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Thousand Oaks

Another week, another mass killing.

It hasn’t always been this way.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Not only are there more mass murders, including mass murders by firearm, in the US than any other developed nation, but the rate of such violence has seen a drastic rise in the past decade.

mass shootings by year

Source: NBC Chicago

There are multiple “causes” — lots of links in the chain. It’s not just high-capacity and high-speed firearms. It’s not just the firearms industry lobby. It’s not just toxic masculinity. It’s not just mental illness. It’s not just military experience, PTSD, or moral injury. It’s not just that people need Jesus (the U.S. has more Christians, as a percentage of population, than just about any other country – heck, we’re the birthplace of evangelicalism! – and it has far the highest level of deadly violence in the developed world). It’s not just political extremism. It’s certainly not just that there’s a ten-year shortage of “good guys with guns.”

What it feels like to me: the difference in the past decade is a generally elevated societal stress level, that makes our small problems bigger, peels away our abilities to cope, puts each of us closer to the edge of some extreme method of coping or responding, and more of us fall over that edge than before — into violence, or self-harm, or self-isolation, or cynicism, or extremism, or several of the above. I’m sure the sociologists or public health folks have a technical term for generalized societal stress levels, and can measure it and find a graph to prove or disprove the correlation that I’m feeling. But what I feel is that people (me included) are more stressed-out, to the point of dysfunction, than before. It’s doing damage, not only when folks commit violence, but also in day-to-day living, as we “zone out” at work and can’t live up to our vocation, as we escalate irritation into rudeness, or nervousness into fearful isolation.

We’re not all equally overwhelmed, though. Some of us have healthy networks of caring community. Some of us have spiritual practices that help. Some of us have been taught that seeking assistance is honorable, and not a failure of masculine virtue or warrior integrity (the military encourages seeking help now, in ways they didn’t, back in the day). Some of us have not lived through the trauma of war, or the trauma of coming of age in the 90s or 00s. Some of us are cushioned by privilege and economic security. Some of us are cushioned by functional family systems.

It hasn’t always been this way.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

So what will you do? What will you do, not only to help yourself to live further from the edge of violence and isolation, but to transform your web of acquaintances, your neighborhood, your community?

How will you strengthen your existing groups – civic groups, faith groups, workplaces — to be welcoming, caring communities?

How will you practice your spiritual practice with gentle constancy, and encourage others to grow in their own spiritual practice (without being “judgy” or “holier-than-thou”)?

How will you seek appropriate help when you need it, and encourage others to seek it, both by your example and your testimony?

You’ll notice I’m not talking here about a more rational firearms law. I think there’s a place for that, but just as there’s not a single cause, so there’s not a single remedy. We can work for a transformed society today and every day, in all our interactions.

It hasn’t always been this way.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

 


(Image source: https://www.nbcchicago.com/news/national-international/Recent-Mass-Shootings-Thousand-Oaks-500027402.html)

Tree of Life

[Note: In today’s worship service at Trinity United Methodist, Ritzville, this is what I said (more or less) at the beginning of the service.]

Post-Its

Post-Its of things we’re leaving outside as we go in to worship. Photo: Willie Deuel.

This week I arrived in Wenatchee for the Gathering of the Orders, along with most of the United Methodist clergy from our Pacific Northwest Conference. We began, as always, with worship. At the sanctuary entrance, we were given post-its, and invited to write down something we were laying aside, so that we could better worship, engage in holy conversation, and grow in the Spirit, un-distracted.

It was a very good gathering. I had been asked to lead two workshops on Walking as a Spiritual Practice. If there’s time today, that’s what I’ll be talking about in the sermon.

But …
This is the week a white supremacist, after trying to force his way into First Baptist Church, a primarily Black church, in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, murdered two Black customers at a nearby Fred Meyer Store (they call them Kroger in those parts).

