Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Silencers of the Lambs

As I write this, a month has passed since the largest (as of October 2017) mass shooting in America. Now its November, and there has been yet another mass shooting, this time in a church. 

After every mass shooting in this country, the usual platitudes are proffered. Elected officials call for a "moment of silence" along with prayers for the victims. The President makes a visit to console the wounded, the survivors, and praise first-responders. It happens so often, we have memorized the script.

The media will camp out at the crime scene craving any morsel of information. Pundits will endlessly debate as to what motivated the shooter. They will try to put together a story to make sense of it all, believing that as long as we have a motive, all is well with the world.

The supply chain will eventually be traced. What gun store (or stores) were the weapons purchased from? Were straw buyers involved? Did anyone flag the purchase of so many weapons or thousands of rounds of ammo? The insane amount of firepower available to average citizens is almost never questioned.

I thought about how to address this issue. The usual pro and anti gun arguments are well-worn. The sacredness of the second amendment. Registration will lead to confiscation. So let me narrow the focus down to the religious of this country, specifically Christians, those who claim Christ as their savior.

I assume that Christians would be familiar with scriptures and the oft repeated imperative to "fear not". Yet how is it that we live in an age of fear, fear of crime, fear of terrorists, fear of government tyranny? It is because we feast on media that traffics in fear and outrage. The need for insane amounts firepower is a response to insane amounts of fear and rage.

If believers in Jesus cannot lay aside their fears, then who can? Jesus told the story of a man who was fully armed to protect himself and his home. Then one day, thieves broke in and overpowered him, leading Jesus to ask, "what became of the arms in which the man trusted?". The answer is obvious; at the critical moment, they were ineffective.

It is my hope that believers can separate themselves from this fear-driven, toxic, macho gun culture and see how thoroughly incompatible it is with following Christ. Otherwise we will continue the farce of being a follower of Jesus, pro-life when it comes to the unborn and pro-death when it comes to opposing any restriction on assault weapons.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Turning in the Keys

Making preparations to retire has been an enlightening experience. Until I set the date and signed the forms, I operated under the assumption that I could continue to do my job indefinitely. I probably could do my job for quite some time, but indefinitely? That is an illusion.

Now that I have an end date to this phase of my life, my agenda has become much more sharply focused. Now I ask, "what is to be done now?" or more to the point, "what can be done in the remaining time?"

The realities of life, that nagging sense of life's finitude, has motivated me to plan for and set the date. I am a little ahead of schedule, as I had a couple of milestones I had hoped to hit, but those were not absolute. My bottom-line calculation was this: I can always make more money, but I cannot make more time. I have to budget what I have been given.

I can remember each time I have "turned in the keys". The organizations and workplaces I've been a part of. The homes I have lived in. There comes that point where you turn over a large key ring or a zip lock bag full of keys and walk away for the last time.

I have always understood that it is time to leave when I have added all that I can to a place or people and, conversely they have added all they can to me. At that point, there is nothing more to be gained for either.  Whether in organizations or in homes, we gather to advance a purpose, and when the continued dwelling and association no longer advances that purpose, or worse, harms that purpose, the association must end. It may seem utilitarian, but it is not a matter of quid-pro-quo, but of capacity.

As one leaves a place, it is good to review what has been exchanged in the association. What has been added to each? Has the place left you a better person? Have you left the place better than you found it? What lessons have been learned?

I have learned that organizations can be either static or dynamic. Since static organizations don't change, you can't add anything to them and typically they return the favor. On the other hand, dynamic organizations are constantly changing and growing. Whether that change is growth, depends on the result. If the result of change is increase in output, scope, or resilience, then the change is good. If the result of change is just different people doing the same thing, then it speaks for itself. I have also observed that individuals can be static or dynamic just like organizations. But that is a topic for another day.

Dwellings, on the other hand, are evaluated by somewhat different criteria, the suitability of the habitat. Has the dwelling served its purpose? Is it still a place of peace and rest? Is it suited to hospitality? Are its costs manageable? Is it accessible?

Turning in the keys is also a recognition that preparation must be made for the future. A vision must be cast, re-cast, and perhaps even broadcast. Organizations must ask themselves, again, "What is our mission?" and "How will the mission be sustained and propagated into the future?" How will new people be attracted, trained, and developed?

