Of the International Space Station and the Yearning for Predictability: A Palm Sunday Meditation

I have on my iPhone an app called the “ISS Spotter.”  It tells me exactly when and where in the sky the International Space Station will be.  As I write this, I just came back indoors having been alerted to the Station’s passage and indeed there it was, making its stately luminescent way overhead.  Being able to spot that space station as it arcs across the night sky has been an oddly strange comfort lately.  For it is exactly where it is supposed to be.  issGoverned by the laws of astrophysics, there is no ambiguity, no capriciousness as to when and where it will appear on its journey. 

I think it’s a comfort because my life and your life are so utterly unlike that now.  There’s so little predictability, so little consistency with what our lives were like only one short month ago.  So many of our routines have been upended and there seems so very little that we actually know as we anxiously await what may be next in this scary and unsettled time.  On this Palm Sunday, as Rev. Barbara Blaisdell says in her powerful Palm Sunday sermon, we once again begin our Holy Week journey, a journey that may seem the same as it has been in the past, but it’s not.  The uncertainties and unpredictabilities  that assail us right now, the worries, the fears about what’s next, the not knowing – unlike with that space station – exactly  what is coming next sap us and make us anxious and even immobilized.  Yet Jesus’ journey once again into Jerusalem can and should remind us that we can ask God to help us choose to refuse those things that are hurting us on this new and unknown journey, to ask God to help us from latching onto premature pseudo-certainties that do us and the world no good, and instead, in Barbara’s words, see this as “an opportunity to choose a new way, a new way of being. This is a week to see that a new way can be made. A way has been made. A way that leads to new life, abundant life for each and all.”  May this Palm Sunday indeed remind us Christ is always journeying with us and the whole world, always offering us that new way even in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety.  Thanks be to God for that Good News!

 

Don’t Be a Lagger

(Written with the Rev. Barbara Blaisdell)

Twenty years ago a retired minister who was facing death was reminiscing about his life and ministry.  He told about what had happened in 1965 when he told his congregation’s Elders that he was taking vacation time to participate in the March on Selma.  His Elders told him that if he did so, he shouldn’t plan to return for he would no longer be the church’s pastor.  After some agonizing and not a little prayer, he went to Selma – and returned to no job; he had indeed been summarily fired.  Why did he risk in this way?  I have never forgotten his response:  “How could I lag behind when God’s people were so at risk?”

There’s another sense of “lagging” that we need to be paying attention to these days.  Uber-statistician Nate Silver reminds us that “people should be mindful that coronavirus statistics are lagging indicators. In Wuhan, a typical case showed up in the data ~2 weeks after the person initially became symptomatic. The lag could be longer in counties without good testing (e.g. the USA).”

A lack of understanding about that sort of lag may be why so many churches did not cancel worship this past Sunday; it simply did not appear to be a crisis.  But it is.  It is.  And the statements of some public figures about it’s being a “great time” to go out and be with people history will judge as morally reprehensible — as well as examples of willful historical amnesia.  What does that mean?  Those making such statements are guilty of forgetting that it is science that accounts for the lifespans we now enjoy in this country, for insulin, for hip and knee replacements, for pacemakers, for antibiotics, for the fact that surgeries are done under sterile conditions, and so much more.  The question becomes why now ignore the best science now when our country and our planet and God’s people are in crisis?

There really is no good answer to that question, is there?  The reason that scientists are telling us to wash our hands and practice social distance is not simply to keep us from getting ill, it is to keep our neighbors from getting ill!  Which is really a modern day application of Jesus’ “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  With the news that many people can be carriers while being asymptomatic, it is all the more crucial that we live by that dictum of Jesus:  Wouldn’t you want folks to consider whether they are unknowingly transmitting the virus to you and yours?  And as a follower of Jesus, how can you not want to do the same for them?

It’s really that simple.  Social distancing can dramatically cut the spread of this virus and help “flatten the curve.”   Pastors and church leaders, for the sake of your neighbor whom God loves, please stand up to those voices that are counseling ignoring our best scientific knowledge and who, however inadvertently, seem to be willing to trade people’s lives for their own need for intimacy.  I know it’s hard.  We crave making a joyful noise to God together Sunday by Sunday.  And that is all the more reason prayers are offered daily for those pastors who are leading in this difficult, unprecedented, scary time, and who are just beginning to try to get their minds and hearts around the multiple meanings of this crisis lasting for months.  These folks are and will be heroes.

