Saturday, December 3, 2016

Walking in Chartres

A year and a half ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Chartres, France, to visit the cathedral there. Chartres was a pilgrimage destination in the 11th century, and in addition to some of the finest medieval glass windows in Europe, the cathedral includes a labyrinth in its nave that is the pattern for modern labyrinths found all over the world. 

A labyrinth looks a little like a maze, except that there is only one path, winding back and forth to the center.  There is no attempt to trick you or lead you down false corridors to dead ends. There are no barriers between one part of the path and another beyond the paving stone laid on the floor: one follows the labyrinth path by choice, so there is no need to prevent walkers from taking short cuts. 

Walking a labyrinth is about making a spiritual journey. The labyrinth at Chartres was originally the end of the pilgrim road: the last steps on a journey of many miles. The winding path is walked slowly, with pauses for prayer and attention paid to each step. It is a form of meditation, a way of stilling heart and mind on the way to an encounter with God.

The labyrinth at Chartres cathedral is available for visitors to walk only on Fridays. The rest of the week, the path laid out in light and dark paving stone is covered by chairs for those who attend worship. Many visitors are probably not even aware it is i there.  In planning our trip to France, I carefully scheduled our visit to Chartres on the day I could walk its winding paths. Labyrinths are one of my favorite ways to pray, and I’ve walked many of them -- most patterned on the labyrinth at Chartres. While I was interested in the history and architecture of the cathedral of Chartres, what put that particular church on my must-see list was the opportunity to pray in the same way as pilgrims have for centuries. 

We arrived fairly early on a gray and chilly day. The interior of the church was barely warmer than the 45F temperatures outside, and the gloominess turned the famous windows into darkly glowing jewels. But the labyrinth inset in the floor beckoned, a warm golden stone patterned with darker brown. I sent my family off to the gift shop, and started walking.  There were a handful of other people in the labyrinth with me, but we were all immersed in the experience. We moved past one another silently, smoothly, patiently waiting when someone ahead of us paused to pray. The silence was broken only by the muted sounds of a handful of visitors talking softly elsewhere in the vast space. 

And then the tour groups started arriving. One busload of tourists and then another poured through the doors, chattering away, looking up into the shadows of the ceiling, pointing eagerly at the stained glass windows. Tour guides waved closed umbrellas and shouted to rally their groups, and began speaking in carrying tones in a variety of languages I don’t speak.  Periodically, a newly-released group would come streaming straight across the labyrinth, talking loudly among themselves, and stopping to take pictures of the rose window over the entrance to the cathedral. I found myself repeatedly having to stop my slow deliberate walk, lest I walk straight into some oblivious tourist. It was clear the guides had not bothered to explain what the labyrinth was, nor suggested that it was sacred ground to be respected. Intent on the architecture, few tourists even noticed the pilgrims in the winding pathways, much less held open that space for silence and prayer. 

It was not exactly the experience I had been looking forward to. And at first, I was angry. After all, I had come thousands of miles for the experience of praying the labyrinth, and my silent devotions were now being rudely interrupted by tourists who clearly knew nothing about this sacred space, and who had not come to the cathedral to pray. I considered quitting, just walking away across the pathways before completing the full circuit. But then I realized if I did so, I would just carry my frustration and resentment with me. I would surrender not only the prayerful encounter with God I had sought in the labyrinth, but my enjoyment of the rest of the cathedral, and indeed the entire day. 

So instead, I began praying for the tourists crossing my path. I prayed for them as travelers in a far away land, for them to have an encounter with God in this ancient place of worship. I found myself praying for the world, for the places where people were unable to feel God’s presence, because they were too busy, or too under attack, or too afraid. I prayed for the sick, the suffering, and those in any kind of trouble. I let each interruption inspire a new prayer, a little random, but powerful. I continued my journey, and in due time, reached the center of the labyrinth.  And then I walked off, and explored the cathedral all those tourists had come to see. 

