Monday, December 31, 2012

Specific focus in the big picture . . .

     We have spent a great deal of the last three weeks reminding ourselves that Jesus came among us and dwelt with us.  Given all the tragedies, both at the national and local level, such has certainly been appropriate.  It is very comforting to know that our Lord knows our sufferings, our fears, our hurts, and our frailties.  Some of us have spent time on conversations reminding ourselves that God cares for each one of us, where we are in our our faith walk with Him.  He proved that love of each one of us at great cost to Himself, not just during the Incarnation but during His life that led to Calvary.  But that comfort would be empty were His only characteristic empathy.  We all know empathetic people in our life.  They are the people who cluck at all our sufferings or faults and cheer us on as we strive in life.  But their empathy only sustains us for so long.  Eventually, we want more than a cheerleader, we want more than for someone to feel sorry for us when we are beset by sorrows.  Enter John and his discussion of Jesus of Nazareth.

     The passage that we read today we also read at the Christmas Eve service as we light the candles in the darkness.  Those who pay close attention to the Christmas narrative may notice that there is a big difference between John’s account and the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  All that we know about events surrounding the birth of Jesus, we know from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  It is in their accounts that we learn of Jesus’ genealogy, of the conception by the Holy Spirit on the young Mary, of the struggle that Joseph faced, of the inn being full, the babe being wrapped in swaths of cloths and laid in a manger, of angels proclaiming to shepherds the significance of the birth of the baby, of the magi and a host of the other details that we all know and love.  How does John announce the birth of Jesus?  The passage is famous for its beauty and the truth it conveys, but there is no Bethlehem manger scene, no chorus of angels, no cattle lowing.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

     If you are new to the Church and new to the parish, these words might seem a strange way to announce the birth of the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Where’s Mary and Joseph?  Where’s the hymns?  How did the birth take place?  Those details are skipped in lieu of a different focus by John.  While part of Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s purpose has been to teach us that God has come to dwell among us, that the Incarnation means that Jesus is fully human and, therefore, understands us completely.  John, though, has another focus.  John wants us to focus on the fact that the birth which we celebrated this past Tuesday is THE signature event of God’s plan of salvation and of cosmic history.  To be sure, it is an amazing plan.  Considering the obstacles that we have tried to place in front of God, considering the scope of history -- the rise and fall of empires, and considering our very nature and our unworth, the birth of Jesus is nothing less that the second greatest miracle in history!  I use that term second best only relatively or as a picker of nits.  Without Easter, Christmas is meaningless.  Of course, the opposite is true as well.  Easter without Christmas is worthless.  We, you and I, need both.  But that is a sermon for another time . . . .

     John’s focus, though, is a reminder that the course of history has pointed toward this birth.  In what amounts to a Scriptural reset, John takes us back beyond Jesus’ birth to that “time” that preceded creation.  In the beginning was the Word . . . You cannot, you should not read John’s introduction without being reminded of the breath of God brooding over the waters of Genesis.  In the beginning God created . . . The Word, Jesus, was with God for all eternity.  Furthermore, God created all things through Him.  Want to know your image, how you were created in the image of God?  You were gloriously created in His image.  How do we know?  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . He became one of us.  Though He was wrapped in deity, He chose to become fully human and was born of a woman into this time and this space and this earth.  He took on finite nature, human nature.  We could spend weeks discussing the amazing truth that He who was eternal and infinite (as expressed by the word our translators chose as “was”) limited (as expressed by the word “became”) Himself by enfleshing Himself in our finite selves, not as a warrior king, but as a baby born to a carpenter, a baby who would grow up to teach us of our Father in heaven and die for our sins.

     It is truly the most amazing story, if it ended there.  But have you considered that all of this that we read today is just the prologue or introduction of John’s Gospel?  Have you considered as wonderful and as well known as this passage is, it is only fourteen verses of John’s Gospel?  This Scriptural reset, as I call it, this reminder that what we celebrate this week has been part of God’s plan since before He created the world and enfleshed humanity.  But all of this, all of it, has been for a specific purpose.  The creation, the enfleshing of the Son, the testimony--all of it has been for the specific purpose of bestowing upon you, and upon me, and upon all who would hear the story that God wants us to be with Him for all eternity.  And though we have all created situations which make such a communion impossible, God has acted through His Incarnation and Easter miracles to make it possible.

     John expresses the purpose of salvation history in these terms: But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God, who were born . . . of God.  Paul, in his letter today, puts the purpose in easier words, though the meaning is the same: so that we might receive adoption as children. . . . So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.  I want you to take a moment and inwardly digest this.  Maybe you are focusing on it for the very first time.  Perhaps you have never hear this passage before.  All of salvation history has pointed to the babe whose birth we celebrate this week, and His life, and His death, and His resurrection for the purpose of redeeming you, of redeeming me, and of redeeming all those whom we encounter in the world!  Put another way, before He set about creating the heavens and the earth, our Lord determined how He would reach into the lives of each of us and redeem us.

     Brothers and sisters, a number of you and those who come here for AA and others who just “drop in” because they can talk to me have lamented that this was a difficult Advent.  For many of you, it seems to have been the hardest Advent ever.  Random shootings, senseless tragedies, lingering diseases, untimely deaths, the fear of the drought, the looming fiscal cliff, the volume of sex slaves in our community, Syria and its biological weapons, North Korea and its nuclear weapons, the fiscal cliff--the list this year goes on and on and on.  How can I get in the Christmas spirit with all this going on?  Brothers and sisters, it is those events and those unnamed which should cause you to fall on your knees at that manger and worship the enfleshed God-babe!  Left to our own devices, there is little that we could do about any one of them.  Ah, but left to Him . . . 

     Brothers and sisters, those of us who have accepted His open-armed invitation from the cross cannot but help be moved by the Christmas scene.  The gift that God offers is simply beyond words.  But the attention that we pay to that gift is often incomplete.  We focus on the crowded inn, the young couple, the choral angels, and any number of other details.  Often what is lost, however, is the attention that is paid to each one of us.  Thankfully, John is there to remind us of the care and concern and love that God had for each one of us.  Before He created out of nothing, He determined to enter this world to save us and allow us to become His children.  Before the world and time began, He determined to enter this world and make it possible for us men  and us women to be adopted into His holy family.  Now, I want you to think about the implication for the hereafter for just a moment.  Think of everything He did to celebrate the birth of His only begotten Son.  The star had to be set in the sky, a common language needed to be spoken on earth, prophecies had to be recorded, the wise men needed to be educated, shepherds needed to be on stand-by, maybe the angelic choir needed to go through warm-ups like our earthly one here.  Everything in the fullness of time needed to be arranged so that He could enter this world He had created.  Ponder for just a second, what the homecoming will be like.  If He did all this for His only begotten Son, what kind of celebration do you think He will throw when the whole mess of kids are brought home by their Lord and Savior?  What do you think the feast will be like when His Son is finally enthroned in glory for all eternity, and you and I are made kings and queens in His eternal kingdom?  That celebration, brothers and sisters, is the celebration to which John’s prologue ultimately points!  That celebration, brothers and sisters, is the one to which we have all been given an invitation and the opportunity to invite others in His holy name!