But in the end, it is those simple and profound words from that pastor that ought to inhabit our minds and hearts:  “Don’t be a lagger, for God’s people are at risk.”

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Churches: Cancelling Worship Through April is the Most Faithful Thing You Can Do Right Now

First, a note of confession:  I am not currently pastoring a church nor do I have any official leadership responsibilities.  My support is with those of you who are currently pastoring or leading and who are trying to navigate these turbulent and unknown waters.  My prayers are with you daily and you have my admiration.  With that said, though, I feel compelled to offer some thoughts on how we can be most faithful as God’s people:

Let me not bury the lede:  The effects of this pandemic are going to get much worse before they begin to slow and ultimately get better.  This will not happen in the next two weeks.  It will only happen, according to those who know based on the best science, at the end of April at the earliest (that is why an increasing number of governors are closing states’ schools through April).

But such lessening of the effects will not happen unless all of us do our part do what scientists say is the most important thing:  social distancing.  And churches simply cannot guarantee that they can do that.  Our Sunday gatherings are joyful noises to the Lord precisely in part because of the way we show our love and care and joy in one another through our closeness, our hugs, our handshakes.

But now is the time to love those just as much “on the outside” as those on the “inside.”  Purportedly “safe” communion practices are not enough; attempts at requiring folks to sit apart and to not touch will fail; often the most frail will insist on being in worship at their own and others’ risk.  How do we truly love both those “in” our own flock as well as the world God calls us to love?  Precisely by doing those drastic things that slow down the spread of the virus:  true social distancing, which, by definition, means not gathering together.

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Why?  Well, we’ve all likely seen by now the “flattening the curve” graphic that shows that social distancing can flatten the peak of infection so as to not overwhelm our health care system and its dedicated providers.  But take a look at this other amazing graph that shows just how much the exponential power of the Covid-19 virus can be harnessed against itself:  If we can avert ONE case tomorrow, that means over 2000 cases averted a month from now!  (Read the whole article HERE)

Micah 6:8 famously reminds us that what God requires of us is to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.  To act justly is to seek to regard everyone – not just those close to us – as our siblings.  To love mercy is to know that sometimes that means denying our desires for intimacy.  To walk humbly is to not have the presumption that somehow we can be an exception to scientific wisdom.

We can’t do everything.  But we can witness again panic and hoarding and fear-mongering.  We can witness for acting in accord with the best scientific wisdom.  We can insist that our officials make as much provision for “the least of these” as for the well-off and privileged.

But at least for right now, the very best thing we can do for ourselves and for those whom God loves is to cancel our church gatherings, hard as that seems.  For not to do so is to knowingly trade the sickness and potential deaths of some people for our own desire for intimacy.  And I truly do not believe that, understood that way, we want to do that.

So let’s work hard at staying in touch in other ways.  Let us care in new ways for those in our flock who are isolated and vulnerable.  Let us figure out how to worship together even while apart.  Let us continue to trust in God, the One who is our life and in whom we live, move, and have our being, and from whom nothing can separate us.

Before Thoughts and Prayers First Comes Confession – How Liberal Christians Have Helped Create the Climate that Spawned the Pittsburgh Massacre

The latest mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue rightly revolts us all.  It was a hideous act, as were the shootings at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston – and too many others.  To be sure, the President and his minions and MAGA-hatted sycophants (whom he has given permission and encouragement to be vicious and vile) bear a large responsibility for the climate where we may be shocked but not surprised that an avowed anti-Semite would appear to delight in slaughtering Jewish folks.

