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Responding to the Violence in Orlando

The news of another terrorist shooting and the tragic deaths of so many in the Pulse Nightclub rocks all of us with its senseless hate-filled violence. It addresses us all on so many levels – unchecked gun violence (examples are many: Sandy Hook, a Colorado movie theater, Columbine High School, etc.), the ISIS terrorism campaign that reaches around the world: Paris to Indonesia to the United States and back again, the horrors of the Syrian/ISIS civil war, ongoing prejudice against those in the LGBTQ community, and the list goes on.

The biblical cry of grief and pain goes up once again.

“I cry out to you, Lord.
You are my rock; don’t refuse to hear me.
If you won’t talk to me,
I’ll be just like those going down to the pit.
Listen to my request for mercy when I cry out to you,
when I lift up my hands to your holy inner sanctuary.” (Psalm 28:1-2)

Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, both the tragedy of gun violence and violence and prejudice directed at a specific groups (the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Ethnic violence of any kind, etc.) must be addressed more successfully. Internet nurturing of hatred and violence is an evil that must, in some as-of-yet-unknown fashion, be addressed.

Even more, hate-driven acts of violence against member of the LGBTQ community is against the moral precepts of all civilized people and especially an offense to those who profess to be Christ followers. The Discipline of the United Methodist Church is clear:  “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.  All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self” (The Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, Paragraph 161F, p. 111).

I echo Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter (in slight paraphrase to fit our Central Texas Conference setting): “I am lifting up the clergy and laity who will lead worship in our Central Texas Conference churches. May you announce God’s unconditional love for all people and God’s desire for nonviolence through Jesus Christ, who is our peace.

“And as United Methodists [Church and especially in the Central Texas Conference] . . . along with my fellow bishops and especially Bishop Ken Carter of Florida, “I hope we can discover creative, pastoral and grace-filled ways to bear witness to all — including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons — that together we are God’s beloved children.” (Bishop Ken Carter Jr., The full text of Bishop Carter’s statement can be found at here.)

In last Tuesday night’s (June 7th) ordination sermon, I said, “Fear-soaked mean-spirited bigotry against those of another religion, race or nation is not the Christian faith.  We ought to be ashamed that it is so represented by some in public life.”  I would add to that what should have been in the original sermon, namely that “fear-soaked mean-spirited bigotry against those” of an alternative sexual preference is not the Christian faith!  Violence is not the way of Christ.  Christians are to be in the world but not of it! (See 1 Peter 2:11.)

May we lift all who are affected by this tragedy, especially members of the LGBTQ community in Orlando and the people of the city of Orlando as a whole in our prayers. Along with our prayers, may we actively seek ways to faithfully embrace all of God’s children and spread the Kingdom gospel of Christ’s peace and love to all.

“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus….” (Philippians 2:1-5)

Lament, Challenge and Hope ©

I confess that I had initially written a different blog to share today.  (It will be published on Friday instead.)  However the tragedy of events in San Bernardino, California brought me to a halt.  No doubt as with many of you, I watched transfixed to the broadcast of the events that followed.  As the story of the mass shooting unfolded and more details became known, I found myself engulfed by tragedy, despair and anger.  As one writer put it, shootings feel like the new normal.  Anguish engulfs us once again.

Quieter reflection has brought me to a point of lament, challenge and hope.  Careful readers of the Holy Scriptures know that there is a category of Psalms called simply Psalms of Lament.  Some are corporate, for the nation and people collectively.  Others are more individual in context.  Psalm 42 speaks to my heart and mind at such a time.  It echoes the confusing jumble of my emotions and thoughts.

“Just like a deer that craves streams of water,
my whole being craves you, God.
My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.
When will I come and see God’s face?
My tears have been my food both day and night,
as people constantly questioned me,
“Where’s your God now?” …

I will say to God, my solid rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I have to walk around,
sad, oppressed by enemies?”
10 With my bones crushed, my foes make fun of me,
constantly questioning me: “Where’s your God now?”  (Psalm 42:1-3, 9-10)

The most faithful among us ask, “Where is God?”  The deepest of disciples long for the very presence of the Lord.

In our lament-filled longing, faith calls us to remember we follow a crucified Lord.  God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is present amidst the bullet riddled terror of the shootings.  Christ is with us as first responders reach out to help.  The Savior’s presence at the epicenter of violence and terror challenges me with a divine calling.

