My friend and colleague, Jim Watson, has written brilliant truth
My friend and colleague, Jim Watson, has written brilliant truth
I was at a conference with over 500 clergy and people of faith in Daytona Beach when I heard about the shootings in Orlando. It was 7:45 a.m. and we were preparing for our closing worship service, where we would hear a powerful sermon by Rev. William Flippin, Jr. on the need for Christians to speak up, even as the anniversary of Miranda loomed large, reminding us of our right to remain silent. A colleague asked me if I could write a prayer that would speak to the situation.
“What situation?” I asked.
“Oh. You don’t know yet,” he said. “There’s been a mass shooting…”
I cried before I knew anything else. Just sat down, with two brothers nearby, and cried. And cussed. And held the pen like a knife as I scribbled a lament.
It was different than other crises in which I’ve been asked to bring an encouraging word. To preach at the funeral of a child. To sit with a family as they absorb bad news. To facilitate a conversation with a group of teenagers who are about to graduate with 3 fewer classmates because of the accident.
This shooting was different in the impact and in the depth within my soul into which I had to reach –to hold onto any sense of calm. I folded my hands when I put down the pen, so that I wouldn’t scratch my arms raw to distract me from the pain within.
This morning, 24 hours later, I woke up to 5 messages from people asking if I would write something. Speak to the situation, they plead. Tell us what you think, what you see, what you feel, they text.
Help us connect to something greater than the horror before us on every channel, they imply.
I understood their need. I have it myself. Last night I read words from Bishop Robert G. Schaefer multiple times because while I was reading his words, it felt like I was standing on solid ground while all around me an earthquake was tearing people apart.
“…Let’s be honest: Church, its time to be clear about honoring and standing up for the basic human rights of the LGBTQ community and reasonable gun control in this country. Come on, who needs to have an automatic weapon? My youngest daughter has connections with one of those who died and another who was wounded. Let the church be clear: Every human being shares in the image of God and therefore shares the same dignity without regard to racial or ethnic distinction, family status, age, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, or differing abilities. Period. This senseless violence must end. Join me in praying for the victims of this atrocity, their families, the family of the shooter, and that justice may at last roll down like waters.”
— Bishop Robert G. Schaefer, Florida-Bahamas Synod, ELCA
I pause to pray. I hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Cry out! What shall I cry?” Isaiah goes on to say that all people are like grass that withers and fades, and I think: that does not need to be restated in this moment.
So I read on, reminding myself that the Word of the Lord is a different thing. The Word of the Lord stands forever. I want to be emboldened by it, but I am numb.
I struggle. I do not know what to write. I choke on more tears. I notice an ache in my jaw from a night of grinding my teeth. I hear again those who have called out to me to write something. I think of how my bishop’s words encouraged me.
I get out my worn bible and open to Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people.”
I think about the people I fondly call ‘mine.’ They are scattered between numerous states and several countries. Many are the ages of those who were killed; almost all of them are engaged in the work of promoting love, negotiating peace, drinking coffee in the wee hours in an effort to stay awake and do the hard work of mercy and justice. I am proud to call them my family, my friends, my sisters and brothers fighting the good fight. I picture myself beside them now.
I want to do my part. Yet the truth is that in this moment, I am a writer without words of my own. Admit it. Write that, I think. And so I do…and it reminds me of this:
I am also a pastor who is both encouraged by and bound to the Word of God that is both letters on a page and yet so much more than letters on a page. I am bound to the Word of God we know as Jesus Christ.
I return to Isaiah, reading farther, finding the words which a dying woman once recited with me even though her doctors reminded me she could not speak. They are the words I clung to on September 12, 2001 as I prepared to address the hungry crowds asking why. They are the same words that I read to my son, as the anesthesiologist started the drip for surgery to save his leg. And they are the same words he found 7 years later on the Peace Wall in Belfast. These words, I admit, I do not fully understand, and yet in them is power I have learned to trust:
“Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.” (NRSV)
I breathe more deeply. And begin to do what I am able to do for those who need me to do it. I walk back into the world, trusting in words not my own. Knowing that while I am the messenger, I am also the one for whom the message was written.