But this latest shooting also possesses a special kind of hideousness for those of us who are liberal mainline Christians.  Reading the vile rants of the alleged shooter ought to give those of us in those traditions a queasy moment.  Anti-Judaism is the “original sin” of Christianity, and too often its modern-day form has been aided and abetted by too many sermons from too many pulpits that uncritically take the sometimes awful words in the Gospels about “the Jews” literally, without any attempt to interpret how the gospel of John, particularly, is the record of a “family fight” where things are said (as in most family fights) that simply aren’t true – then or now.    What’s more, those of us who claim liberal mainline Protestantism as our theological home also bear some responsibility for creating such a climate in other ways too.  When churches and pastors do not annually observe Yom HaShoah but do regularly and uncritically offer passion plays and Good Friday observances and their ilk which uncritically repeat these hideous lies about our ancestors in the faith, then we err on the side of historical fatuousness and theological ingratitude – and we make it just a little more possible for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and anti-Jewish violence to flourish.  We also need to remember that as a nation we are also culpable in actions that sent the clear message that Jews are simply not to be valued as much as Christians.  When we fail to confess that part of the reason for today’s situation is the United States’ and other nations’ refusal to take in Jewish refugees in World War II and the refusal to bomb the railways that made the “Final Solution’s” camps possible, we tacitly deny that such actions (or lack of actions!) are the historical but very real progenitors of today’s increasing anti-Jewish violence and vandalism; they give an historical imprimatur to what is happening now.

Thoughts and prayers?  Always.  But they are not enough without the confession that we who call ourselves liberal Protestant Christians have too often exacerbated by our own words and pronouncements and practices and sermons and Bible studies the anti-Judaism that is increasing in our country.   Those who preach, particularly from the Gospel of John, need to always make sure that they have studied works like Clark Williamson’s and Ron Allen’s Preaching the Gospel Without Blaming the Jews before stepping into the pulpit.  We can and should publicly repudiate the odious right-wing fundamentalist view of Israel (and its own anti-Jewish ideology) without also repudiating that Israel, theologically, bears a special place in our affections as the homeland of the people onto whom we Christians were graciously grafted by God.  Likewise, we can honor our Muslim brothers and sisters and cousins in the overarching Abrahamic family of faith without necessarily execrating our Jewish extended family members.

It is possible to do both.  But it will take confession.  And it will take nuance – a virtue seemingly disallowed in our current civic discourse.  And it will take all sides abjuring theological triumphalism that inevitably demonizes and objectifies certain folks and leads too frequently to despicable expressions of hatred in too many places — and now in Pittsburgh.

I hope we want to try.  For the sake of ALL those whom God loves and expects justice for, I hope we want to try.

“Much Mo’ Bettah” – A World Communion Sunday Meditation

In the church where I served as pastor in Hawaii, on “first Sundays” people came forward for communion, tearing a piece of bread off of a loaf lovingly made most Sundays by a man by the name Larry Sumida, and dipping it in a cup of juice.

I don’t know who it was who one Sunday filled the communion chalice with Mogen David wine – wine that had begun to “turn” more than a little. THAT was a memorable communion service! I have never seen so many startled faces as when those little wine-soaked morsels hit people’s tongues! After worship, one of the long-time members said to me, using local slang, “That sure opened my eyes! I think I can now see much mo’ bettah!”

As we gather on World Communion Sunday with folks in every land in clime, speaking a multiplicity of tongues, in grand cathedrals and lowly lean-to’s, using bread or crackers or tortillas, whether with juice or with wine, may indeed our eyes also be opened “much mo’ bettah!”

  • May they be opened to the fact that when any of God’s children hurt we are called to hurt with them, that we might seek to help.
  • May they be opened to those gestures and those voices that hurt, that diminish, that say that some people are second-class and are to be feared because of their race or orientation or economic status.
  • May they be opened when vulnerable people are mocked and attacked.

And as we see and hear more clearly, “much mo’ bettah,” may we also know that this meal is, as one of the ancient Church Fathers put it, the “bread of courage.” At this Table, may we indeed therefore find the courage

  • to speak up at injustice,
  • to speak up when the vulnerable are mocked,
  • to speak up when any of God’s children are slurred against,
  • to speak up when words are used as weapons rather than as bearers of grace.

May our eyes indeed be opened and our courage unleashed, as we too see and do “much mo’ bettah” indeed!

From a communion meditation offered at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Tacoma, Washington, October 7, 2018.  My thanks to Sr. Pastor Barbara Blaisdell for the invitation to preside at the Table.