     As I began this discussion I remarked how comforting the Christmas scene is.  God became one of us, lived among us, and gives us confidence that He knows us intimately, that He empathizes with us.  I mentioned that empathy is nice, but after a while, it seems worthless.  All the mourning and all the cheerleading, after a while, seems empty.  Part of our reminder this day from John is that our Lord who empathizes with us and knows us intimately has the power to effect whatever He wills.  John’s reset takes us back to the beginning, back to when time has no meaning.  John places God’s activity in cosmic terms and reminds us that His efforts, His exercise of His power and authority has been to bring about His will: namely, the redemption of you and me and all humanity.  The babe whose birth we celebrate this week was not Plan G or Plan J or Plan Z; He was and is the Alpha and Omega.  The entire decision of His enfleshing was determined long before you and I came into being, and the purpose of that enfleshing was to make our full communion with God once again possible, even though we had not yet lived nor sinned.  Nothing in the course of history, no rise and fall of empires, no random natural disasters, no plagues, no thing in history, not even death itself was able to thwart Him as He worked to redeem you and to redeem me.  You see, the Lord whom we serve has power.  As we shall see as we remind ourselves of this amazing story over the next four months, He has power to take up His life, to lay it down, and to take it up again.  Only He can accomplish all that He purposes.  The Lord whom we serve certainly understands us and empathizes with us, but our Lord exists beyond time and space and is able to work His plan for us no matter the obstacle.  John’s reset, his prologue, reminds us that the One who loves us dearly can accomplish in our lives whatever He wills.  That One, brothers and sisters, is the One deserving of our worship.  That One, brothers and sisters, is the One deserving of our praise.  That One, brothers and sisters, is the God Man to whom we should all be introducing others, that His return and celebration will be all the more spectacular, all the more wondrous, all the more amazing, just like His grace which caused Him to come down as a babe and live among us.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Baptism reminds us that love wins . . .

     If you are familiar with liturgical traditions and are visiting today, you may be a bit surprised to find that we are draped in white with the Pascal Candle prominently displayed.  No, you did not miss Christmas, and, no, we don’t celebrate it today and not gather tomorrow night and Tuesday to celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation.  Similarly, if you came today wanting to hear some mourning about Watertown, you might be a bit surprised that we are lighting the candle of joy and proclaiming that joy is now within us.

     Our life together as a parish today is interesting for a number of reasons.  We will be celebrating the baptism of one of our younger members. Yes, traditionalists, it is customary for the Church to wait until Epiphany 1 to baptize new members at this time of the year.  But we have a bit of a unique situation.  We have a soldier on leave.  We have a baptismal candidate who wanted dad to see him get baptized.  It was an easy call for me and the bishop once I asked him for permission.  This was the only weekend we could baptize Logan and have dad here.  I’m not a big fan of private baptisms, but this one is a bit more deserving of a public service.  As Terry has been deployed, it is you gathered here who have helped Logan figure out his way around here.  As a group, you have already helped Logan begin to grow into the full stature of Christ.  His being here today is evidence of your witness and prayers.  But more about that in a minute.

     If you are a visitor this morning, and not part of Logan’s family, it may seem a bit weird, a bit early, for us to be celebrating while a few families still must bury loved ones as a result that tragedy that has caused a nation to mourn.  In truth, the baptism was not planned with the events of Watertown in view.  This was planned well in advance as dad was scheduling a leave from the military.  As it turns out, though, there could be no better response by a church in the aftermath of such events.  In fact, this is the response of the Church.  This sacramental act, combined with the Eucharist, is the worship which reminds us every time we gather that, in the end, God wins.

     Last week, in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, we talked a bit about the world into which Jesus was born and the world to which He said He would return.  If I did my job well last week, I reminded you that the world into which Christ was born was very much like our own.  Economic issues plagued the Empire just as they plague us; there were questions about taxes; wars and what Romans would call acts of terrorism were a common experience; diseases turned into plagues like our flu’s; natural disasters were every bit as deadly as today.  I could probably go on and on, but you get the idea.  All of those evils, we know, were the result of sin.  The sin of humanity impacted creation as well as humanity.

     Just as today, humanity tried to rise above the conditions it found itself in.  Like us, they tried to control nature; like us, they tried to “fix” themselves.  Like us, it might have seemed for a while that they were making progress.  Then tragedies would strike which reminded them of their impotence.  To be sure, some were blind to the fact that in many areas they made no progress.  Thankfully, and mercifully, our Lord did not leave us to our own salvation.  I often ask people who, during pastoral conversations, admit that they find the idea that Christ died for them offensive how they would atone for their sins.  Keep in mind these are not evil people who think the world was made for their pleasure.  There are people who are trying to live lives worthy of God, who want to believe that God died more for others than for themselves.  The problem for such people is how to measure the effects of their sins and what to do in response.

     We don’t know the full effect of our sins.  We just don’t.  I might insult you and later come to realize that I need to seek your forgiveness.  Once I do that, have I fully atoned?  What if you left here and went home and yelled at your friends or family because I had put you in a bad mood?  Isn’t that a consequence of my sin?  Am I culpable for your sin?  And if they, in turn, bite the head off another, is that not another consequence of my sin?  One of the problems with sin is the ripples?  Where do they end?  How do we account for them all?  For people trying to atone for their own sins faithfully, it can drive them nuts.  To put it in terms of our national discussion in light of Watertown, what was it that caused the shooter to storm a school and kill 20 kindergartners?  20.  I admit, I am the parent of 7, and our 7 can drive people nuts from time to time.  There have been times where I’ve used Bill Cosby’s threat -- I brought you into this world and I can take you out! -- but killing 20 kids is unimaginable.  Was it mental illness?  Was it a fight with his mom?  Was it the divorce?  Did he play too many violent video games?  Was he mad that the death star did not have enough signatories on the White Petition page?  Was it a combination?  What?  And if you were a faithful Jew, or a Jew who had converted to the early Church, you can see how the torah might be misused to place the emphasis of your salvation on your sacrifices.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews picks up on that understanding quite well in our readings.

     God understands that we cannot figure it all out.  There really is, in many cases, no ways for us to atone for our sins against other humans.  Then, just when we think we may have that problem solved, we are reminded that all our sins against others are sins against Him.  How do we atone for our sins against Him?  What do we offer in exchange for our sins?  All that we have is His.  Anything from this world is His.  Anything we would offer is already His.  What good is that?  Fortunately for us, what He demands of us is not burnt offerings.  The sin offerings and burnt offerings are not what He wants of us.  No matter how many we would offer, we would still need to offer more as we would continue to sin.  What He wants, instead, is for us to repent, to allow His Son to stand interposed between our sin and His wrath, and go about life in humble service and thanksgiving.  That is the answer to the problem of our sins.  He came not to judge but to save.  While the world scrambles to assign blame and make up for or get away with mistakes, He comes and loves and saves.

     In many ways, today’s service serves as the perfect answer for the questions plaguing people in the aftermath of Watertown.  As a society, we think we have figured out that we must blame and then work to eliminate the cause.  We at St. Alban’s understand that because Logan’s father is still caught up in our effort to “fix” the problems unveiled by 9-11.  Eleven years after those tragic events, Terry is “on the ground” protecting us and working to dismantle the forces of Al-Queda and the Taliban.  Eleven years.  Are we safer?  Perhaps.  Because of the heroic actions of men and women like Terry, you and I are safe here to go about our business with little thought about our solution to the problems our national enemies present.  But, sitting here eleven years later, do any of you think we are truly any closer creating on earth what is in heaven thanks to those military efforts, particularly if our soldiers returned home tomorrow for good?

     I am not speaking as a prophet, but my guess is that eleven years hence we will still, as a society, be grappling with the events of Watertown.  There will be extended fights about the gun laws, about caring for the mentally ill, about the security of our schools, and any number of tangential issues.  Will random violence be eliminated by 2023?  Unless our Lord returns, sadly, no.  Sin will still be present.  Evil will still be permitted to seduce.

     It is in that certainty that the Church goes about its business of growing the kingdom of God here on earth.  The message that you and I are given is not just one of judgement, though the judgment of sin is certainly part of what the Gospel proclaims, but one of love.  Christ did not enter the world to condemn it, but to save sinners.  He did not come to call the righteous but the sinners.  For God so loved the world -- that is our message!  And, as a counterpoint to how the world and society behaves, we go and make disciples of Christ one individual at a time.  And we baptize them, as our Lord instructed, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  In this sacramental act, we are buried into Christ’s death and called to recognize our selfish failings and sin in the presence of that holy, righteous, loving God we rightly call Lord.  Were the story and act to end there, we would certainly have some comfort, but our Lord’s instruction is not yet complete.  We are raised from the water, as Christ was raised from the tomb, into new life, a life lived not for ourselves and our benefit, but for the glory of God!  And in that raising, we are promised that we will share in eternal life with Him in the world to come, and we are gifted power to accomplish His will while we sojourn on this earth.  And those gifts and powers are given not to make us gloat, but to serve and love others into that same kingdom.