Those who died in Jeffersontown were:
Maurice E. Stallard, 69, and
Vickie Lee Jones, 67.

And …
This is the week a right-wing extremist was arrested in Plantation, Florida, for mailing at least fourteen
[update: FIFTEEN] bombs to presidents, political leaders, news organizations and public figures all across the country.

And … 
This is the day after a Christian terrorist [warning: these 2 links contain very offensive material] killed eleven people (and wounded six more) at Congregation Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On a web page with neo-Nazi messaging, the alleged killer professes Jesus and misquotes the Gospel of John to bolster his anti-Semitism, and names the work of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, as the prompt for the murders he committed minutes after he posted.

Those who died this week in Pittsburgh:
Joyce Fienberg, 75,
Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Cecil Rosenthal, 59
David Rosenthal, 54 (brother of Cecil)
Bernice Simon, 84
Sylvan Simon, 86 (Bernice and Sylvan are husband and wife)
Daniel Stein, 71
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69

[UPDATE: Both HIAS and Congregation Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha have “Donate” buttons on their homepages now. One way to show them they are not alone is to contribute, even if it’s not much.]

sanctuary.pngThis is the week we gather for worship.

But how do we worship, in such a time as this? Can we simply write these horrors on a post-it and lay them aside, stepping into the sanctuary free and easy? No. Yet we can, and we must, worship.

How do we find refuge in prayer, in such a time as this? How do we find that “place of quiet rest near to the heart of God”? And yet we can, and we must, pray.

How do we praise, in such a time as this? How do we claim the joy of the Lord as our strength? And yet praise is possible, though it may be the praise of a Job, who cries out for his vindicator in his suffering, that though his body be destroyed, yet in his flesh he would see God. (Job 19:25ff)

How do we intercede, in such a time as this? When public repetitions of professed “thoughts and prayers” ring hollow, how do we entrust the hurting other to the loving care of God, and offer ourselves to their healing and restoration? And yet we must sit alongside the wounded and the grieving, if we are to join our intentions with the will of God, or our attentions with the attention of God.

How do take Christ’s holy name as our own, in such a time as this? When mass murder is committed in his name, how do we continue to profess him as our sovereign and our savior? And yet we can, and we must, profess him, and follow him to the side of the grieving, even though it be walking the way of the cross, of risking and suffering on behalf of others, if we are to walk his way of real Life.

How do we take Christ’s holy name to the world – to Jews, to Muslims, to our neighbors and our children who have turned away from Christian faith – when Christ is used to justify racism, and abuse, and genocide and oppression? And yet we can, and we must live his life and walk his walk more publicly, to show the world that Christian faith is better than its perversions.

Today I pray for the Or L’Simcha / Tree of Life congregation, and I lift up the vision from the end of the Christian scriptures, that God’s intention for the completion of creation, includes complete healing:

On either side of the river is the TREE OF LIFE with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Rev 22:2 NRS)

Sit with the thirteen names above.

Sit with the hope inherent in the name, Tree of Life.

Sit with the words and the imagery of the verse above.

For the healing of the nations. For the healing of the Tree of Life. AMEN.

AdobePhotoshopExpress_697e912287f144288493634847d441b3

As I was being introduced to the Staff-Parish Relations Committee of Trinity UMC, a committee member asked me why I wanted to move to Ritzville.

I wasn’t particularly expecting the answer that came out of my mouth.

God, I said. Because of God. Continue Reading »

It’s time, and a little past time, for my near-annual request that boards of ordained ministry, conference worship committees, and our bishops, get it right.

There’s a line in the ordination service that I’ve heard my bishops get wrong almost every year, for all forty-ish of my years of ministry. Certainly, I’ve witnessed them get it wrong far, far more often than I’ve heard them get it right.