Or The Honor of the Action is Lost….

Sixteen years ago, when Barbara and I were on vacation in Hawaii, Honolulu Advertiser columnist Lee Cataluna published a piece (August 2, 2002) that has stayed with me to this day.  Entitled “No Name, No Blame, No Shame,” it is powerfully written (even if I might have chosen a less pugilistic image) and her point is true for both churchly and civic life.  (I used to use this article when, as Regional Minister, I would orient Pastoral Relations Committees, reminding them of the damage that anonymous complaints do to pastor and congregation and to be firm in a policy that anonymous complaints would neither be tolerated nor responded to).  Consider Cataluna’s words:

The pen is mightier than the sword. There is much good that can be accomplished by a thoughtfully composed letter. It can be the beginning of positive social change, the wake‑up call somebody needed, the whistle calling a foul.

But there is an important caveat: You have to sign your name. If not, the honor of the action is lost.

There’s a reason why the written word is compared to a sword, the weapon of gallantry, the weapon of skill and precision, the choice of a brave warrior. When you fight with a sword, you must look your opponent in the eye. You must let yourself be revealed, vulnerabilities and all. You must be willing to subject yourself to counter‑attack by your foe. It is a noble way of doing battle.

Writing that is anonymous is more like a sniper hiding in the bushes, more like a bomb hidden under a parked car, more like terrorism. It is cowardly, no matter the original intent, no matter the validity of the letter’s content.

People who send unsigned complaint letters, hate mail, critiques or exposés often include a line that says, “I don’t want to sign my name for fear of retribution.” They’re willing to lob a grenade into someone else’s life, be it righteous or malicious or vengeful, but they want to drive off into the night unseen and unaffected. If you aren’t willing to stand by your accusations, come what may, then don’t make them.

I thought of Ms. Cataluna’s column upon reading the NY Times anonymous op-ed piece concerning the situation in the White House.  My reaction was two-fold:  First, there was not a thing in that essay that surprised me; everything in it is consistent with everything we know about the President and his malicious, mendacious ways.  But second, I was dismayed that a “Senior White House Official” would use this means of promulgating his or her views.  It cheapens the national conversation.  Moreover, it sidetracks discussion of the real and scary issues, as those who bear responsibility for the immoral and reprehensible policies and practices of this administration can instead fulminate and speculate about the writer.

Ms. Cataluna is right: there is no honor in it.  It hurts the cause of those working to thwart this administration’s immorality.  It takes the spotlight away from the sham Supreme Court hearings and the fecklessness of those Republican senators who are willing to occasionally sound “tough” but, as James Fallows eloquently points out,  who will DO nothing to stop this depredation about the be visited on the Court.

In the church, anonymous complaints always hurt the Body of Christ and the mission Christ has for the congregation of sharing grace in a culture of joyless jingoistic judgmentalism.  And in the body politic, anonymous screeds further contaminate the soil that is needed for democracy and for “the better angels of our nature” to nourish the American dream of equity and justice for all.  Too much of that soil has already been polluted by an administration with too much evil on its hands.  It is ironic, un-helpful, and disturbing when a putative ally uses a means that further spreads such pollution instead of halting it.

And, after all, if you are a grownup then you really do need to take responsibility for your actions; you need to “sign” your name.  If that means you will no longer have a job, so be it.  Maybe yours will be the righteous resignation that finally, finally emboldens one of the Senatorial “feckless fifty” to actually do their jobs in the face of a President who is not simply a national and world embarrassment but a continuing and growing threat to the very premises of the American experiment.

But, as Ms. Cataluna says, you have to sign your name.  It’s the honorable thing.

No Pottage

Genesis 25:29‑34 from NKJV.   Jacob cooked pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint: And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage…. And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright.  And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?  And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.