I am challenged to turn away from the worship of violence.  I am challenged by the Savior to seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).  We live in a world that often gives violence a final word.  War haunts our globe.  Terrorism has become a fact of political expression.  Interpersonal violence stalks our streets and infects our families.  It is a short step from the venting of rage verbally (in person or on the internet) to the perpetration of violence as an expression of a false, corrosive righteousness.  Stop and reflect on how many television programs are structured around a violent theme or plot.  We have a cultural fascination with a violence that needs to be repented.

Please hear me carefully.  Prudence in safety and protection is not a bad thing.  Nor am I attempting here to enter the debate about gun control.  Proper measures for protection are good and to be taken.  While I was converted to following Christ as a young adult among the Quakers, I left that group (which I still respect highly today!) because I am not a pacifist.  Christian just war theory offers one faithful avenue for confronting oppression.

Beneath our response and lament, our rage and anguish lies the deeper issue of moral challenge.  We are adrift as a moral culture today.  Again carefully, I am not just referring to America or just to terrorists.  Our world culture is adrift.  We have played fast and loose with a moral relativism that has led us away from the Lord.  Herein lies our challenge.  We must confess reliance on false gods (especially the false gods of violence and self-reliance) and return to the Lord.  This begins with each of us individually and links us corporately together in Christ.

The challenge of returning to a greater faithfulness brings us back to deeper, truer hope.  Let the Psalmist speak again to our world and to us even as we are caught in a horrifying new normal.

“Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed?
Why are you so upset inside?
Hope in God!
Because I will again give him thanks,
my saving presence and my God.” (Psalm 42:11)

Risk, Fear, and Thanksgiving ©

 “All who want to come after me must say not to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.  All who want to save their lives will lose them.  But all who lose their lives because of me will be saved” (Luke 9:23-24).

 Reading various responses related to Syrian refugees and letting those who have gone through a two-year vetting process enter America in the newspaper and listing online, I am impressed with our desire for a safe, risk-free America. It is almost as if some are nationally advocating that we live like the little boy in the commercial exiting the family van. His mother has dressed him in a football helmet with catcher’s mask over the helmet and a matching chest protector, shoulder pads and hockey knee pads.  Incessantly the mother is giving instructions about being safe and not doing anything that is dangerous or risky. 

 With most of us I laugh at the ridiculously over protective parent.  And yet … there is a part of me that deeply understands and appreciates such desire for safety. I want my family safe! I want my country safe! The randomness of terrorism is terrifying.  Which brings me to a still deeper reflection.

 I am conscious that risk and fear are yoked to discipleship and courage. Much of my internal argument (and our external debate as Christians with the larger political culture) over risk and safety pushes me (us) back on my (our) relationship with Jesus. The Lord challenges me (us) to reject the rule of fear and let Him (Christ) rule. Fear remains but it does not reign. One of C.S. Lewis’s comments comes to mind.  It is a scene from his famous Christian allegory The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  In the scene Mr. Beaver is introducing the children to Aslan, the great Christ character who appears as a mighty lion. 

 “Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh,” said Susan [the youngest of the 3 young human children in the allegory].  “I’d thought he was a man.  Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver … “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”

 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom not the fear of this world (Proverbs 9:10).  The Apostle Paul reached for this great biblical truth when he wrote:  “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Roams 5:1-5, NRSV).

 Divine courage, Holy Spirit-infused endurance, brings us to grace filled hope in deeper discipleship.  Risk in Christ’s name and at His service brings us to true thanksgiving.  Whatever actions politician’s take, Christians reach out with the love of Christ.  Jesus isn’t safe.  The Christian life is a call to a great adventure in service to the living Lord.  Such hope does not disappoint us. 

 In scary submission to Christ, I am (we are) delivered to the deeper joy of thanksgiving.  Those Pilgrim fathers and mothers who risked the storms of the north Atlantic knew this truth.  Those Native Americans who risked reaching out to those same pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving in the “New World” live such truth (even if Christ was yet unknown to them!).  Now it is our time to step up and step out for Christ.

 Sunday while sitting in worship I listened as the Arborlawn UMC choir sang the great prayer verse “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful.”  Prayerfully listening I was transported back to my time in France a couple of years ago.  At Taize we sang this same praise chorus in a variety of language.  The words are an appropriate prayer for our time of Thanksgiving.