After the candidates have been examined, and responded “I will, with the help of God,” the Bishop responds to these sacred statements of their intention – of their will with:

“May God,
who has given you the will to do these things
give you the grace to perform them.” (2017-2020 Ordinal, pp. 21, 41, 60)

Most of the bishops under whom I’ve served, most years, near-exhausted after presiding over complex legislative sessions and fractious clergy sessions, and now on the home stretch after a too-long day in a too-long week, deliver these lines with two words especially emphasized:

“May God,
who has given you the will to DO these things
give you the grace to PERFORM them.”

This spoken emphasis implies that the ideas being contrasted in these lines are “do” and “perform” which, sorry to say, are synonyms. As an ordinand, it was puzzling. Almost every year, it is a little jarring. And it’s a missed opportunity.

The contrast intended in the ordinal is not between the synonymous “do” and “perform,” but between the clearly distinct pair, “will” and “grace.”

“May God,
who has given you the WILL to do these things
give you the GRACE to perform them.”

Yes. Even our determined intention to fulfil our vows (our WILL to accomplish that list of sacred tasks) is frail, and in the heat of conflictual moments, the thirst of long dry spells, the deadeningly monotonous slog through administrivia, the ice of fears and failures, our work is utterly dependent on God’s GRACE.

Please, bishops? Will you stress WILL and GRACE this year? May God (and perhaps the help of your worship committee’s highlighters) give you the grace to perform it!

Source (and pages to highlight the bishop’s copy): https://gbod-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/legacy/kintera-files/worship/2017-2020_Ordinal-FINAL.pdf, pp. 21, 41, & (for consecration of bishops) 60.

United Methodists don’t often gather midweek to observe the festival days of the church year. Christmas Eve and Holy Week are just about the only exceptions. All Saints Day was Wednesday, November 1. We observed it last Sunday, November 5, remembering the saints of our lives in prayer and song, thanking God for the communion in which we “join our friends above” in heavenly joy, united by love even while we are separated by the “narrow stream of death.”

One of our hymns was Charles Wesley’s 1759 lyric, Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above.” (#709 in the UM Hymnal) The tune is cheerful, and so are most of the lyrics, though I debated leaving out verse 3:

Ten thousand to their endless homeCharles Wesley
this solemn moment fly,
and we are to the margin come,
and we expect to die.
E’en now by faith we join our hands
with those that went before,
and greet the blood-besprinkled bands
on the eternal shore.

I almost omitted this verse because it was going to be a downer. Singing about our unity in love, even spanning the “narrow stream of death,” that’s one thing.  But singing in the same cheery voice, that “we expect to die,” that’s another.

If that’s not enough, those “blood-besprinkled bands” remind us of Jesus’ slow and bloody death on the Roman cross that both repels us, and – because it’s part of his saving story and ours – has that “wondrous attraction” we sing in a better-known song. Whether we lean heavily into the language of bloody sacrifice as God’s way of atoning (at-one-ing) us with God, or whether we don’t, we’re gonna come away from the cross with some blood spatter.

Anyway, we sang the hymn – all four verses. We sang that jarring truth that “we expect to die,” and we greeted, in our faithful imaginations, the “blood-besprinkled bands” of those who have died into the fullness of the presence of God.

And then.

And then, as Steve and I visited in the fellowship hall, as Steve’s grandkids and my wife Kathy were downstairs with the Sunday School, the news came through our social media feeds. Sutherland Springs.

In that solemn moment, all those ancient lyrics words were transformed. Go back now, and read verse 3 again (or read the whole thing) in light of the  shootings in the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

First-Sutherland-Springs

Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, echoes Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, when he asserts that “it is not love, but ‘the denial of death’ that makes the world go round” (Rohr, Kindle edition, location 356).

Denial of death surely makes the healthcare industry go round: we all have our stories of heroic, macabre and unimaginably expensive measures to preserve bodily persistence long after bodily and mental joy or competence have departed.