(Updated July 4, 2019)

Twenty  years ago, my wife Barbara, our youngest daughter, and I found ourselves on July 4 in Ely, Nevada.  If you’ve been to Ely, you know it is a hard‑scrabble place, set amidst an awesomely desolate landscape, hours from the next real town.  That night we found ourselves at the country fairgrounds, sitting on the hood of our car, parked there with hundreds of others to watch the fireworks light up the desert sky.  On one side of us was parked a young Hispanic American mother and her three small children.  As the fireworks burst over our heads, those children with excitement and glee waved the tiny American flags they had clutched in their hands and shouted ¡”Mira! ¡Mira!”  “Look! Look!”  Parked on the other side of us was a family of Hmong refugees who were sharing a meal of hotdogs and French fries and who also were captivated with the incandescent tribute to freedom bursting over our heads.  In front of us was a family of Japanese‑American folks, whose grandparents, we learned had been interned by their country not that far from where we all sat that night, and they too shouted with excitement at each enormous explosion. A couple of cars over, two young men stood watching the aerial splendor while sly holding hands and smiling at one another.  And parked behind us was a Muslim American family, outfitted in beautiful robes and whose children had little American flag stickers on their chests.

And we – Scots‑Irish and German descendants, one of us raised in Texas and the other in Zimbabwe – got lumps in our throats, and I remembered why I care so much for this country:  because when we are at our best, we do indeed say “no” to the pottage of hatred that gets placed before us and we do instead seek to make even more real, even more true, our commitment to welcome everyone, “with malice toward none, with charity towards all,” in Lincoln’s words, seeking to live out the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty about welcoming all those who yearn to be free.

Have we always lived up to that ideal?  Far from it.  From the slave auction blocks to the Trail of Tears to the decimation of the native Hawai`ian people to internment camps for loyal American issei and nisei to blood-stained lunch counters and bus stations to odious caging of children and separation of families  – too often we as a people have allowed (or even encouraged, to our shame) our government to rule from fear and hatred instead of from the ideals of Lincoln and the words of welcome etched on the Statue of Liberty, thereby trading, as did Esau, the best of our birthright for a mess of pottage.

But today, on this 4th of July,  we have the opportunity to re-commit ourselves to the best of who we have wanted to be, the best of the ideals that can continue to shape us and prod us if we let them, the best of a country whose borders can once again be a sign and beacon of hope instead of a symbol of fearfulness, xenophobia, and the sundering of families one from another.  Today we have the opportunity to re-commit ourselves to a flag that really and truly stands – despite the depredations and mendacities of those who would befoul it with hatred – for liberty and justice for all.

All.  Whatever color, whatever faith, whatever orientation or gender identity.

All.  Including those whose conscience demands that they take a knee in honor of those deprived of liberty and justice.

All.  Including those whose “crime” is wanting to keep their children from brutality and violence, who expected to be met with kindness instead of cages.

All.

And isn’t that so much better than a mess of pottage?

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I am grateful to the Rev. Barbara Blaisdell for her most-helpful suggestions.

 

What If They Forget?

1 Corinthians 11:27-29 The Message “Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death. Is that the kind of ‘remembrance’ you want to be part of? Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe.  If you give no thought (or worse, don’t care) about the broken body of the Master when you eat and drink, you’re running the risk of serious consequences.”

When Barbara’s and my children were small, we would sometimes treat them to lunch at a restaurant whose gimmick was that you were put inside “jail cells” in which you would order and receive your food.  I am now appalled and ashamed that my white privilege was such that it never occurred to me that treating a jail as a recreational venue was only possible because I had never had to fear being thrown into a real jail for no reason other than the color of my skin, or because I had sought refuge from horrific violence in my home.

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I remembered those long ago lunches for some reason this week when I looked at the pictures of those children in cages, in jails, holding out their hands for something to eat or seeking a toy taken from them,  holding out their hands for a sign of compassion from a government supposedly dedicated to freedom, holding out their hands to reach for a parent’s hand from which theirs had been cruelly ripped.  And I remembered at one of those lunches in one of those restaurant’s faux jail cells that one of our children said, “What if they forget about us?”

The awful and awe-filled import of Paul’s words come out fully in Peterson’s paraphrase:  So long as those who would act in our name and on our behalf imprison brown-skinned children whose “crime” is believing America’s claims to be a “city on a hill” and a welcoming haven for the brutalized, we cannot come to Christ’s table unaffected and unmoved.  For to do so is indeed to join those who jeered and spit on Him.  Those little bodies in those cages – with the odiously Orwellian name “Tender Age Shelters” – and those parents forcibly separated from those little ones in scenes that recall Auschwitz and Dachau are indeed “the broken body of the Master.”