     Today, as a church family, you begin to see the fruit of some of your labors.  For weeks now, Logan has been asking / nagging me if this was the week.  Do I get to be part of the family today, Fr. Brian?  For a while we have been saying “not today, Logan, but soon.”  Logan is at that curious age where one cannot be sure of what he knows and what he doesn’t.  I am certain, though, thanks to his grandmother’s efforts to get him here and your willingness to help teach him about God, that something significant has begun in Logan’s life.  You, as his brothers and sisters in Christ have nourished this beginning.  Though Logan has every reason not to really want this day, he has done nothing but look forward to its arrival.  He might not be able to articulate the theology as well as some adults, but we have witnessed a child come to our Lord.  Logan understands his Father in heaven loves him, that his Father in heaven wants nothing but good for him, and that this sacramental act makes his acceptance of that offer of our Lord complete.  I have listened to him far too long not to have noticed that.  And you, you sitting here about to remind yourself of your oath to offer him encouragement and instruction in his walk with Christ, have had the important role of also demonstrating your Father’s love in Logan’s life.  You have put up with his, some would say boyish while others would say loud, behavior in church.  Some have been gentle with his enthusiasm, while others have intentionally been silent for fear of accidentally putting out that spark.  Each of you though, insofar as you hand in shepherding him to this day, has been a living testimony that God, that love, wins.  No matter the forces of the opposition, no matter the apathy, no matter the complacency, no matter the fear, no matter the powers and principalities which draw us away, in the end love, expressed in the life and death and resurrection of our Lord Christ, wins!

     It may seem insignificant to a nation or community dealing with such a tragedy as we see each night on the news.  It may seem weak and powerless to a man or woman who is called by his or her government to risk his or her life each day on the battlefield.  But to us in the Church, it is the hope to which we are called, the promised secured on our behalf by His flesh and His blood.  We can face tragedies like 9-11 and Watertown and all kinds of more personal ones in our lives certain of our redemption, even if death itself rears its head to claim us or our loved ones.  And that, brothers and sisters, is the promise and power of the Gospel!  We can do nothing in ourselves, but in Him we can transform the world.  Loving our Lord with all our strength, soul, and might and loving our neighbors as ourselves: that is how He calls us to live, through us living that life to which He calls us is how He reaches the world.  Ultimately, it is that power of the cross, and the redemption it signifies, and the power of the empty tomb, and the authority to which it testifies, which will lead to no more Watertowns, no more 9-11‘s, no more sadness, no more tears.

     Logan Mikel, I do not know how much you understand what you are doing today.  There will come a time in your life, I hope and pray, when you confirm the oaths taken on your behalf when you are a teenager.  Until that time, I would simply like to thank you.  Thank you for reminding us of the enthusiasm for this life which you want to embrace, and thank you for sharing this special day with us.  Take a quick look around.  These are men and women and some younger ones, too, who are called to walk with you as you formally begin your relationship with your Father in heaven.  Mark them well.  From them you will learn of the stories of God’s saving embrace, and, God willing, one day you will share those same tales with others who come to Him in faith.  Yes, Logan.  You have a job in this family.  In this family there are no observers.  There are only disciples of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Now, the candidate for Holy Baptism will now be presented . . . 


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Parenting Questions . . .

     What do I tell my kids?  How do you handle stuff like this with yours?  Those types of questions have been very popular the last four days, for understandable reasons.  People claim they are asking because I am a priest, because I have seven kids, or because we seem to have our act together more often than not.  That last reason causes Karen and me sometimes to look at each other in amazement.  If they only knew.  Often, she and I feel like we are in a prevent defense against a fantastic NFL offense.  There’s no way we can cover the kids individually, and a normal zone won’t work well either, so we find ourselves more concerned with big picture teaching and then hoping the kids apply those principles on a case by case basis.  Trust me, our kids are not always well adjusted.  Joshua is two!  Need I say more?

     But Karen and I also live in a different world than most of those whom we encounter and even those whom we serve at St. Alban’s or through our various ministries.  Our bishop during the discernment process often reminded us that we had our family before God called me to ordained ministry.  There was a reason for this order.  He thought that part of our life learning would be to figure out the meaning behind the order . . . together.  Now, we have since gone on to have three more kids, been to seminary in perhaps the last place to be thought of as an “ivory tower” location, been called to serve a church in OH, been called to serve a great church in Davenport, and been called into unique ministry opportunities -- all of us.  Amanda believes she is called to be a missionary teacher in Africa.  Nathan and Sarah both enjoyed their mission trips (Honduras and Tanzania, respectively), and both are trying to figure out what they will do with their lives.  The older kids have experienced some particular tragedies and found God using them and their experience to reach into the life of friends.  The younger kids are concerned with simpler activities.  They occasionally fight over who will lead the evening prayer at dinner time, and they thing it a special day when they get to come to church with dad.  And Karen and I are blessed and fortunate to see God moving in the hearts of our children.

     All of that is not to say that everything is always great.  One of the downsides to being the priest’s kids is that you are always expected to participate in every youth event at church - always!  Like adults, kids get worn out with life, and sometimes they just want a break.  To make matters worse, when other kids are shy about volunteering, guess who gets to be the acolytes?  There are days when kids just want to worship in the pews, yet dad will tell them they need to wear a robe and assist.  So, we have our moments just like everyone else.

     I offer all that as a warning.  Rabbis are quick to tell us that there are six different ways in which our children learn.  Sometimes I am convinced there are more because those six ways don’t always work!  What works for one child may not work for another, and what works for a family may not work for another.  But here goes . . . 

     In general, Karen and I answer questions with what we hope are age appropriate answers.  The catch is that we have always done this about any subject.  We have tried to carve out a role where our kids know we are a resource.  If they have questions, they are free to come to us and ask us.  We’ll answer follow-up questions for as long as they continue.  Sometimes conversations will go on for several minutes in a row; at other times, answers will be digested for a while before there is any follow-up questions.  And, this is really hard, sometimes mom and dad have to confess they don’t have all the answers.  There are quite simply some things that are inexplicable.

     Is that how you got out of talking about the CT shooting?  Quite the contrary, our conversations about the shootings were all over the place, but very on point.  But each child in school had different questions.  As children who went to seminary with their father, my older kids know there is evil in the world.  It is not just an abstract force, but an open rebellion against God.  Terrible things happen.  Human beings enslave other human beings.  Human beings kill those trying to help other human beings.  They slam planes into tall buildings to kill some and terrify others.  They know this.  They understand this.  They live this.  Their questions centered more around the responses.  We have talked about gun laws, about mental illnesses, about the lockdown they had in school because of an escapee a couple years ago, about the fact that Mr. Bywater (he’s ordained now, but he will always be Mr. Bywater to them) is the perfect minister for that community since they lost their child in a different kind of tragedy, about how Bryan† and Paul† and their respective churches have some difficult times ahead but also some interesting opportunities, about their friends’ shock and horror at the events, about the appropriateness of social media in the hands of “younger” kids, about how other parents have discussed or refused to discuss the events with their friends, about peoples’ responses on FB, about the press incredible determination to cover all things about how adults think they can plan for and protect against anything (they were amused at my stories of us being taught to hide under desks in the event of a Soviet Union nuclear attack when I was a kid--”did they not understand the physics of the explosion or resulting shockwave in those days?”, about the availability of weapons in those countries they have visited, and so on.

     With my youngest in school, the conversations have been very different.  He knew about the shooting when I picked him up Friday because some of his friends had heard about it through Twitter and Facebook (parents letting 8 year olds on Twitter and Facebook is a different conversation altogether).  He asked if it was true, if the people were sad, and if I thought it could happen at Rivermont.  That’s basically the gist of our conversations.  I was honest with him, but not without hope.  Everyone at school, especially Mrs. D his teacher, will do everything to keep him safe.  He knows it might not be enough, but he thinks they know what they are doing.  And he knows God knows what He’s doing, and that’s enough for him for now.