And then I remember the first words I noticed, scrawled on the wall of Ground Zero, just six months after the world trade centers fell:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-burdened…
and I will give you rest.”
— Matthew 28:11
“…Prepare the way of the Lord…” — Isaiah 40, Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3, Godspell, Days of Elijah … etc.
We are living in troubling times at which anxiety is at an all time high. The threats that fan the flame of fear are real: terrorism, mass shootings, and economic uncertainty are creating a relentless atmosphere of stress. Health concerns — from diseases we can’t seem to kill to mental health anguish we can’t quite tame to medical bills we surely can’t pay, and environmental factors on which we surely can’t agree — are causing us all to be sick either physically, mentally, or at heart.
And I swear I can hear evil chuckle as we buckle to the impulsive urge to DO SOMETHING! … which distracts us from the something we were already called to do.
Our world is filled with brilliant thinkers, brave warriors, self-giving humanitarians, gifted teachers, and creative geniuses.
I believe one of the most important things each of us can do to help stem the flow of fear, uncertainty, and doubt is this:
Do what you are gifted and called to do at this time as well as you possibly can.
If you are a student, study, write, calculate, ask, and learn. Your minds are the greatest asset this world has. It is our best hope. Sharpen it as if the whole world is depending on you. Because it is.
If you are a teacher, prepare as if you are teaching for the very first time. If your lesson plans bore you, write new ones. If your students are unruly, build in more structure and make time to cultivate trust with the troublemakers — or find a way to put them on the bench. Teach as if the whole world was depending on you. Because it is.
If you are a parent of young children, redouble your efforts to shape them. Take them for walks and encourage their curiosity. Read to them every day. Care for yourself so you have patience. Love them, lift them, listen to them.
If you are retired and feel like your best days are behind you, use your wisdom to encourage and calm those who do not have the benefit of your perspective. We need your voice and we need your faith. Write notes. Give hugs. Let them know you are on their side.
I believe this is the best thing that anyone can do to help counter the fear that threatens to paralyze, divide, or otherwise compromise us.
If we allow ourselves to react to the pressures we are experiencing, we will become a disorganized mob, each running in a different direction and engaging in activities for which we are not gifted and to which we are not called.
If we imagine ourselves as part of a huge network of gears, if any one gear stops rotating, the entire machine comes to a halt.
Contrary to what some people believe, I do not think every person rushing to buy a gun (even if they take a class) is either wise or helpful. Our military receives extensive training not JUST in how to shoot, but in how to control the impulse to shoot; how to know when a threat is real or perceived; and how to work with other soldiers to ensure the best possible success in a mission.
The average person is NOT trained to be a soldier, in part, because that is not who they were created to be. Soldiers are called just as teachers are called. It is arrogant and ignorant to think that everyone, with minimal training, is equipped to do the job that someone else has had extensive training to do.
Yes, we need a strong military. And we also continue to need leaders, firefighters, coaches.
We need doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists.
We need parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
The truth is: we need, more than ever, to focus on who we are and what we are called to do. And the good news is that if we do this, we also set ourselves and one another free from the burden of having to solve and resolve all the problems that are ushering in this debilitating and unwanted anxiety.
Do the job you have right now to the very best of your ability. And allow others to do the same.
Let the pastors preach, and let their sermons feed you.
Let the military strategize, and pray for their protection.
Let the teachers teach, and trust their plans for helping students learn.
Believe in one another and stay the course.
Running in different directions only increases the chaos — causing confusion is a primary strategy of the evil one. We are a nation that loves to compete — and that is a game we can only win by refusing to play.
Focusing and working hard to contribute your unique gifts to the greater good will lessen anxiety and disable fear. Focus on life and on doing what you were called to do while you are living.
In this way, we will each — together — prepare the way for the Lord.