Denial of death makes the security industry go round: one guy tries to wear explosive shoes on a plane, and millions of travelers now remove our shoes. A couple people tamper with pills, and all sorts of tamper-resistant packages are now mandatory. There are armed guards and metal detectors in the entrances of schools and hospitals … and churches?

Denial of death makes popular religion go round: we treat dying as a spiritual or moral failure. With all good will, we say of those who recover from illness, that they’re blessed (implying without meaning to, that those who don’t recover are not). We say that healing comes through faith (implying that illness comes from a failure of faith). Even at funerals, even in the presence of the body, denial of death is epitomized in that final line of Mary Frye’s poem: “Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there. I did not die.”

Dietrich BonhoefferWe Christians slip into this denial of our own death all too often. It’s easy, especially in a culture that denies it all the time. But we do die. And Christianity doesn’t even try to deny death. In the Gospels, the only times Jesus talked of the cross, it wasn’t about the cross he would carry, but about the one that we would carry:
All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24 CEB)

And the cross isn’t just about inconveniences and irritations. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in The Cost of Discipleship (1937), “Jeder Ruf Christi fährt in den Tod.”  — “Every call of Christ leads to death.”

There are several different directions we can go from here. This blog’s already way into TLDR territory, so I’m only going to touch on one:

The killings in Sutherland Springs prompt me to dive deeply into what it is to “take up my cross.” Taking up my cross might involve undergoing oppression unto death by state violence, or the violence of a culture that reinforces toxic masculinity and violence against women, or the crazy correlation of firearms and mass shootings in this country, or some other systemic evil. It might. But it will not involve surrendering my truth and my trust in God to these possibilities.

I can’t speak for the dead and wounded in Texas. Their blood cries out from the ground. It would be wrong of me to co-opt their story.

But I testify: when I have focused on my own safety, or on suspecting or blaming or demonizing others, I have been farther from following Christ.

And I testify: when I have been intent on living his life, and on discerning and naming the Spirit and image of God, the imago Dei, in others, I’ve been nearer to his way.

And yes, crosses are involved.

Note: The United Methodist press & web are going to town about a book of inspirational writings that the United Methodist Publishing House published, then recalled after it was revealed that the author (or, “author”) had plagiarized at least some of the work in the book, presenting it as if it was his own.

The author is a United Methodist pastor that most of us wouldn’t have heard of. But the book would have been a best-seller, at least in church circles, because the contents were daily reflections that he had sent to a parishioner whose name we know: Hillary Clinton.

From all accounts, it would have been a really good book, if permissions had been received where permissions were required, and if credit had been given where credit was due. But instead, it’s just a mess.

Here’s what that gets me thinking about. 


Faith Callahan with her walker, Mount Rainier in background

The week after Annual Conference one year, I visited my Grandma Callahan at Wesley Terrace, her retirement home. She was unhappy, and perplexed.

Sunday morning, she’d attended worship in her nearby church, where her pastor had preached a really inspiring sermon, a sermon that hinged on a story of something that had actually happened to him that very morning. Grandma Callahan was really moved.

That evening, she went to vespers at her retirement home.  This guest preacher was another United Methodist; he had a pretty good sermon, but it hinged on something — the same thing — that had actually happened to him that morning on the way to church.

I could help her with her perplexity. At Conference our bishop had opened his sermon with “When I was walking this morning, … .” It was a really good story, and it gathered energy because it had actually happened to him just that morning, and it was a perfect illustration for his point!

(My text-criticism sensors were going off during the bishop’s sermon. I get suspicious about preachers’ stories that are just too neat or clever. It might be my Saturday Night Live hermeneutic, with Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” character announcing, “How conveeeenient!” The bishop could have gotten that story from a book of sermon illustrations for all occasions.)

Both of Grandma’s preachers had heard the Bishop’s sermon the previous week. And, perhaps weary from a week at Conference, both had used it. And both had passed it off as their own experience.