     What do I recommend to parents in light of tragedies?  Be consistent in your parenting.  If you share things, continue to share things; if you present things in a particular way, continue to present them in the same way.  Our children look to us as steady influences in their lives ideally, so I think now is not the time to change parenting approaches.  But if you are a parent who tries to share and do so appropriately, bathe those conversations in prayer.  Ask God to loose your tongue or to bind it, as He deems appropriate.  God is faithful and will appear when two or three are gathered in His name.  But always be honest.  If you don’t know the answer to your child’s question, don’t lie to them.  Don’t try and bs them.  They know when we are lying far more than we ever give them credit, and they often feel that lies mean their parents feel they are incapable of dealing with the truth.  What’s more, we tend to get caught in our lies which, in turn, impacts the relationship negatively.  There is a freedom in the truth.  Parents cannot protect their children all the time, no matter how hard we try.  Admit it.  As they grow, they will learn its truth.

     In an age appropriate way, be honest about what has happened, but be truthful.  Sometimes we couch what has happened in language that harms rather than helps.  How many children have been made too afraid to sleep because a loved “went to sleep” and never woke up or began to fear God because He “needed another angel?”  We might mean well with our euphemisms, but we need to understand their potential affect upon our kids.  But also be reassuring.  We may not be able to protect them entirely, but we will always do our best, as will teachers, law enforcement, firemen/women, and others in their lives who try and care for them.

     I think we should also do a better job of naming evil.  I wonder, in our ever increasing attempt to try and understand the other, if we have not confused our children to the point that they are more easily victimized.  Bad people do bad things.  Avoid them.  Tell us when they ask you to do bad things or do bad things to you.

     There is one lesson from 9-11 that I try and encourage parents of younger kids to understand and inwardly digest:  younger children do not understand time as well as adults or older children.  In this information overload society, many of us will watch and listen to as much about events as possible.  Sociologists and mental health professionals noticed after 9-11 that this effort to watch and learn had a negative impact on younger children.  Younger children were terrorized by the repeated images on television that day.  They mistakenly came to believe that every plane was highjacked and every tall building in every city was knocked over.  If you cannot read and cannot understand how television replays work, imagine what such repetitive images might do to you.  If you have young children in the house, turn the channel.  As much as you might want to watch CNN or FOX or whichever station you prefer, in the interest of helping your young child not become terrorized, turn the channel when they are in the room.  The information you crave is available on other mediums or replayed over and over and over on the channel you prefer.  

     One last lesson I offer.  Get your kid to church!  As an Episcopal priest, I naturally have a heart for the way we worship when we do it well.  But as a priest in God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church and as a parent, I care less about denominational choices.  Find a church that reads and teaches the Bible.  By that I mean avoid a church if the clergy is always preaching about the new book he or she read.  Cling to a church that wrestles with Scripture.  Find a church that sings your kind of songs.  If you are into traditional hymns, find that kind of church.  If you are in to metal, find a church that plays Christian metal.  If you like a variety of music, find one that has variety.  Obviously, a youth group is huge plus.  Kids often do well learning in groups.  But the lack of a youth group can be overcome for a time.

     I say all this not to increase numbers or help my fellow clergy out.  The Bible is full of stories.  Some are told as histories, some are told as songs, some are told narratively, and others are told as eyewitness.  The stories over time will teach children bit by bit about tragedies and, far more importantly, of God’s amazing power to overcome evil.  As I encountered parents at the Putnam this past weekend, I was often asked if I had ever heard of such a terrible event as Sandy Hook.  As one who had read about Pharaoh’s effort to kill newborn Jews, about Herod’s effort to kill the babies in Bethlehem, about what the worshippers of Molech in the land of Canaan did to their children, about what Babylonian, Assyrian, and Persian conquerors did to their subjugated peoples, about what Rome did to some of their newborns, I am certainly familiar with such tragedies.  I am also familiar with how God overcame each of those tragedies, and that sense of history gives me hope for those embroiled in this tragedy.  Our job as clergy and youth ministry is to tell these stories and God’s victories to the generations that follow.  We do this not for a paycheck but because we are called to share the hope we have in God.

     We live in a society where I hear far too often from parents who claim they are Christian that they wish to give their kids the freedom to choose their own system of belief when they grow up.  Part of the problem, of course, is that their primary responsibility as parents is to raise their children to know that they are loved by and redeemed by God (that pesky baptismal covenant!).  If we shirk our responsibilities and parents and do not impress His wisdom upon them as children, what faith system do we really expect they will adopt when they are adults?  Many of us who have spent time listening or reading the stories of Scripture all have favorites.  When tragedy strikes our lives personally, we are able to look back on that story that sings to us and remind ourselves of God’s love of each one of us.  One of the consequences of “Christian” parents raising children outside the faith is that their children lack that common history.  They begin to feel that they are alone, that the problems they are facing are unique, and that they are insufficient to help themselves in the end.  We are fostering a hopelessness in our children.  We are fostering a generation disconnected from others.  If we really want to help them and really give them hope, we should be more determined as parents to fulfill the role He has given us in their lives.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The light of love that shines in the darkness . . .

     Those gathered here today infrequently or perhaps visiting because of the season might be a bit taken aback by our liturgy.  I know a number of people have stopped me at the Putnam, called/e-mailed me at home, and brought up the events at Watertown this past Friday before the service today.  The proclamations of our liturgy might seem a bit incongruous with the tragic events of the CT shooting.  Some 19 or 20 children have lost their lives, as have six or so adults charged with educating those kids.  Why on earth would we gather as a worshipping community and light the candle of love?  And should we not have chosen readings more appropriate to the events?  After all, if children are being shot in their classroom by adults, the last thing we should be doing is proclaiming love.  And who wants to read about a brood of vipers?  We should be reading more about God’s comfort, should we not?

     In answer to the first question, the question about our proclamation of love in the lighting of the third candle of Advent, there are at least two good reasons to light that candle and proclaim its significance.  One, we are a liturgical church.  That means, among other things, that our calendar is set long before the events in our life occur.  Our liturgy reminds us that darkness is always trying to overcome the Light that has come into the world, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.  Our lectionary and seasons move us along, rather than allow us to dwell on subjects that we might explore for months.  Secondly, though, and perhaps more significantly, we are reminded that the Nativity--the Silent Night and The Frost lay on the Ground night--are not the entire picture of the Incarnation.  In fact, one of my favorite memes on Facebook this week is one that declares “Jesus was born into a war zone.”

     Truer words have never been spoken.  We might like to think that the massacre of children is a modern painful experience, but Romans and their enemies experienced such events far too often.  We might like to think that the looming fiscal cliff, and its accompanying economic chaos if our leaders cannot agree on taxes and spending cuts, is a new anxiety, experienced only by two party democratic modern systems of government, but the people in the Empire would snort in derision at our claimed uniqueness.  We might like to think that terrorism and warfare are a new phenomenon, as is the accompanying worry and fear for life, but both Romans and those outside the Empire would claim to be empathetic to our claims about those evils.  Throw in random natural disasters like storms and droughts and diseases, and throw in the effort to understand which god or goddess in the Pantheon is exerting his or her will through those disasters, and you get a sense of the period into which Jesus was born.  Don’t believe me?  Think on this . . .  

     Augustus has settled all questions of succession and expanded the Empire to the point that he can sit back and take stock of tax receipts.  Upon reflection he notices that taxes are low when compared to the rolls of the last estimates of the population within the Empire.  So, he declares a census and forces everyone to head to their hometown to be registered so that he can make sure he is receiving all revenue due him.  There will be very few exemptions granted.  Those crippled and blind will have to find people to carry or to lead them to their hometowns.  Even women who are nine months pregnant (and their husbands) will be unable to get out of this requirement.  We who think the looming fiscal cliff is bad can only imagine how it would have felt to be nine months pregnant and forced to walk to DeKalb or maybe Grinnell to have the privilege of being taxed appropriately.  But that is the world into which Jesus is born.  And as much as we might like to think that things change, in reality, they are often the same.