I’ve been thinking about the morning ever since, because I think perhaps it has something to teach us about what it means to be church in a busy world.  

Most of us who attend church regularly do so because we love the rhythms of worship and the peace that comes with gathering to pray. Music, liturgy, familiar prayers all draw us into an encounter with God. Sometimes that encounter is in sacrament, sometimes in inner stillness, sometimes in the people who gather with us. But regardless of how it happens, worship is about holding open a space where God can be met. 

And we do this in a world full of people who largely do not realize what we are doing. For those who have rarely attended church, the old-fashioned music, unfamiliar language, and odd symbols and gestures may convey little. The reason we are stopped and gathered there may not be immediately evident. And as a result, they may rush on by, barely aware of what we are doing, anxious to accomplish their goals. 

But it is holy and important work to hold that space where encounters with God can happen. 

I wonder how many tourists to Chartres pause to wonder what these strange, silent walkers are doing. Do they ask their guides, perhaps tentatively set foot in the labyrinth themselves? What would happen if there were spiritual guides stationed nearby, to help them experience the labyrinth as something more than a historical artifact? 

I suspect that many of the people who rush by are seeking something, even if they don’t realize or remember what in the busy-ness of the day. For some, the frantic pace of life may be actively crowding out a longing for something deeper: meaning, maybe, or peace, or connection with neighbors, or an encounter with God. That the church continues to hold that holy space where meaning and peace  and neighbors and God can be found may be just what they need to remind them that life is not found in the abundance of possessions, and that no one has wished on their death bed that they had spent more time in the grocery store.

Most of the tourists at Chartres that day missed out on a unique opportunity to experience the cathedral as more than an architectural marvel. God was present in that place. But I might have missed out on it as well, if I had allowed their lack of interest or concern for what I was doing to discourage me. And that’s something the church should remember. It’s not about having full pews or being supported by the culture at large. It doesn’t matter if cashiers acknowledge our religious holidays or school sports schedule games to make them convenient for us. We gather to hold holy space, to make possible encounters with God, and we can do that no matter what the circumstances. We can do that simply by claiming the moment for prayer, even when the silence is broken by the babble of voices, even when we’re interrupted by Japanese tour groups photographing everything in sight. 

God is with us at all times and all places. It is the church’s job to teach us to listen deeply enough to hear the Spirit’s voice through the cacophony, and to hold open holy space so that others might as well. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Mother's Day Prayers of the People

In the Episcopal Church, we offer a series of prayers called Prayers of the People. I occasionally write some for special occasions: I wrote these a couple of years ago for Mother's Day. Feel free to reprint and use them as you like, although credit is appreciated!

Mother’s Day Prayers of the People
God of our mothers, God of Sarah and Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, on this day set aside in our nation to honor mothers, we give thanks to You for our mothers. We pray for the women who raised us; for all the women in our lives whose care and concern has nurtured and sustained us; and for all whose selfless love has taught us what it means to be a child of God.
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
We pray for the church, and especially for the mothers who have worked long and often unrecognized to spread the Gospel. We pray today especially for the Mothers’ Unions across Africa who serve the poor in the name of Christ. In the Anglican Cycle of Prayer, we pray for 
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
We pray for mothers in our own community and around the world who struggle against poverty and injustice; for those who lack basic necessities for themselves and their children; for those who are oppressed and live in fear of violence; for those who dream of a better world and seek to create it for the sake of their children. 
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
We pray for those for whom this day brings grief: for those who have lost their mothers; for those whose mothers could not, for whatever reason, be true mothers to them; for those who are estranged from their mothers or their children; for mothers whose children have died; and for those who long to be mothers but have not known the joy of children and motherhood. 
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
In the name of Mary’s son Jesus, who healed the sick and gave sight to the blind, we pray for all those in our parish in need of healing in body, mind, or spirit: 
I invite your prayers of petition at this time. (Please offer your prayers either silently or aloud.)
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
We pray for the departed, especially for our mothers and grandmothers who have entered into the joy of your kingdom, whom we now name before you: (Please name mothers and grandmothers who have died.)
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 
We offer our thanksgivings for the love we have known from our mothers and from those who have mothered us, and for the love we have felt for our children and those who have been like children to us.  
I invite your other prayers of thanksgiving at this time. (Please offer your prayers either silently or aloud.)
God of our mothers, hear our prayer. 