Does that mean we should not come to the Lord’s table.  No.  Far from it.  But Paul’s words laid alongside of this shameful repugnant thing means that we cannot rest easy until no child, no parent, no person, ever is treated in such a way again and those responsible are stripped of their ability to govern on our behalf for they have already morally abdicated that right.

The next time you come to Christ’s table, then, to receive this amazing gift of grace, do not forget that your brothers and sisters are yet in cages, and that they are asking, as did our own child in that long ago restaurant, “What if they forget….?”  And then go from that table to do something, do something.

For, indeed, “what if they forget?”

On #MeToo – Confession & Intention

A few miles from one of our denomination’s church campgrounds is a rather rough-and-tumble bar.  It’s not someplace you’d likely ordinarily choose to stop.  But sometimes bodily urgencies don’t give you a choice.  In that bar, on the way to the restroom, is a large sign, intricately carved in wood, that says, “Sexual Harassment Will Not Be Reported But It Will Be Graded.”

I’m mortified and ashamed that I ever thought there was anything humorous about that sign.

But I did.

And so in my own way I contributed to the untold decades of sexual intimidation and harassment that millions of women are now reporting on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere with the oh-so-poignant and oh-so-horrifyingly simple hashtag #MeToo.

And I realize things that I should have realized and somehow acted on long ago:

  • That I have the luxury of not ever having to think about the daily possibility of being sexually objectified, catcalled, and subject to the very real chance of being assaulted.  But my wife and my daughters and my mother and every woman has had to do so.  And that is simply wrong, and my silence has helped make it possible.
  • That such harassment is only different in degree, not kind, from the daily diminutions and degradations that women deal with:
    • the car salesman who addresses only the husband,
    • the bank whose “policy” puts the man’s name on the mortgage ahead of the woman’s even if she is the one with the larger income and who has done all the work to get to that point,
    • the church folks who don’t “approve” of women pastors or who compliment men’s sermons but tell women ministers they enjoyed their “little talk” and feel free to ask women ministerial candidates offensive questions they would never ask men.
  • That a too-often-ignored fact about our culture’s obsession with guns and our unwillingness to treat it as a public health crisis has meant that simply living in a state with a high rate of firearm ownership increases a woman’s risk of being fatally shot in a domestic violence incident (a woman is fatally shot by her partner every sixteen hours), and the presence of firearms often increases the lethality of attacks.
  • That the unconscionable pay gap percentage between women and men (true of every race and ethnicity and horrifyingly true for women of color) is in its own way an assault.

The realization of these things – and so many more – has convicted me, even if I should have been convicted and should have been speaking out more long ago.

So let me say:  I apologize for my obtuseness and sometimes (honest shame would compel me to say) even willful blindness.  I apologize that I have ever thought jokes objectifying or slandering women were ever funny.  I apologize that I have not highlighted how our major social problems too often disproportionately hurt women (like the opioid crisis).

But apologies without actions are not enough.  Apologies must pave the way for new futures.

So here is my commitment:

  • I will seek to truly listen more carefully and with greater sensitivity when women tell of their experiences.
  • I will call out my acquaintances when they slander, objectify, and verbally assault women.
  • I will not downplay or allow to get lost the distinctive ways that social problems and social policies continue to diminish women and even make them more vulnerable to assault and harassment.
  • I will seek to purge my language of words and phrases whose only use is to degrade women and which have no analogue as applied to men: “shrew” (look up its etymology) or “bitchiness” or “shrill.”
  • I will intentionally teach the boys who may come into my care for an hour or a lifetime that respect for women is not simply “nice,” but is the fundamental way that decent people treat human beings.

There’s more, but perhaps that’s enough to start.   The power and poignancy of #MeToo ought to be paralleled by men who recognize where they have been and done less than they could have and who in tangible ways from now on #WillBeYourAlly.

Weary, Weary, Weary. A Pastoral Letter on the Occasion of the Las Vegas Shootings

I am weary of writing pastoral letters in response to mass shootings.  Bone- and soul-weary. And I suspect that you, too, are weary of receiving such letters.