     Jesus entered the world with the purpose of reminding the people of the world that they were wonderfully fashioned by their Creator and loved incredibly by their Father in heaven.  John 3:16 might be the most pithy statement of this purpose, but it is by no means the only statement or story of that love He bears us.  That God would enter a world so besought by the consequences of those whom He created to redeem a people who do not recognize nor want Him is a testimony to the love of God and to the absolutely incredible lengths to which He is willing to go to restore us to Him.  To be sure, that restoration will involve His death, and terrible pain and suffering before that, but it is an amazing thing to gather here as His people and reflect on the love exhibited in the Incarnation some 2000 years later in the middle of the midwest in the midst of such tragedies.  Why?  Because as people are seeking to place blame in events in our collective lives--blaming guns, blaming bad parenting, blaming violent video games, blaming somebody who buzzed in a killer, blaming mental illness, and blaming whatever else you may have heard that I have forgotten--we know the real cause, and we know that God Himself entered the world to make it possible that you and I and all who would hear the message of His coming into the world would know that the sin and selfishness which is the ultimate cause of such events has already been dealt with on the cross that ends His time as the Incarnation on earth.

     You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath might not be the words of comfort that we wanted to hear today, but are there any words, outside of the story of the slaughter of the Innocents, more appropriate?  You see, while the world is looking to place blame for the events in CT, the shootings out west, and any other seeming senselessness in the world, you and I can gather here and celebrate in the season of Advent that God has judged and will finally judge the world one day.  Those words of promised judgment by God give us hope when there is hopelessness.  Why?  Because John points directly to Jesus.  When the people ask Him if He is the messiah, he says he is unworthy to untie the thong of the one coming.  Why?  Because he knows he needs to repent as well.  Except for his willingness to repent, John the Baptist is little different from Herod.  John understands that it is Jesus’ mission to deal with sin.  The exultation and joy proclaimed in Zephaniah this morning can only be ultimately fulfilled when the sin has been removed from God’s people.  The people who seek to be baptized into John’s repentance can be sorry for their sins and hardness of heart, but only Christ’s baptism will be able to create in them the hearts that God desires.  John knows this, as should we.

     Practically speaking, such understanding ought to make us stand out during events such as this.  On the one hand, we as Christians ought not be participating in the blame game for these tragedies.  We know the cause:  sin.  We also know the cure: Christ’s flesh and blood given and shed for us.  Those on the outside might be tempted to vilify the perpetrator of this tragedy, and he is ultimately responsible for his actions, but those of us gathered here this day can never forget that nothing really separates from him in God’s eyes, except that we have been washed in Christ’s sacrifice.  All of us gathered here today know that we were in God’s eyes murders like the young man in CT.  We have all hated and despised others, and we know from Christ’s teaching that such attitudes are murder in His eyes.  So we internalize that understanding “there but for the grace of God go I.”  When people ask us how we face such evil, why we are not hiding in Montana, why we are not arming ourselves against such evil, we can speak to the redemption we have experienced in our own lives!  The only cure for what ails the world is Christ.  The only protection against evil is the love and power of God.  And that, like John’s other teachings, can give the world around us one of the greatest gifts God has given us:  hope!

     It might be arrogant for me to presume to understand John’s attitude, but having spent the day doing lego robots at the Putnam yesterday, I feel I was immersed in this reading.  Being known as the community pastor or the human trafficking pastor means that I am sought out in public places in the wake of such tragedies.  Where was God while this was going on?  Why didn’t he hit the shooter with a lightning bolt if He really loves little kids and save them?  Do you think it was his mental illness or something else that triggered this?  My favorite questions, though, were the ones asking me how I live knowing that I have seven kids, anyone of whom could be killed in such a tragedy.  Like any good parent, a Christian parent tries to protect his or her children to the best of his or her ability.  But Christian parents should understand the trust that our Lord places in us when He blesses us with children.  Our primary responsibility in relation to those children is to teach them that they are loved and have been redeemed by God.  Some might think that our primary responsibility is provision or protection or encouragement of those children, and that is a significant part of parents’ obligation to their children; but our chief obligation is to teach them of the love that their Father in heaven bears for them.  Why?  Because everything we might think we can accomplish is an illusion.  Life is, quite simply, too fragile for us to ensure.  Death lingers over us at any time.  None of us knows the when and none of us know the how.  Disease, accidents, senseless violence, natural disasters--all can be an enemy of life.  How can we ever hope to protect others perfectly when we cannot protect ourselves?  None of those parents who sent their kids to school on Friday had any inclination they were sending them to their deaths.  Friday morning was just like Thursday and Wednesday and Tuesday and a Friday in November and a Friday in October, just as it was for the loved ones of the adults killed.  And yet, today, all find themselves in a situation of incredible grief, of seemingly unrelenting sorrow.

     Who told you to flee the coming wrath?--It is, of course, at the grave where the rubber of our faith meets the road of reality.  Those parents who believe Jesus is Lord understand the promise of the Resurrection.  We might not be able to protect our children from every evil, but we know the One who can.  We also know that if, in His inscrutable wisdom, He allows us or our children to face tragedy, He, and He alone, has the power and authority to redeem that tragedy.  Even if we are separated by death, we know that in the end we will be united with our loved ones for all eternity with Christ.  That, brothers and sisters, is the consolation of our faith!  That, brothers and sisters, is why it is incumbent upon parents to teach their children of the saving works that He has done.  Without the hope we have in Christ, there is only mourning, sadness, and emptiness.

     As this week proceeds, I am sure the press will notice that some families will handle the stress and sadness better than others.  My guess is that there will be both Christians and non Christians who now face the death of a loved one.  One group will be singing alleluias even at the grave; the other will be left seeking meaning in the senseless.  Perhaps, thanks to our relationship with Bryan and Paul, we will get to hear firsthand incredible stories of redemption.  More likely, knowing Bryan, we will also get to hear incredible stories of those seeking to find the meaning behind it all, seeking an account of the joy that is in the heart of believers.  Think I am nuts?  Think on this: Is there anyone in the world who can better relate to parents who have lost a child than a pastor who has as well?  And is there anyone better able to be heard than Bryan?  Part of this entire story is that the seeds for His glory have already been sown.  We can sit back, pray, and watch the growth bear fruit for God’s glory and further redemption in the lives of those whom He uses to tell His story in the face of such pain.

     All of which brings me back to one of those first questions that seekers might be pondering: How can you be celebrating love at a time of this kind of violence?  The peace we proclaim is not a simple ”let’s all get along,” a hippy dippy love fest in the sky.  The love that we proclaim in the face of violence, in the face of death, in the face of hurt is the love of God.  It is a reorientation from our will be down to His will be done.  It is the utter trust and adoration of a young child.  It is the emptying of ourselves and the trust that He will fill us with His Spirit and then use as to accomplish His will.  One of the revelations of Scripture is that our Father in heaven loves us.  We are His children.  And though we sin and rebel, like the Father in the Prodigal Son parable, He is ever ready for us to return to Him and just as quick to embrace us.  Better still, when He came among us as fully human, fully divine in the Incarnation, he reminded us that we needed to come to Him as children, trusting in His provision, goodness, and power to keep His promises and to do us good.  In the midst of such tragedies it is imperative that we remind ourselves of that love in which He holds us, that love which caused Him to seek our redemption when we could not accomplish it ourselves, that love for each one of us that caused Him to lay down that life for our sake that we might be raised with Him to eternal life.  Our Father in heaven, better than most of us gathered here today, knows the pain of losing a child.  He knows the hurt, the anger, the anxiety, and the quest for meaning.  But only He can give meaning; only He can redeem.  Knowing all that, we come to him this day, praying Lord come again swiftly, kindle in us the light that shines in the darkness, and the love which conquers all.

