering the protesters food and drink. Here’s a photo, courtesy of The Journal-News of Hamilton.

Table

When our church heard about the protests, we prayed for the Islamic community and emailed the imam a note of support and admiration for their act of kindness. The imam wrote back, suggesting we get together for lunch sometime soon.

“Thank you so much for your appreciated prayers and support!” the imam wrote. “Please continue to spread the message of kindness, respect, loving thy neighbor, and harmony.”

This week, refugees will break their Ramadan fast with lentils and dates donated by a local church. On Sunday, the donation basket at our church will include a $50 bill from a Muslim store manager who spreads the message of kindness, respect, harmony and love.

Another shared, sacred moment for everyone. Blessed by a few more tears, no doubt.