 “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful,
            In the Lord I will rejoice!
Look to God, do not be afraid.
            Lift up your voices, the Lord is near,
Lift up your voices, the Lord is near.”

 

 

 

Faith on Trial: Responding to Terrorism in Today’s World ©

Last Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent actions seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice rightly captures our hearts and minds in a wide variety of ways.  The sheer barbarism of the attacks spreads anxiety and fear among the bravest.  A deep sense of vulnerability saturates the most stalwart among us.  How are Christians to respond to terrorism in today’s world?

In a real sense, terrorism by its very nature puts our faith as Christ followers on trial.  It challenges us at the core of our beliefs.  Are we willing to hold to Christ whose very presence is announced with the angelic admonition “fear not!” (Luke 2:10)?

My initial response to the news of the Paris attacks was white hot fear-driven anger.  Only on calming down, entering into prayer, and engaging in less heated reflection did I realize that terrorism puts my faith on trial.

I believe our Lord’s admonition to love our neighbor.  I am committed in principle to the Savior’s call to holiness in rejecting hate.  The words of Jesus echo in the throne room of my mind.  “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).

I am conscious that it is easy to be Christian in times of peace and plenty and in settings of safety and joy.  I am also quite aware that the test of the Christian faith comes on the streets of Paris, in rhetorical punditry of television and the cancer ward of the local hospital.

Our faith is put on trial in:

  1. The temptation to reject the Lord’s leading and be driven instead by a desire for revenge. Prayerful reflection and careful thinking are at a premium if our response is to be faithful to the gospel and Lordship of Christ. Those who enact such evil must be brought to justice. There is nothing Christian or holy in allowing terror to reign unchecked. Let us be clear – terror and terrorism is an outgrowth of Satan’s rage. And yet, we must also be carefully clear and faithfully obedient in our response. Matching evil with evil is not the way of Christ. We seek justice not vengeance (Romans 12:19).
  2. The engulfing emotions of fear and fear driven disregard for others who are in dire need. Our model, guide and ruler is the one who was crucified for others, notably for those who were (and are!) guilty of sin. Instead of living under a reign of fear, Jesus reached out stretching His arms wide in an embrace of love. Let us be sympathetic to each other as we wrestle with fear’s grip. Fear is a natural and in some ways healthy response to the horrors of unchecked terror. It alerts us to the need to take protective steps and seek justice for all. The Christian difference is not that fear is not present. It is rather that fear does not reign. It does not rule! Christ alone is Lord! However powerful our emotions, they too are subject to Him. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (I John 4:18).
  3. Our vulnerability mixed with fear and anger which seduces us to react by blaming the stranger, the foreigner, the refugee. Terrorism is a tool of evil which, if left unchecked by Christian values and by the rule of Christ, can lead us to the unfaithful response of prejudice. It is worth carefully noting that the earliest Christians consistently refused to simply take care of only other Christians. They consciously and in allegiance to Christ reached out to any in need. There were no litmus tests for who should receive love and care. Teachings from Jesus like the Parable of the Good Samaritan drove their actions. (See Luke 10:35.) Instructions like James 1:27 were a basic part of the fabric of their response, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.” Let there be no mistake. To only take care of Christians or just be concerned about Americans is not worthy of the gospel. It is not faithful to the clear teaching of Christ. (Check out Jude 1:12 and its explicit rejection of those who care only for themselves.)

As your bishop, I call on us to be a people of faith.  May we reflect the example of Christ and be known the world over for a love which conquers fear.  Jesus our Savior first lived among us as a refugee.  He calls us now to reach out to those refugees fleeing the unspeakable evils of terror and war’s destruction.  May we be instruments of peace offering a place of hope, help and home to those most in need.  May religious prejudice and national jingoism be unknown among us.

Do you recall the Apostle’s closing advice in I Peter?  First Peter is written as a baptismal address to new Christians for a church undergoing dire persecution.  Terror is an everyday part of their lives.  In such context the Apostle closes his letter with advice fit again for today.  “Therefore, humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day. Throw all your anxiety onto him, because he cares about you. Be clearheaded. Keep alert. Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith. Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same suffering throughout the world.  After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you. To him be power forever and always. Amen” (I Peter 5:6-11).