Isaiah 40: 8 to 1
8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
The word, standing, in the midst of so much withering. I seek that which stands forever. A choir singing: surely it is God who saves me. A photograph, a black woman, holding a white woman, looking on at bedlam. I will be with you, always. Street art, scrawled on the viaduct: Be still and know. The last words covered in angry grey paint.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people is grass.
People is grass? People are grass? Depends on if the people are one or many. Flowers at street shrines. Flowers in hospital rooms, thirsting. Flowers once the flag is folded, the widow escorted, the cooks and ushers asking: what shall we do with all the flowers?
6 A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
“What shall I cry?” I scream. Reading …they are trying to save his arm. He is awaiting bail. They are rising up in the streets. What shall I cry? I choke on the words.
5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Hoping to see it together, we watch. Looking outward; looking back. Until we attack one another again. Angry responses that don’t match the questions. Accusing questions that hang beside the point. Votes tallied. Guns defending. Ammunition discharged. Orphans created. Guns defending. We post and repost and share videos of children singing, kittens playing in a sunbeam, the least likely among us, rising. In the tiniest goodness, we sigh, glory.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Whispers of unity. Flags waved in solidarity. Muscle adding muscle to the march. Reaching down to grab a hand. One by one fall; over the side of the wall.
3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Where else but in the wilderness. The highway is in the wilderness. The camp is in the wilderness. The church is in the wilderness. The wilderness has come to us. Straightaway.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Tenderly. Softly. Jesus is calling. And we will trouble war no more.
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
The Lord bless you, keep you, give you.
Readers: Molan Labe is an ancient Greek expression meaning “Come and take them.” You can google the phrase to understand it better, but in short, it is an expression of defiance and refers to challenging those in power to try to disarm the one using the phrase. My friend, Tony Winkler, posted Molan Labe as his facebook status in the wake of gun control rhetoric on facebook after the events in Newtown, CT Friday.
Tony and I rarely agree on anything politically, but we seem to still agree on this: we respect one another’s opinion immensely and find our exchange of thoughts interesting and provocative. A friend who witnessed Tony and I in a heated discussion once said, “you could charge money just to watch you two debate.”
That said, I invited Tony’s response to my last post entitled Guns. (You can read GUNS by clicking on the post which is listed on the right hand side of this page under the title Recent Posts). I am posting his response here because my point in Guns was primarily a call to engage in honest, respectful, and direct conversation about the issues that have brought us to where we are today.
The opinions posted below do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this BLOGGER, but they are an important part of the overall discussion we need to hear and reflect upon.
My thanks to Tony for taking the time to articulate his position. Your comments on either post are welcome.
Molan Labe by Tony Winkler, USMC
The attack at Sandy Hook outrages the moral senses, and when the attacker turns out to be someone who we can’t easily demonize, we get the present predicament. I’ll offer a few random facts, but I see this as a moment to achieve clarity in what we really believe in.
“Assault weapons” have always been in the hands of Americans. Whatever the military technology of the day has been, civilians have had it. After WWII and Korea, the civilian market was flooded with military surplus rifles- all semi-automatic, all very lethal. No corresponding spike in massacres occurred. And yes, hunters do use them, every day, all of the time. I could go on, but this isn’t the point.
I believe in the founding principles of this nation. I do believe that we were endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. Freedom comes from God, and no one and nothing else. No person, no government, no state can take away my rights, they can only suppress them. So yes, the power of government comes from the consent of the governed. It should be doled out in small parcels and watched jealously.
But with this enormous, God-given freedom comes enormous responsibility. We are ultimately responsible for ourselves. Eg: The current “health care crisis” isn’t due to big corporations or big government, it’s our own fault. If everyone ate lots of veggies, brown rice and lean meat, exercised and prayed/meditated regularly- poof! End of crisis. But that requires the deep understanding of the nature of freedom.