     Brothers and sisters, there will be other tragedies, some more personal and some more global in perspective.  There will be deaths and diseases and wars and violent acts and other acts of rebellion.  All, however, are held in His hand.  All have already been redeemed.  The cross reminds us every day of His love and commitment to us and His unwillingness to leave us to our own fate; and His empty tomb reminds us of His ultimate power to see us safely to Him.  That is our hope, that is our message, that is the light which keeps us from dashing against the shores of darkness when violence like this rears its ugly head.  Pray that, like John, we may point others in our lives to Him that they may share in His peace, His hope, and His love.


Monday, December 17, 2012

What not to say in times of grief . . .

     Although we serve a God who gave us two ears, far too many of us think the mouth and tongue must be used to serve Him better.  I know I am guilty of this thought, but I wonder how many others think that our mouths are there to give Him His marching orders or instructions?  Along those same lines, we seem uncomfortable when facing the mourning silences such as what many encountered after the shootings in Connecticut.  And so, trying to be helpful, we tend to say things we should not.  Sure, we mean well, but please pay attention to what you say in times such as this to people in shock or mooring.  Please pray to God to give you the words before they are ever uttered.  But please, please, please, never ever ever let the following words come out of your mouth when trying to explain away a tragedy.  It is far better to sit in silence than to utter these:

(1)  God needed another angel/s.  What kind of god kills people or children willy-nilly to make sure he has enough angles hanging around?  That is certainly not the message of the Gospel.  Like the angels, we are created.  Unlike the angels, though, we can be redeemed!  His promise is that when we rise in glory, we will be greater than the angels.  I confess, I don't fully understand it, nor do I expect that I will this side of the kingdom of God.  But nowhere in Scripture are we taught that we die to be reincarnated as angels.  Nowhere in Scripture are we told that, sometimes, God is short a few angels or humans or any other part of creation, so He needs to reshuffle the deck.  And, if you think we are being hypersensitive to this ridiculous statement, consider it from a child's perspective.  Do you think any child who has heard the statement this week is comforted by these words?  Or do you think, rather, that children live in fear that another loved one will be snatched by God because He is short another angel today?

(2)  God willed this.  It is part of His plan.  Sometimes I find myself nearly as enraged by this idiocy as the idiocy of number 1.  God will that we would live in the garden of Eden in full communion with Him forever.  He did not wish for us to die.  He did not wish for us to suffer.  He did not will for us to weed, for women to suffer during childbirth, for us to suffer mental illness, for us to lack any need.  God only willed good things for us.  We did, however, choose to reject Him.  Now we live in a world beset by sin.  Natural disasters and evil both give evidence to that claim, as does Jesus crying over the death of Lazarus and His lament over Jerusalem's refusal of His love and care.  God can overcome any evil in our life, even death.  He does not, however, will tragedies like this.  He does allows them to occur (part of the consequence of free will), but He does not inspire them or cause them to be committed.

(3)  It's for the best.  He/She/They is/are not suffering any more.  Again, death is never for the best.  God did not intend death.  He can and will overcome it in the life of His believers, but death is never for the best.  Loved ones will feel the loss acutely.  Acknowledge it, in silence in necessary.  But never tell them it is for the best.

(4)  Well, at least you can/have another child / are young enough to find someone else / etc.  At times this makes its way up my personal peeve list, but I understand my sensitivity to the issue.  I heard people say aloud that my classmates who had lost children were young enough to try again/have more, as if all the parents care about are the numbers and not the kids themselves.  But I am often shocked at how often it proceeds out of the mouth of "Christians" when they "comfort" a woman who has miscarried.  God knew us before He formed us in the womb.  He knows the hairs of our heads.  We have infinite value in His eyes and are not interchangeable, just as our children are in our own.  Let's think before we speak.  Our Lord knows the pain of losing a Son unjustly.  Again, acknowledge the loss.  Sit in silence or cry with those grieving, admit you don't understand how such a tragedy can be redeemed, but never ever suggest that their loved one can be replaced by another.

(5)  God never gives you more than you can handle.  Really?  Have you ever dealt with people suffering from depression or recovering from suicide or other addictions?  Lots of people get way more than they feel they can handle.  Such things are often the reason that individuals turn to such things to block the pain.  It is true that God does not intend evil; and it is also true that He will give us grace to bear suffering in His name and glory.  Attacks such as experienced in Connecticut or that men and women see in war or families see in certain neighborhoods in our inner cities or that those enslaved are forced to live with are often more than any human being should ever have to see or experience.  In many cases, such experiences cause all kinds of mental illnesses because we were not meant to see or experience them.  Many events can threaten to overwhelm us.  Those who cling to the death and resurrection of Christ know He has the power to see them through any tragedy, even through death.  But these evils are not given by Him (if we who are evil know how to give good things, then how much more does your Father in heaven), nor is He unaware of the pain experienced by those who suffer.

(6)  Don't be angry at or blame God for this.  I suppose we think we are protecting either the individual or God when we say such things to people who have suffered a tragedy.  Anger is a natural part of the grieving process.  Better still, God gave us psalms of imprecation for use in worship, as well as other examples and stories such as Job or Lamentations.  He expects us to be angry.  He expects us to lash out.  And He has given us the language to do that with Him, at least for a time.  If we worship a God who can do anything, as we claim, there is nothing wrong with being angry that God has withheld His power/grace/etc from a particular situation, at least from our perspective.  Over time, the mourner will comforted by the fact that a loved one is with the Lord and so will be seen again one day, and a follower of Christ will, hopefully, come to the understanding that God's ways are not our ways.  He gives and He takes away, still He is blessed.  We simply learn over time and over our walk with Him that He intends good for us in all things and that He can and does redeem the evil things in our life.

(7)  I don't think I could . . . Several people at the Putnam and in the parish lamented that they did not think they could attack the gunman in Connecticut like the principal, or protect students like one of the teachers.  They are judging themselves on how they think they would act and feeling guilty.  One, those who claim the cross have no need to feel guilt.  We are called to repent of our sins, but He forgets the sins the moment we repent.  Two, do not judge how you think you would behave in a particular situation.  Wait until the event happens, if it ever unfortunately does, then judge your actions.  Failures and successes can teach us a great deal about ourselves.  Our actions in times of emergencies can testify to our love of the Lord and our faith in Him, but those actions are usually inspired by the Holy Spirit in times of need.  My guess is, if you were placed in some horrific situation and knew the likely outcome was your death, you would face it bravely, with grace, and with an eye to helping others.  That is the DNA of your Spirit in Christ in St. Alban's.  And Christians often report moments of clarity, like time itself slows, in such emergencies.  Is the clarity and inspiration to action from within, or is it bestowed as a gift of the Holy Spirit in times of emergency?  Be wise and do everything you can to avoid such situations, but do not fear their occurrence.  After all, nothing can separate you from His love!

As always, if you can think of an irritating statement that caused you to turn away from God in times of need, feel free to share it.  Maybe we can become better comforters of those suffering in our midst.

So, what do we do about guns?

     One of the questions coming out the tragedy in Connecticut is the issue of gun control.  What is the Gospel response?  First of all, we live in a country in which the ownership of guns is legal.  In fact, it is almost ingrained in our DNA that we need to own guns to experience the American Dream.  Guns are thought to offer protection and to serve as a deterrent to events such as was experienced in Newton, CT this past Friday.  Plus, they are used by sports enthusiasts to hunt and target shoot.  We have more experienced gentlemen and younger girls in our congregation, as well as plenty of individuals in between age-wise who own guns.  Does that mean they are doing something wrong?  Are they somehow bad witnesses of the Gospel of Christ?

     Since the authorities give us the right to own guns, so long as we obey the relevant laws, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Christians owning guns.  In the years that I have been here, those whom I know to own guns in our parish have been model citizen owners.  All have gone through the required gun-safety classes.  All have the appropriate licenses.  As far as I know, none has discharged their weapon in a threatening manner.  And I can think of at least one instance where an owner among us fulfilled the spirit or intent of the gun laws at great cost personally.  Those who know me know I benefit from those owners from time to time.  Most of my kids and I are known to wolf down our fair share of deer jerky--all of it provided by a legal gun owner, and we have been fortunate to trade some of that jerky for other “treats” bagged by other hunters that we enjoy.

