Advent – The Promise of Peace

An Advent Devotion  for December 4, 2017                                    Read Micah 4:1-5

“He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more” Micah 4:3

The image of a day when nations no longer go to war and the tools of war are recycled into tools of providence instead, encourages our souls. Who among us doesn’t want there to be an end to war, and an end to soldiers dying or being maimed? Who of us doesn’t want an end to the death, injury and harm of innocents forced to flee for their lives? Who doesn’t want an end to the suffering of people trapped by war?

God gives us a vision so we will work for it . . . A vision that encourages us to work for peace and not for war. It is the vision in the Christmas song which Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne captures in the music “Do you hear what I hear”

“Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light.”

 

Prayer: God of peace, your vision seems so far from us. Pictures of war fill our screens. Obstacles to peace appear insurmountable. We fear a nuclear disaster. We ache for the wounded soldier. We cry for the lost children. Our hearts bleed for lost lives. May we begin to look at your words of hope, not only as a dream, but your dream for all of us to live into. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found at:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

Fear that Divides

I can’t say just how sick I felt yesterday when I scanned this morning news and discovered that a traffic stop in a nearby suburb ended in the death of Philando Castile. His death, recorded live on Facebook, was quickly sent viral around the world. In the video his girlfriend both defends and explains his actions to the policeman who continues to have a gun pointed inside the car.

I wanted to believe that stuff like this happens in other parts of the country. I know too many good police officers to believe that what happened this week in Minnesota is the norm. Fear – Fear of the other – Fear of a person who is different – Fear of another’s intentions can twist our sense of reality. We see the world with a lens corrupted and shaped by our fears. The innocent gesture of Philando Castile to reach for his wallet, is perceived as a threat once the officer learns he has a permit to carry a weapon. What ought to have been a simple traffic stop and a warning ticket for a broken taillight escalates when fear grabs hold of a mind. Our fears remove us from our common humanity. We no longer see the person in front of us. We see instead a threatening enemy.

Neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean came up with the term Reptilian Brain to explain the emotional, unreasoned reaction we have to a perceived threat. It is the instinctive response which can do great harm . . . the one which reason would overrule, were we to give our mind enough time to process a situation. In the heat of the moment our minds don’t always respond wisely or well.

By the end of the day another tragedy was unfolding. A peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas turned deadly when a sniper targeted police officers. He especially wanted to kill white police officers. Five officers died, seven were wounded.
Sometimes, I wonder how we got to this place. Other times I wonder how I could have been so naive as to think we had moved beyond the civil rights era in race relations. What I am certain of is our need as a nation to heal. We need to see all of our neighbors as our brothers and sisters.

When asked the greatest commandment, Jesus responded by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) Jesus didn’t leave anyone out. He was referring to people of every race, creed and orientation . . . including people who get stopped because of a bad taillight, and police providing security at a Black Lives Matter rally. As Christians we have the responsibility of being people who build bridges of understanding. We have the duty to see all our neighbors as God’s children.

The Legitimization of Hate

It was inevitable, really. A mass killing, larger than the last biggest mass killing. It was probably inevitable too, that a minority group of some sort would be the target. With months of hearing debates over bathroom laws, it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise that a gay bar was the target. How much of the Orlando killing spree was a terrorist attack and how much a hate crime, remains to be sorted out.

I do know the legitimization of hate has risen to new heights in this election cycle. While it was a 2nd generation American with roots in Afghanistan, naming ISIS as his reason for mass murder, it was an immigrant preacher from Venezuela, who praised the deaths. Roger Jimenez (who claims to be a Christian) made a point of telling his congregation there was no reason to mourn the people shot in Orlando. Instead, he said he wished more had died. Both have been fed a barrage of anti-gay sentiment. Their purpose was hate. Their need was to attack a group of people who are deemed less worthy, by some in our society.

Whatever the tortured state of mind of Omar Mateen, he latched unto legitimized hate as justification for his decision to carry out an attack. Fueled by ISIS attacks on anyone who is different, he justified himself. Afterwards, Jimenez, latched onto legitimized hate to launch his diatribe against all gay and lesbian people, who he believes are destined for punishment. He says, that God has already put the “death penalty” on them, so why should anyone care.

A few days back, a close relative of an old friend was attacked by a person, who mistook his tanned skin, as that of a Muslim. Feeling righteous anger, the man knocked him to the floor and began to beat him up. He felt his hatred toward Muslim people, legitimized in today’s rhetoric, gave him the right to do injury and harm to a stranger.

It’s not to say I believe in reincarnation, but sometimes I think that in God’s great wisdom, justice would be served by sending Orlando’s shooter and Pastor Jimenez back to be re-schooled in compassion, reincarnated as young gay men in Saudi Arabia or some other intolerant society.

