Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Good News...

As I look back over my recent blogs, I realize that most of them have been dealing with difficult and controversial topics. I defend that, in that part of the role of ministry is striving for a "prophetic" voice, and calling out injustice wherever we see it. Last Sunday, I preached a sermon based on the "deliverance" of the Geresene demoniac story from Luke 8. In the CEB rendering of that text, it is said that after Jesus heals the man, he is found "completely sane." My message questioned what that would mean in today's cultural malaise. Specifically, I urged the congregation to write their legislators, encouraging them to act on an assault weapons ban and fair gun safety laws that allow for Second Amendment freedoms, but apply some common sense. I'm sure not everybody was happy with my specific call toward "complete sanity."

Here is some good news. A few weeks ago, St. Paul's bestowed the Rita Berg Peace Award upon two of our members. Freda Copper has served St. Paul's in myriad capacities over the years, but most especially in ministries that help those less fortunate or those in extreme need. So much of what Freda does is "behind the scenes," but those who nominated her felt she was due a little recognition, and since her efforts were about restoring health to persons and the community, she received the Rita Berg award. The second recipient was one of our young adults. Natalie Geer, who recently graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, received the Rita Berg Peace Award for her dedicated fundraising and "in the field" mission work on behalf of a clinic in Zimbabwe. She and a good friend raised over $30,000 for the clinic two Summers ago, and Natalie has spent considerable time on site, working with the people there. Congratulations to both of these extremely deserving disciples of Jesus Christ!

As I write this, over 40 of our senior high youth and adult leaders are working with Next Step ministries in Lexington, South Carolina. They are building sheds, installing new roofs, and doing some landscaping. After they return, our mid-high youth will be embarking on work with The Pittsburgh Project. Tami Weisner, our Director of Youth Ministries, has developed a youth program here at St. Paul's that helps make disciples of Jesus Christ out of these kids. While they have great fun and fellowship in our youth programs, first and foremost is advancing our youth in their faith development and Christian service.

Also going on this week at St. Paul's is our Creative Arts Camp for elementary children. They are painting, making gingerbread houses, "camping" in the woods behind the church, working on a musical for presentation on Friday evening, and today (Wednesday), some are even going on a field trip. And then, after a break for the holiday, St. Paul's Vacation Bible School will kick off for over 200 kids! Kudos to Erin Soza, our Director of Children's Ministries, and her adult staff of volunteers! Again, the emphasis is on faith development in all of these programs, not just "babysitting."

The organizational skills of Tami and Erin are amazing. Most of us just watch in amazement. We are so blessed to have their gifts and leadership here.

Hats off, too, to Rich McClure and our custodial staff. One look into the New Horizons room, where CAT campers are constructing gingerbread houses with "live" icing, sprinkles, and other sticky stuff, would bring the average person to tears. But these people just do what is always done around St. Paul's--just kick in and scrub carpets, clean, and turn around rooms ASAP, as no space here sits idle for too long. In the Summers, when most churches have "down time," and the custodians can perform "exceptional" cleaning of carpets, sanctuaries, and meeting spaces, St. Paul's is going full-tilt.

Hey, on this second full day of Summer, 2016, enjoy the day, and be blessed, friends. Shalom!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

More on Orlando...

In the short time I have been writing blogs on this site since being appointed to St. Paul's, I have had to address the question of mass shootings several times! How sad that, here we are again, in the aftermath of a horrible act of violence that has claimed at least 49 innocent lives, with more than that number injured, and several still critical. This is a time for appealing to God for comfort and grace for the victims, their families, and friends. Prayer is our first order of business. The gut-punch America received upon hearing word of yet another slaughter will linger for a while, and should remind us to keep those prayers flowing until the hurt begins to subside. And pray that at least a little national healing can occur before the next gun-borne tragedy strikes.

What the news is telling us about the shooter is that he was "self-radicalized," and most likely had no formal contact with Daesh (ISIS). It appears he was a very sad man, violent in many venues, and consumed by hate. He also most likely suffered from some undiagnosed mental illness. We should pray for his family, as they seem as lost as to why he committed this unspeakable act as are the rest of us.  From Columbine to Sandy Hook, Charleston to San Bernardino, and now to Orlando, this seems always to be the case. How awful it must be to hear that a loved one has done something like this and to not have had a clue that it could happen. Lord, in your mercy...