Over the years, I’ve written such letters in response to the Blacksburg college shootings, the massacre of first-graders at Newtown, and the vile executions of those enjoying a night on the town at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub.

I am weary.  Bone- and soul-weary.  But not as weary as I would have been if I had written such letters after every one of the 273 mass shootings so far this year, or the 483 mass shootings in 2016, or the 372 mass shootings in 2015, and on and on and on.  Linger on those numbers for a moment — even if they are almost literally unimaginable.  Except they’re not, are they?

I am weary.  Bone- and soul-weary.  And you are likely just as weary.  But none of us are as weary, as devastated, as bereaved as the literally thousands of victims of those shootings and their friends and families, not as weary, as devastated, as bereaved as a child murdered in a crib or a mother taken from her children or a man who will never walk again because we as a nation, as a people, will not confess that we have failed in the most basic test that Jesus offered: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  We have not protected that grieving mother, that bereft spouse, that dead toddler in the way that we would want those whom we love protected and safe from the depredations of our unwillingness as a people to face and rationally deal with the greatest public health crisis of our day.

I am weary. Bone- and soul-weary of the easy availability of assault weaponry — that has no place outside of war — which kills our police officers and make their jobs infinitely more difficult, of a sick surfeit of the kind of guns that have no legitimate civilian use, of it being harder to get a building permit to erect a fence or get a driver’s license or than it is to purchase a weapon of mass destruction.

Please understand: I am not “anti-gun.”  Most of the hunters I have known feed their families on the meat that they obtain through hunting and respect the enormous privilege they have of carrying a deadly weapon.  I have fond memories of bonding with my father when he first showed me how to fire a shotgun when I was a teenager and we were visiting a friend’s ranch, or when my brothers and my dad and I spent long-ago afternoons plinking at soda cans with an air rifle, or when my brother-in-law took me skeet shooting.  I like to shoot and though it has been awhile since I have done so, I would happily do so again sometime with someone who could re-teach me what I need to know about gun safety.

But in none of those cases was a semi-automatic weapon necessary.  Nor was a high-capacity clip.  Nor was ammunition that was designed solely to shred the human body or punch through brick and mortar.  Now, please hear me:  I am not advocating, as the slur so often goes, “taking your guns away.”  Frankly, there are very few people that take that position and those who would inflame you to think so are offering damnable lies.  My own theological understanding is that we live in an imperfect world and, short of the Kingdom that is promised, we will sometimes have to use instruments of violence to protect the innocent.  But that reality is never, ever a justification for not doing everything that we can to make sure that how and to whom the instruments of violence are available honors what we know about what will keep the most people safe.

Because that, my friends, is precisely what the issue is: safety.  We are in the midst, as I say, of a public health crisis.  The good news is that Americans have typically been very good at addressing and ameliorating public health crises — polio no longer threatens with each new summer and AIDS is not an immediate death sentence.  My plea is simply this:  that we would use our knowledge and experience to address this crisis as a public health emergency, for I am convinced that we would have far fewer such shootings when reasonable precautions are put in place for the kinds of weaponry and ammunition that are available.  We know how to do this.  We do.  What we have lacked is the will and the respect for our fellow countrymen and -women to make it happen.

And as Christians, my plea is that we follow Jesus’ example of always, always seeking to protect the vulnerable.  After all, He is the One who said it was better to be dropped into the sea tied to a millstone than to harm a child.  There is far, far too much harm afoot these days, harm that could be avoided even if short of the Kingdom there will still be evil that occurs.  But we can do better.  There are those that say if someone’s heart and intent is evil, he or she will find a way to act on that intent and will find a weapon to do so.  That is likely true.  But let us not lose nuance here: had the Las Vegas gunman been armed with throwing knives instead of — as the police are now reporting — both semi- and fully automatic weapons, a huge portion of those 500+ dead and injured would still be alive and well.

I’m weary, bone- and soul-weary.  Our Lord and Savior invites me and all to “Come, all you are weary.”  But then, then, He says go back into the world to love, to care, to protect the vulnerable.

We can do that so much better than we have done.  We can.

We must.