      But this shooting, and the Oregon Mall shooting, and the countless other mass attacks around the country have left this country considering whether our gun laws make sense.  Yes, we are required to fill out applications to purchase guns, but what happens when the underlying conditions of the owner change.  More often than not, we, the general public, must depend on the owner to recognize the change within themselves.  Seldom does this ever work well. Just as those whose reflexes or physical conditions have caused reactions to slow behind the wheel are loathe to give up driving or those that suffer from mental illness are sometimes known to avoid their prescribed medication, those who suffer mental illness years after purchasing a weapon are often unwilling to give up their guns.  This is despite the fact that the first question on the application is about mental illness.  So, like driving a car or being certified in many professions, why don’t we have to re-qualify to own our weapons every few years?  How is our right to bear armed infringed when the public simply tries to make sure that our qualifications for owning a weapon have not changed?

     Perhaps those who suffer from mental illness feel specifically singled out.  Unfortunately, psychologists and psychiatrists are unable to “guarantee” that those suffering from particular mental illnesses (for example, some forms of depression) will not use weapons to harm themselves or others.  Since the experts cannot guarantee behavior, society has passed laws that those who suffer such diseases are simply disqualified from owning weapons in the interest of public safety.  It may seem unfair.  It may seem like a violation of rights.  But it is not like we don’t do this in other rights.  Anyone interested in giving the blind a driver’s license?  Do we think we are infringing on the rights of others when we require our professionals, such as doctors and nurses and nuclear scientists and others, to pass certain competency requirements?  Why should we not as a society think critically about gun ownership?

     Thinking critically, of course, means not vilifying the person who holds a position contrary to our own.  Thinking critically means that we engaged the other side, passionately to be sure, about what we believe to be rational safeguards or limits placed upon ownership, understanding that many among us can rightly believe that the second amendment is clear that gun ownership shall not be infringed, that gun ownership really does keep the government from taking liberty from its citizens, and that, in the grand scheme, nearly four times as many people are killed by automobile drivers each year than by the discharge of weapons in this country.  Thinking critically in the public discourse means that people who use weapons legally, that people who have been victimized by the illegal use of weapons, that people who have been saved from a crime or threat to life thanks to the possession of a gun, that people who are charged with enforcing the laws regarding gun ownership and their use, that people who live in practical war zones in our nation’s cities, that people who are forced to clean up the messes, and even people who are terrified about the thought of owning a weapon will have a right to participate in the public discourse and determination of gun laws, just as will we.

     A few months ago, I was asked at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese conference about my thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian situation.  They were debating forcing one side or the other to accept the terms of peace and what the Roman Catholic church’s position should be.  My public thought was that no one can be forced into peace.  My thought was that we Christians have done a horrible job evangelizing Israel and Palestine.  Were we to be effective at sharing Christ’s Gospel with them, they would be drawn to The Table of their own free will.  Accepting the Gospel would require that they see their enemy as their brother or sister in Christ.  The only faithful response then, would be to love their neighbor as Christ loved them.  That, I said, is how I think we in the Church end the Israeli-Palestinian fighting; forcing peace will never work.

     I share that story because it is very similar to my thoughts on gun ownership.  Some people own guns because they think they need protection from criminals, others own guns because they think they need protection from the state, others own guns because they protect against the breakdown of the social order, and still others own them for sport.  No doubt the craziness of the world will cause some people to run out and purchase guns to protect themselves against the next attack like we have seen this week.  The problem, of course, is that such protection is illusionary.  Life can be snuffed out by a bad heart, a bad blood vessel, a texting driver, a drunk driver, or a criminal wielding a weapon or bomb in the literal blink of an eye.  No weapon can protect against every threat.

     As Christians, however, you and I proclaim a God who became human, a God who knows our fears and worries, a God who died for us that we might be justified, and a God who was raised from the dead demonstrating to us that He has the power and the will to redeem all things.  As Christians, we should not seek the role of victim; but when it is thrust upon us, we should embrace it trust that He will redeem our suffering, particularly when it is unjust.  Our Lord has promised that all His people will spend eternity with Him, that nothing, not even death itself can separate us from His love.  Knowing that, and knowing that all in this world is temporary, are we really a people in need of such mundane protection?  Do we really possess things that require such firepower?  Are we a people that should depend upon our weapons to preserve us?  Or should we, instead, trust in the One who overcame death and the grave to preserve our lives?  Better still, should we not be in the business of encouraging others to trust in His love through our service of them?

     Every time we gather as a people to break bread and to drink wine, we remind ourselves of this hope.  Before sharing His body and His blood, however, we always say His prayer.  Each time we celebrate the Eucharist we pray to God that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  While it is true that neither the Gospels nor the Epistles mention anything at all about the second amendment, I am willing to bet that His love and glory and power make gun ownership in the next kingdom unnecessary.  Maybe, as a church, we should begin to engage in the service and in the debate to make it so on earth, not because we have numbers and can pass legislation, but because His Spirit can circumcise all stony hearts, and make us all love our neighbors as ourselves.  When that day comes, when we begin to love our neighbors as ourselves, there will be no need for any guns, but likely no sighing nor sadness, too!  It is, admittedly, a dream.  But then, doesn’t our reach always exceed our grasp on earth?

     Whatever the outcome on the upcoming debate gun control laws, if indeed there is one, I would encourage each of you to participate actively.  If you think you can make a sound argument for the ownership of even assault weapons, do so.  If you think you make a sound argument for the limitation of certain rights now granted, do so.  If you think Switzerland has it right in requiring males of a certain age to own guns and ammunition, make the case.  If you believe in America that gun ownership in certain conditions is simply too dangerous, make the case.  But please do the other side the courtesy of taking their argument seriously, recognizing that passions run high in this debate.  You and I are called to be a non-anxious presence in the vicissitudes of the world.  May that presence, His presence, shine brightly through us as this subject is discussed, long after the names of those 26 slain individuals are forgotten by the world.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Making sense of the senseless . . .

     Why?  How?  How could someone be so cruel?  The pictures today are haunting.  They speak of utter tragedy.  Parents being informed by other parents that their children’s class is “unaccounted for,” then the directions are given where they should go to meet with law enforcement and grief counselors.  Other parents fiercely hugging then protectively leading their young one or young ones from the scene of the carnage.  Some 20 children are dead, most of whom are between the ages of 5 and 7.  Some 6 adults have also lost their lives this day.  A community has been savaged.  A country is once again in mourning.  Because of social media in particular, but other media outlets as well, parents are facing children, who are forced to grow up far too soon, full of questions.  Some parents long for the days when questions about the “birds and the bees” were the questions to be feared.  Why did the bad man do this?  Am I safe at my school?  Is there a bad man or woman who want to hurt me and my friends like this?  All of this comes on the heels of a mall shooting just a few days earlier.  Prior to that, someone invaded a college campus with a crossbow.  Is this what we have come to?  And how can people get “in the Christmas Spirit” when violence like this keeps happening?

     I was asked a lot about it by my kids friends at school.  You proclaim a God who loves the world and all of us--why would He let something like this happen?  Why not protect those kids from harm?  I have also had a few adults already check in with me to see what they can do to protect their kids.  The world just isn’t safe any more, Father.  I almost feel like I need to move to Montana and start home schooling my kids and keeping them away from stores and malls.  What do I say to my kids?  How can I convince them that I will ever keep them safe when there are idiots like this on the loose?  Why should I believe that God loves me when He lets things like this happen to other kids just like me?

     Although I would give anything had this not happened at all, I am thankful for my parishioners and those in orbit of my parish that it occurred during Advent.  Advent is the season of the church year when we remind ourselves that we are an expectant people.  Yes, we live on this side of the Christmas Manger and Empty Tomb, so we know God cares enough for us to save us and has the power to accomplish everything that He promises.  But we live in a world which is not yet reflective of His will that is done in heaven.  Not even close.  Christ has not yet returned to establish His kingdom on earth.   That amazing day of judgment when He returns to call His people home has not occurred.  And so we live in a world that continues to be assaulted by sin.