What we do know, without a doubt, is that this shooter targeted a specific community--our LGBTQ siblings. Reports say he was recently angered by seeing two men kiss. What is wrong with us? There was a time when, if we felt something was repulsive, or if it "angered" us, we would just turn and walk the other way. When did we become the kind of society that gave birth to such violent and deadly reactions? What is fueling this? And why are we picking on the LGBTQ community? Our own United Methodist denomination still discriminates against this population, so maybe we are feeding it a bit ourselves? I am so tempted to invoke the late Rodney King's question, "Why can't we all just get along?" Why, indeed.

The glorification of guns and the rise of an unyielding "front" against any sane gun safety regulations that hides behind the Second Amendment are culpable. Irrational slogans and Internet posts draw on every type of illogical propaganda, from the infamous "slippery slope" to "red herrings" and "straw men," to "support" opinions that can best be summed up in this selfish philosophy: "I want what I want when I want it," and "It is my right." (I have a real hard time with people who claim to be Christ-followers, and yet still put "my rights" above the greater good.)

Within the first three days of the Orlando tragedy, someone posted a placard on FaceBook that proclaimed:

"If a madman wants to kill innocent people
he will find a way.
Killers don't need guns to kill people.
Timothy McVeigh
used fertilizer.
9-11 terrorists used
box cutters & planes.
The Nazis used
cyanide gas...
Taking guns from
innocent people will not
protect innocent people.
The problem is not guns.
It is a Godless society."

This is the kind of ridiculous "logic" that sane gun safety regulation and banning military-style assault rifles is up against. I responded to this post by a gun-promoting acquaintance by inquiring: Have you tried to purchase ammonium nitrate in any quantity since the Oklahoma City bombing? You can't, because it is now highly regulated. Have you tried to take a box cutter onto a plane since 9-11? Oh, and we fought a World War and staged the Nuremberg Trials as a response to what the Nazis did. And yet, the AR-15 has been the weapon of choice in several mass shootings, and not ONE attempt has been made to regulate its purchase.

We are not a "Godless society." We are a society--of people of color and diversity, of a spectrum of sexual orientations, of differing socio-economic means, of many religious preferences, and political persuasions--and many believe in God. Many don't. Neither of these facts excuse us from acting in the best interests of all, and finding a way to "love our neighbors as ourselves," as someone has suggested. Every time another of these shootings happens, I pray that it will finally be the tipping point for us to demand that our lawmakers act to protect the true innocent. Children are dying because gun safety is so lax. Murder-suicides in domestic disputes are an almost daily occurrence. Over 30,000 people die in acts of gun violence each year in the United States. Having "God" won't fix this problem alone. (In fact, most of my FaceBook "friends" who advocate for gun rights claim to be practicing Christians!)

As a pastor, I am deeply grieved by the strange dichotomy between "God" and gun rights. If we are followers of Jesus, we are called to set aside our own rights when they may cause harm to others. If Jesus had followed the philosophy of the National Rifle Association, he would have turned the Earth into a cinder and walked away after his trial before Pilate. I am not against "law-abiding citizens" owning a gun for sport. And while I would never advocate that people of faith own a gun for "personal protection" (are you, as a Christ-follower, really ready to kill someone?), this is most likely allowed under the Second Amendment. But assault-style weapons? High-capacity ammunition clips? These things are designed to kill people, pure and simple. And they should be illegal to own.

So, what are we going to do? Will we keep playing our sad violin songs until the next shooting? Or will we begin to use our First Amendment rights to speak up, write our lawmakers, and vote our conscience? If not, we'll meet again at the next post-tragedy blog. God help us.

Next up...

Dear friends, I implore you to join our hearts and voices in prayer for the victims of the Orlando shootings. Having just returned from United Methodist Annual Conference, I will be posting some thoughts about this latest killing spree in our country within the next few hours. For now, let us be in an attitude of prayer...and deep, deep grief for these victims and their families, and the entire LGBTQ community.

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...