That we will have to turn in the keys to our dwellings is also a recognition our life will change. Eventually the dwelling will no longer suit us due to our changing needs and advancing years. We have to look to our future needs and capacities. We also have to evaluate our future dwelling in the context of our calling, our mission in life. Will our dwelling be a hindrance or an asset?

In the end, Solomon's wisdom seems most appropriate:
"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heaven"
Understanding when it's time to turn in the keys is a matter of recognizing the seasons of life. A recognition that provokes us to action. Moreover, turning in the keys frees us to recenter ourselves spiritually, emotionally, and physically. To renew relationships. To focus on our calling. To prepare for a future we do not fear because we have anticipated and planned for it.








Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Serpent

"Let us consider the first fifty years of our national history. There was never a moment during this time when the slavery issue was not a sleeping serpent. That issue lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1787."
-- John Jay Chapman

If we were to examine the complete history of our nation, even to the present day, that snake is still present. Even through all our progress to a more egalitarian society, that snake, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, lays coiled and ready to strike.  The toxic venom spewed out during the 2016 presidential campaign is proof of the serpent's enduring presence.

We might protest that in this day and age, in the 21st century, there is no slavery or open racism. But the snake takes many forms and has ways of blending in with its surroundings. It starts with the premise that some people are less than fully human. That there are those who are "three-fifths of other persons" (words written in the Constitution). The devaluation of people. This is the serpent's poison. This devaluation does not limit itself to a historically enslaved race. Any person, of any non-white color, and women, even white women, can feel the weights on the scales of justice tip against them.  Racism, misogyny, antisemitism, and xenophobia are just camouflaged forms of the same serpent.

I realize I am taking quite a leap to speak about injustice towards people of color, other religions, and women when I am non of these. How can I speak of things I have never experienced? I can't. But I can speak from where I have been. And that place is ignorance.

I have been ignorant of the privilege my gender, my race, and my ethnicity afforded me. I have never had to worry when walking alone, even at night, that someone would try to rape me. I have never had to worry when I was pulled over by police that I was being profiled or that I would be shot if I took my hands off the wheel. I have never had my Midwestern accent questioned nor have I been looked down upon as a "foreigner." I have never been persecuted because of my religion. I have never been profiled at the border because of my color or surname.

I was ignorant of the serpent. I would remain so until I went through a "conversion". It was not an instantaneous process. My conversion was a product of  disillusionment, searching, circumstances, experiencing the humanity of others, and my own choices. At lot of it had to do with my faith journey and how it kept bringing me back to words of Jesus. I became disillusioned with faith communities that had no interest in reaching out beyond their property line. Circumstances in my career had an influence as well. As I met more and more people from other parts of the world I discovered their humanity. Then there were the writings of  Bonhoeffer, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, MLK, Mother Teresa, Victor Hugo, Coates, and Dorothy Day to name a few. Reading their stories and their insight into the heart of God softened my own heart. My work with like-hearted people and young men in a mission endeavor has opened my heart even more.

I have learned that the serpent sees vulnerability in our fears. Our fears are many: security, job, health, crime, and terrorism. The serpent knows these issues provoke our primal instincts. He knows where to strike. The serpent also knows the questions that lead us to doubt: "Did God really say?" But we can also remember these words: "Fear Not!", "perfect love casts out fear", and "love one another". Once I let my heart open up to the words of Christ, compassion towards others followed. Love overcame fear! I became willing to risk for others. I learned that the love of God is the only cure for the venom of the serpent.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Transformation

As the message of Jesus passed through each era and each reorganization of society, it acquired some characteristics of the culture at large. The first, most obvious examples are when Jesus' message passed from Jewish culture, to Greek, Roman, and finally to our present Western culture. Each culture absorbed it, but it too was absorbed by each culture.

Modern Western culture is nearly all about business and finance. The emphasis in our present society is on the "deal" or transaction. This philosophy has slipped into the church and has almost completely supplanted Jesus' message. Jesus' message (the Gospel) is so corrupted by this line of thought, that most believers assume the Kingdom of God operates like the marketplace. Quid pro quo.