I hope that we come to a consensus on guns, mental illness and better strategies of tracking people who pose a threat to others, soon. More than that, I pray a new attitude of compassion will flow through this country. An attitude which loves, even people who we disagree with – whose life style, may be contrary to our own view of the world. An attitude which refuses to buy into the politics of hate. Jesus had it right, when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

The Enigma of Donald Trump in the Evangelical World

The enigma of Donald Trump has both fascinated and frightened those of us who believe a country should be governed by people of principle, integrity and compassion. From the very beginning of his unlikely run for the presidency of the United States, he seems to be immune to the very attitudes which would get the rest of us fired from jobs, lose friends and be banished from the world of politics.

Some people believe that he is feeding off the anger in our nation. Other’s that his success is a product of obstructism in Congress. His campaign is certainly fueled by an anger that is both real and inflamed by media talk. Talk which has fanned imagined as well as genuine wrongs. I would never have thought we would get to this place in my country. I have begun to understand how Germany was given over to the Nazi’s in a different era.

What puzzles me the most is how Donald Trump has captured so many people who are Evangelical Christians. I’ve wondered, is there no correlation between faith and action? How can a follower of Jesus be a supporter of one so unlike Jesus? It isn’t that the Bible doesn’t offer some guidance. When the apostle Paul wrote to the people of Galatia, it was to give direction on how a Christian lives in the world. He bemoaned the reality he saw, of good people confused by other voices, giving into a faith that no longer resembled the faith of Jesus. He writes to them, “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14

Nothing in the campaign of Donald Trump shows any indication that he has taken seriously the words of Jesus. From his attitude toward, immigrants, minorities, women and the disabled, there has been a distinct lack of compassion, empathy or concern. So how can people of faith, accept this man as the person best prepared to lead our country? Paul goes on to talk about what a Christian looks like saying, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” Galatians 5:22-23

I can understand people being angry who feel left out of the economic recovery. What I don’t understand are people of faith, turning to a person who lives so outside the values of their faith. Because if our following of Jesus is real, if it means anything at all, we ought to be growing more and more Christ-like in our attitudes, our actions, our values and our beliefs.

We should be looking at people to lead our nation whose faith is real, whose lives reflect the fruit of God’s spirit. We ought to be looking at people who are at the core of their being, filled with compassion and kindness. Political ideology aside, I want someone who reflects the values and beliefs of the faith they claim as their own.

Syrian Refugees – Adrift and In Desperate Need

Every Thursday morning we held a Bible Study in the church kitchen of a small rural church I served between 1988 and 1994. Stories were told and memories of earlier days shared. What surprised me most about the history of the area were stories of World War I. The church was located only a few miles from a large German community which had at first questioned the wisdom of going to war with Germany. That question drew the attention of state and federal authorities, making the whole area suspect. Mail was scrutinized for signs of treason. The parents and grandparents of my class members had lived under constant threat of making a wrong comment, angering a neighbor, or being perceived as less than supportive of the war. Fear of these German immigrants had a grip on the nation.

World War II brought additional scrutiny, but at a lesser scale. Another ethnic group was arousing more fear . . . Japanese Americans. We would build Internment Camps, for almost 120,000 Japanese. Of those 80,000 were second generation Americans. In 1980 an investigation into the camps revealed that racism, and not national security, had led to their creation. Prejudice had led our political leaders to wrongly assume these citizens were just not American enough to trust.

The furor over a decision to take in 10,000 of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, adrift and in desperate need, has challenged my understanding of the country I call home. I fear for the soul of our nation as the conversation about receiving Syrian immigrants has become more and more hostile. Politicians have in turn said, they would forcibly return Syrian refugees, or only allow Christians to enter our country. A mayor even suggested we create a new set of Internment Camps.

Jesus was once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He responded by telling the story of a man from Jericho on his way to Damascus falling among thieves. (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus’s first listeners would have been aware of the dangers of traveling from Jericho to Damascus. One would not take the trip alone unless absolutely necessary. As the story unfolds, first a priest, then a teacher of the law saw the injured man, but decided to ignore him. Stopping to help the injured man would put anyone who did so at risk. This was a dangerous road. The threat of more robbers hidden behind the rocks could not be discounted. Then a Samaritan came along the path. He also would have been anxious about unseen bandits still in the area, but he, in seeing the injured man, went to him. This stranger of a different culture and religious tradition, bound up the man’s wounds and took him to an Inn where he continued to care for the man.