I have guns for personal protection, and I want to be armed at least as well as the criminals. I carry not because I want to smoke some criminal, but because I accept the responsibility of freedom. I don’t want a police state, I want a country of awake and aware citizens. So yes, it’s our responsibility to “ratchet up” our preparedness. For whatever reason, a certain element among us has decided to engage in mass murder. As I Christian, I have convictions as to why that’s happening, but until we figure out why… yes we have a duty to prepare. To disarm ourselves and leave it to the authorities to (hopefully) take care of us is not only misguided but immoral.
I’ll come right out and say it: like our Founding Fathers, I believe the government should fear its citizens. Absolute power always always always corrupts absolutely. It is our right and our duty to act as the final check on government power and that means the threat of force, raw force. What would Jesus do? Better for our leaders to ask that than for us to. To the modern American many of these ideas sound blunt and primitive. For many decades our wealth and affluence has allowed us to abdicate our authority to the state. We no longer have that luxury. We must once again shoulder the wonderful burden of God-given freedom and pay attention to our country.
Alexis De Toqueville wrote “Democracy In America” over 170 years ago, but he predicted these current days. It makes a great door stop because the danged thing is over 600 pages long, but the final chapters are eerily prescient. America won’t fall to tyranny, it will fall to protectors. We will fancy ourselves a free people, but in reality we will merely remove our chains long enough to elect a new leader, only to promptly place them back on ourselves. No thanks.
Finally, I took an oath over 20 years ago to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. I have intellectually, emotionally and spiritually internalized that oath. I have spent too many years away from this country, my body has endured too much damage, my family too much anxiety and I have lost too many friends to surrender my God-given rights to protectors. So yes, Molon Labe.
Friends whose opinions I respect have convinced me that people having the right to own a gun is a good thing. That the 2nd Amendment should be protected. That many people own guns for unarguably good reasons. That farmers consider it a mere tool among many necessary to engage in their life’s work.
Sunday, I included in my sermon that I was so outraged by the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School that even I was starting to think we needed to just post snipers on top of our schools to keep watch over our children and eliminate the evil before it even got its foot in the door.
I said it in jest.
I do NOT think that is the answer. I do NOT think continually upping the quantity and firepower of our arsenals is going to lead to a more civilized, less violent society. And I sure don’t think that’s what Jesus would do.
I am completely stumped as to why we allow ordinary civilians to purchase and own entire arsenals of assault weapons with limited background checks and what appears to be no ongoing surveillance as to what they are doing with their collection. To me it is akin to selling boxes of Agent Orange to anyone who wants it simply because they are collectors of orange things.
When I say that we need to consider Gun Control as one part of the discussion directed at ending these mass shootings we now see in the United States nearly every single week, I am speaking of things like: ban the sale of assault rifles to civilians, do a more thorough background check before selling firearms, increase the amount of necessary paperwork that a buyer must complete before selling certain types or quantities of guns to an individual. Ask for references of a person’s character and check the references.
We require things like this for people to get a job! We require them before we admit students to college. A pastor in the ELCA fills out 30 pages of paperwork simply to be considered for a call to lead a different church…and then the process takes a solid 3 months minimum. Why wouldn’t we expect a person to demonstrate certain competencies before selling them a product whose sole purpose is to destroy life?
I have listened carefully to those who scoff at the mere mention of Gun Control. I have tried to understand their point of view and I have met them part way in agreeing that we ought to protect the 2nd Amendment and that there are good reasons for some individuals to own guns. Now I am waiting to hear them meet me half way. When I say that we need to look at dimensions of Gun Control, and they reply with a cliché such as, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” I am, quite frankly, insulted. I am also frustrated because clearly who owns what guns is ONE PIECE of the puzzle we are trying to put together to prevent future massacres of our children.
This critical conversation does not have room or time for clichés that do nothing more than dig one in deeper to their own point of view. Banning guns across the board is clearly NOT the answer. Neither is continuing to make them available in the way we are doing today.
The conversation we need to have will require humility on the part of every single participant. Of this I am certain.