I could help her with the perplexity: how the two preachers happened to use the same story on the same day. But I couldn’t help her with the unhappiness: how two [or, counting the bishop, three!] preachers could have such lack of integrity as to tell a story that obviously wasn’t their own, as though it was their own? If my own pastor tells one experience that’s patently not their own, how can I trust them in any other thing they say? And if two out of two (or three out of three) pastors have that lack of integrity, what is to be inferred about all the others?

I still can’t help her with that.

The very idea that preachers can get “sermon illustrations” from books of sermon illustrations has always baffled me. But at the very least, the VERY least, the preachers — including the bishop — could use the line I heard Fred Craddock use (giving him credit, of course): “I don’t know if this ever happened, but it’s True.”* Where quotations are used in print or online, the citation should be complete, like a proper footnote. Where a person’s words or ideas are used in preaching or speaking, credit should be given orally, and (wherever possible) in text as well.

It’s about showing ourselves trustworthy in a few things, at least in one thing. It’s about not losing people’s trust, not only in ourselves, but in others. And it should be so easy!

I think our bishops can help with this. Let them decide to model ethical preaching & writing , and to state that it’s one of their expectations of the pastors they appoint. Let the preachers they invite to address the Conferences also model these standards.

I think the United Methodist Publishing House can help with that. Let it decide to do due diligence in considering manuscripts and screening for plagiarism before agreeing to publish, and make its policies & procedures public. When it fails, let it show how it failed, and how it is revising its policies & procedures, to minimize the chance of a repeat.

I hear the seminaries are already doing a decent job of encouraging ethical preaching & writing, and the ethical environment is far more diverse, with social media, electronic communications, and more awareness of power & privilege differentials, but ethics around use of other people’s material in preaching & writing wasn’t really emphasized in my day (except of course for academic writing).

I think my Grandma Callahan can help as well (along with the many Grandma Callahans of the church who are still in this life). Let them go to the preacher whose story they suspect, and ask pointed questions: “Did you write that, or did it come from someone else?” And give them pointed feedback: “When I notice you doing that, I lose trust in you.” But don’t just  be negative. Be just as engaged when they DO cite their sources: “I really appreciate that you shared that story from ______. Could I borrow the book? I want to know more.”

It might make the after-service handshake line a scarier place for preachers, but that’s not a bad thing.


* Substandard footnote: I remember Fred Craddock say this at Kilworth Chapel, the University of Puget Sound, many years ago. It stays with me, and I probably have the words right.

Not so with us

As I write this on June 8, I’m witnessing the Senate Intelligence Committee questioning James Comey, and thinking about the importance of leadership without intimidation or coercion, with mutual trust and respect for differences. Presidents can abuse their authority, and so can pastors. We can abuse our position: rank or title, our resumé, our uniquely defined roles. We can abuse our personal characteristics: size, gender and personality traits. We can use these positional or personal realities to get our way even when it’s wrong, illegal, evil. And we can do damage.

Even in the United States, with its government of the people, by the people, and for the people, presidents can seek to become autocrats. Even in the Church, which exists for God’s glory and the development of disciples of Jesus Christ, pastors and laity can abuse the authority God and church give them.

Jesus said to them, “The rulers of the nations lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. … I am among you as one who serves.”   — (Luke 22:25-27 NRSV, alt.)

I, and most pastors and laity I know, desire to lead like Jesus, without domination or manipulation. But now and then, in our denomination and in our congregations, we “throw our weight around.” (Isn’t it interesting that this common saying portrays aggressive use of physical size as a metaphor for inappropriate coercion using positional authority!) Now and then we seek to get our own way using force or emotional manipulation: we threaten; we use anger, we take offense, we withdraw, we use financial pressure, and more. Instead, we should work together as partners who seek to understand and collaborate, appreciate, and come to a shared way that’s better than our own.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with this prayer:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

Grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
           — source: Book of Common Prayer

May this be our prayer as we work with each other, especially if we are called to lead, in church and in nation.