Jesus was not unaware of fear that would keep us from loving our neighbors. I think he told this story to remind us that there are times when we simply need to face our fear and do the right thing. Jesus cuts to the heart. He tells us what we need to hear and not what we want to hear. Jesus speaks truth to power . . . truth to callousness . . . truth to our prejudices and biases . . . truth to our fears. He cuts through our defenses, to the reality which lies behind. The Samaritan confronted his fear, then crossed cultural and religious obstacles to care for a wounded man.

In the end Jesus says, “It’s about love.” Love for God . . . Love for others. He reminds us that we are loved by God. Our best response to that love is to reach out in love to those who most need our care. As Jesus ended his story about the man we refer to as the Good Samaritan, he asked the one who had posed the original question, “Who then is the neighbor?” The response was immediate, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.” Does Jesus ask any less from us?

Will We Live Out Our Heritage as People of Faith or Will We Succumb to fear?

In a scene reminiscent of World War II, when nations around the world refused refuge to Jewish people fleeing the death camps of Hitler, today we are preparing to abandon another group of refugees. Fear can paralyze. It can keep us from honoring our commitments to people in need. Since the Paris attacks, fear has swept around this country and Europe. Fear of the stranger and fear of the refugee. Some in Congress are already preparing legislation to prevent any more refugees from Syria coming to our borders.

The scripture says, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” (I John 4:18) I once mixed the wording of the verse up when I was putting together a sermon. Instead of “Perfect love casts out fear,” I wrote, “Perfect fear casts out love.” This is the paradox of love and fear. When we allow fear to rule our hearts, it is difficult to love our neighbor. Fear pushes love away. It sets a barrier between “us and them.” Instead of concern over another’s well being, we are fearful that reaching out will be a danger to ourselves and our families.

In the Biblical drama the people of Israel seek refuge in foreign lands as desperate situations arrive. Abraham and Sarah move when famine breaks out. The Israelites will seek refuge in Egypt as another famine threatens their lives. Mary and Joseph, under threat, will take that same journey when they are warned of impending death for the infant Jesus. So it is that Jesus begins his life as a displaced person seeking political sanctuary from the vicious regime of Herod.

We are placed in this time of history and called to live out our faith in action. It would be easier to site security and let someone else deal with the refugees. History records the trauma of decisions made to the Jewish population before and during World War II. It is the same kind of mentality which caused us to imprison people of German descent during World War I and Japanese decent in World War II. We look back with regret on our fears as we sort through the lessons of history.

Today we stand on the cusp of another decision. Will we live out our heritage as people of faith or will we succumb to fear?

Another Week, Another Shooting

Another week, another shooting. And we pretend that guns have nothing to do with the violence we see played out week by week. If it isn’t a mass shooting in a church, a theater, a military base or a gang shooting on the streets of our cities, it’s a murder of family members. We glorify violence as a society. Mass killers receive a notoriety they have not had previously in their lives.

Sandy Hook School, Aurora Movie Theater, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Mother Emmanuel AME church . . . the names roll off our tongues. Tonight’s shooting in a Louisiana theater will find it’s place in the long litany of names. It has been said that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” The source of this quote is in question, but its truth lives in our newspapers. No matter how many people are killed, no matter how great a percentage of the population wants stricter gun control laws, there is a force more intent on profits than people. We will hear the platitudes again, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” So, week after week, we live with another tragedy.

Stephen Vincent Benet short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” is a tale of a man who sold his soul to the devil for material gain. I wonder if we as a people haven’t been selling our souls to keep the status quo. If not selling our souls, we’ve been worshiping the false gods of profit, fear and guns. Our law makers live in fear of the gun lobby and resist any changes and improvements to our laws. The NRA controls the congress while most of us wait for something to change. Laws may not have kept a gun out the hands of today’s shooter, but that isn’t true of others. Stolen guns are used every day to kill and to main. Yet, even the most sensible protection which would only allow the person who purchased the gun to use it, can’t get passed.

I grew up around guns with both a father and brother who hunted. Today’s guns are not like those of my childhood. Today’s reasons for owning guns are not either. The gun culture would tell us we are safer for our guns, but have trouble explaining how an Idaho toddler could find a gun in his mothers purse and kill her during a trip to a store.

I am tired of the clichés. I am tired of the deaths. I am tired of good people being killed by misguided youths, gang initiations, vengeful men and troubled young people . . . all of which are aided by too easy access to guns. I am tired of excuses. I’m tired of our nations lawmakers living in such fear of the gun lobby, they refuse to act. I’m tired of the pretense of sorrow, the false outrage by Washington, when next week, we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing, all the while preparing notes for the next heartache. The combination of Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for violent movies and our nation’s easy access to guns, makes another tragedy inevitable and soon.