For example, let's take teaching on Salvation. Many denominations teach that if you participate in some action or make a declaration of faith, you are "saved" . Quid pro quo. The "prosperity gospel" distorts Jesus' teaching still further, by proposing that if you give a "seed offering" of money, you will be blessed by God. Quid pro quo. Even in the Catholic tradition, indulgences are an older example of this thinking. All the while, though grace is taught, transaction is understood and assumed.

So, if Jesus' message was corrupted, what was His message regarding the Kingdom of God? And how does it differ from what our culture tells us? The best example I know is that of the Prodigal Son.
“There was a man who had two sons.  The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. 
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. 
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. 
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ 
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”  Luke 15: 11-32

The younger son left with his father's name and money. Now he spent it all. He was broke. He had nowhere else to go. In his despair, he remembered the kindness of his father towards workers. His countenance brightened. He set out resolutely to return to his father's house. But he was not same man who left. He was transformed. He now understood the world's harshness, it's lack of mercy, and he recognized the love and kindness of his Father.

When his father saw him walking towards the house, his compassion overwhelmed him. He ran and embraced his son. He put a ring on his finger and threw a banquet to celebrate his return. Meanwhile the elder brother heard of his brother's return and was incensed at his father's lavish welcome. He protested to his father, "all these years I have served you, yet you didn't give me a goat". To his transactional mindset, the father's grace made no sense at all. And as long as we remain in a transactional mindset, it will make no sense to us either. We will continue act according to the rules of the market.

But Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God operates differently. You can't buy it directly. Oh, you can buy the field that contains it. But you can't give anything in exchange for it. The Kingdom of God and the Love of God are transformational. There is no prerequisite to receive it, save one. We must be emptied of the power and inclination to transact. No deals. Often this process requires suffering, loss, and disillusionment. With the old ideas bankrupt, we are open to new possibilities. This has been my journey. 

Sunday, January 29, 2017

History is Repeating Itself...

The executive orders issued this week banning travel to the US to building a wall, brought to me a flood of emotions from sadness, to fear, to anger. I thought about my very existence. My father fled Poland during World War II through a number of countries, finally ending up in the US. His father, mother, and sister did not make it. Except for my sister, I have no surviving relatives on my father's side.

As a young man, I worked in a TV repair shop (yes, we used to fix them).  I made many service calls to Polish neighborhoods in southwest Detroit. In those days, very few homes were air conditioned. In the summer heat, my customers wore light garments with short sleeves. From time to time I would see numbers tattooed on people's forearms. We would briefly look each other in the eye without a word. No comments were necessary.

I married the daughter of immigrants. My entire family is built on immigration. So yes,  I get emotional when talking about immigration. 

Today, I live and work with a multitude of ethnicities. I have been welcomed into the homes of Muslim families. I break bread and share drinks with coworkers and neighbors come from all over the globe. Some own businesses that employ people and in so doing, multiply the GDP of this nation. All of these people are hard-working, tax paying citizens. And good neighbors. This is the rich DNA of America. This is an existential issue. If we deny immigration, America will die of a self-inflicted wound.

So in this new climate, I worry. I worry about my neighbors and co-workers being profiled. I worry about their families. I worry about them when they travel outside our borders that another arbitrary order will come down and block their entry. I worry that history is repeating itself. 

Singling out an ethnic or religious group as an "enemy" is the beginning of road that humanity has been down many times. It is a time-honored political strategy to create an "enemy" and make them the object of fear and derision. America is better than this. And, if America is not better than this, then we should dispense with the pretense. That we are a nation of immigrants. Once we shut the door, we are not. That we are a "Christian" nation. If we bar the "least of these", then we are not. We have denied Christ.

On the Statue of Liberty, there is a plaque and inscription by Emma Lazarus:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
 
If we bar the "tired, poor masses" who have been huddled in refugee camps for years, who have fled unimaginable violence, then we should give the statue back to France. We are not deserving of the gift and the honor it bestows.

Or perhaps we will wake up to what is threatening to overtake us.  We will become politically active. We will join forces and stand up for what is good and right about America. Because if we don't stand up for what is good and right about our country, we will lose it.