     The secular press and a number of people with whom I have already spoken wonder what causes tragedies like this.  Quite simply, it is sin.  Each of us, no matter how good or bad we might seem, has found themselves in rebellion against God.  Sin is, ultimately, that preference for our own wills over God’s.  In this case, a young man seems to have killed his mother, maybe some of her co-workers, some 20 kindergartners, and in the ultimate act of rebellion against God, himself.  Sin, separation from God, is the root cause of this event.  The investigation may well point to a fight or a mental disease or a sense of hopelessness which triggered the rampage, but as Christians I believe we are well served to call the cause what it really is.  By placing the cause in the context of our faith, we can then begin to witness to the reality and problem of sin and a loving Father who loved us so much that He sent His Son to redeem us from our sins, but also a loving Father who loved us enough to give us a choice.  We are all given the choice to be reconciled to God through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, but God does not force us to serve Him.  Nowhere is that reality more apparent than in the world around us.  The governor of Connecticut rightly spoke that evil was done in his state today.  We would do well to remember his words and call this senseless tragedy what it is.

     For those of us in the faith, however, this tragedy is a reminder of the fragility of life.  President Obama probably caught the general mood of parents across the country this evening when he claimed that he and the First Lady would hold their girls a bit longer and hug them a bit tighter.  Those of us who claim to be Christians, however, should always be reminded of the gifts that God has given us and their temporal nature.  Life itself can be snuffed out at the whim of another sinful man or woman.  Our reputations can be destroyed by a well placed lie.  Our very identities and all that goes with them can be wiped out at the stroke of a keyboard.  Innocence can be lost at the hands of an abuser.  Trust can be crushed at the hands of a liar or thief.    The list can go on and on.  Our answer to our kids is not to withdraw from the world.  Quite the contrary, we are called to live in the world confident that we are not of the world.  It is an important distinction, one that we often forget in our spiritual laziness.

     How do we face such acts of evil?  However God, empowering us through the Holy Spirit, calls us.  I have not yet heard of any heroic stories, but I expect several.  In the midst of such tragedies there are always those who become modern illustrations of the Good Samaritan.  Perhaps a teacher acted to save the lives of children in her care.  Maybe a janitor risked his or her life to lead children out of the school into the waiting arms of those first responders trying to discern what was happening.  Maybe some shielded the kids left alive from the gruesome scene in the kindergarten room when the survivors were led out.  Maybe some mental health professionals will feel a call to help children and their families deal with inevitable nightmares and jumpiness at certain sounds.  Some of our brothers and sisters will be on the ground at this moment offering a shoulder to cry on, offering to mourn in silence with those parents who experienced the ultimate tragedy.  Others will be gathered all around this country interceding with God on behalf of those suffering.  And God will act.  He has promised.  The same God who conquered death and the tomb will be there with us, inspiring us to do His will and empowering us to accomplish great things in His name, all for the purpose of bringing light into the darkness, hope into the hopelessness, and life into death!

      I cannot speak to how this tragedy will be redeemed yet.  The shock and pain are simply too raw and too near to offer a period of reflection.  Those who claim Christ as Lord, though, know He stands weeping with us, saddened beyond all understanding, and aware of our need of Him.  But I know this tragedy will be redeemed.  Our Lord knows the pain of losing a Son.  Lessons will be learned, hopefully, that prevent the next school shooting.  Perhaps mental health professionals will learn something that enables them to see signs of such imminent evil.  Maybe the tragedy will cause our politicians to become statesmen and stateswomen, men and women who work for the good of those who elected them rather than their particular party and lobby interests.  God has always redeemed such evil, and I am confident that He will yet again.

     But what of us at a distance?  What are we to make of such a tragedy during the Christmas Season?  As I said at the top of this note, the season of Advent speaks to such evil.  The whole world needs a Savior, and God has provided Him.  Better still, one day in the future, He will return to claim what is His.  Nothing, absolutely nothing in this life, even death itself, can keep us from His plan of salvation.  The tragedy offers us an opportunity to speak into the grief, the shock, the horror, and the fears of those around us.  As much as we might like to think that we can prolong our lives or protect our loved ones, we know that in the end we are unable to do either very well.  All that we are given, our children, our spouses, our parents, our resources, our talents, even life and breath itself, are gifts from our Lord that we hold as stewards.  Each are meant to be used to glorify God.

     I understand the urge to run off to Montana and hide and other such wild idea.  Who doesn’t want to keep their children safe?  But there is nowhere on earth that we can escape the consequence of sin in the world.  There will always be storms, and bad men, and institutions which run over individuals no matter where they are.  In the end, we cannot protect our children as much as we mike like to believe.  So, it becomes our job, our most important job, to teach our children that they are loved beyond measure by our Father in heaven.  Yes, they need to be made aware to stop, drop and roll and to avoid trusting people on the internet and any number of common sense safety issues.  But there is much more that we need to teach our children.  They need to know that they are loved so much that He sent His Son that we might be freed from sin and death.  Sin and death and evil might seem to win to the world, but we know better.  The empty tomb teaches us all that we will not be separated for very long, should such tragedy strike our families.  No matter what happens in this life, those who serve Him and call upon Him as Lord will rise in glory.  In the end, we and He will be vindicated.  He is our trust.  He is our hope.  He is our life.

     I was struck by the brutality of one of the kid’s question at school this afternoon.  Do you think those kids are probably with God, Father Brian?  I answered yes, I thought they were.  Why?  Well, they were awfully young.  I’m not sure what the cutoff age is for making a decision, but our Lord indignantly told His disciples to let the children come to Him.  It would seem weird to me if He chose to keep them away in their greatest hour of need.  He nodded and asked a follow-up.  What about older kids?  What happens when older kids are killed and don’t believe like that school in Colorado or that college in Wyoming?  When I was a kid, it seems like I worried about cooties and picking teams for kickball.  It is definitely a different world.  I told him that I leave those decisions to our Lord.  Why?  It has always seemed fair to me that the one who died on the cross gets to decide those things.  I am ill-equipped and sometimes ill-tempered for such responsibility.  But they have to decide, right?  I mean, you can’t not decide all your life, right?  We were talking about this all afternoon and some of my friends said they would think about all this when they got older.  What happens to them if they haven’t made a decision if a gunman kills us?  You are not going to like my answer.  Why?  I am not big on playing “what-if.”  I would rather tell you to live your life in a way that honors God to the best of your ability and to the grace given you.  Then, when they see you responding differently to such bad events, they might ask you why.  Then you get to tell them.  And, hey, if they decide to become a disciple of Jesus, we know what happens to them instead of worrying about them, right?  My budding evangelist nodded his head, promised to think about it, and headed out to meet his parents.

     As I was walking through this conversation with this boy, I was reminded of a number of parents in my ministry.  They could be the parents of any number of his friends.  Time and time again I am told by parents that they don’t come to church or bring their kids to church because they want to give their kids the “freedom to choose,” as if that is a noble parenting sentiment.  My question of them is always “how will your child ever make an informed choice if he/she does not know the Christian narrative?”  One of the ways in which this tragedy may well be redeemed is if parents in other parts of the country take stock of how they are raising their children.  Are they raising their children to know and love the God whose birth we remember this Christmas and whose return we proclaim this Advent?  If not, bad habits can be changed just like that.  All God demands is that we repent and return.  The saving part is up to Him!  Part of the reason we go to church is to remind ourselves of the saving deeds He has done.  The killing of 20 kindergartners might seem unredeemable to the world.  But those of us who study Scripture and remember His story know this is not the first time children have been killed.  Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew male infants to be killed.  Herod slaughtered all the babies in Bethlehem who had the misfortune to have been born around the time of Jesus.  This is not the first child tragedy in history to confront and, unfortunately, unless He returns tonight, it will not be the last.  But just as He steered His people through those times of unspeakable evil, He will see all His people through this evil.  He will wipe away the tears of mourning and turn them into the cheers of victory.  That is His promise and our hope!