Loving God, who gave Your Son that You might gather all people to yourself as a mother hen gathers her brood, accept our prayers for all who mother and bless them in their calling. And teach all of us, brothers and sisters in Christ, to be Your family, and to love one another as You first loved us. Amen. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Seeking Safety

Where do we look for safety? 

Everywhere we look we find reasons to be afraid. Terrorist attacks in Paris and in California. Mass shootings in Colorado and Georgia. In fact, there have been more than 350 shootings this year where four or more people were killed or injured. And that doesn’t even touch the more run-of-the-mill violence that fills the nightly news. 

It is perfectly understandable that we would seek safety in a frightening world. It is perfectly understandable that we are afraid of those we perceive as being dangerous. It is very human that those dangerous others are always the people we do not understand, the people not like us — refugees, Muslims, immigrants, people of color, the mentally ill, people on the fringes of society, people whose actions and reactions we cannot predict.

But when we give in to this very human reaction, we seek safety in the wrong places. We seek safety in rejection and hatred. We seek safety by turning our backs on the suffering of the world, by demanding that those others be kept at arms length. But it is never enough, because safety cannot be found in fear and rejection.  We build ever higher walls, but we soon discover that we have walled our fear in with us.

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it,” Jesus tells the disciples. It’s a strange thing, but safety cannot be found by seeking safety. Indeed, we fail again and again because we are seeking an assurance of security that this world can never give. In our broken world, there is no where we can go where sin and death cannot touch us.

So what are we to do? There is only one place we can turn: to the One who has overcome sin and death. In dying and rising again to new life, our Savior demonstrated once and for all that God’s power is greater even than death. “In this we are conquerers and more than conquerers through him who loved us,” St. Paul writes. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s not that followers of Jesus do not have to face death. It’s that we do not have to be afraid of it. 

And that’s where we find our safety. Not in systems or plans or walls intended to keep death at bay, but by our willingness to walk through death, if necessary, trusting in the love of God to save us.

And it’s a strange thing, but when we seek safety not in the promise that death cannot touch us, but in the Gospel’s assurance that death cannot overcome us, we are filled with life and love. We discover we now possess abundant life, eternal life. We discover that even though we die, we live in Christ; that even though we lose our life, we have found it. 

People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken,” Jesus warned the disciples in our lectionary reading on the first Sunday of Advent. “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

So walk in love and courage. Welcome the stranger, heal the broken, and set the prisoner free. Do not be afraid. For we have been given tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people.  Our safety is to be found in our Lord Jesus Christ, a safety that can never be taken away.  “My peace I give to you,” Jesus tells the disciples on the night before he is crucified. “My peace I leave with you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Our safety is found in the Lord. 


Monday, February 2, 2015

I Love My Job

I just want to state, for the record, that I have the best job in the world.

It seems I can’t go a week without some contact on social media sharing yet another article explaining why being an ordained minister is such a difficult job. And to be fair, there are lots of reasons pastoring a church is not for the faint-hearted. Churches are full of broken, hurting people, and it’s the clergy’s job to minister to them and to help bear their burdens -- and some of those burdens are doozies.

Yes, it can be very tiring. And sometimes lonely. And frustrating. Our failures tend to be very public, and our successes private. There’s constant exposure to the harshest realities of life, and the job refuses to stay within tidy boundaries.

All of this is true. But it’s true for a lot of people in a lot of fields. I don’t suppose my job is really that much harder than that of teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers and social workers, who deal with many of the same challenges, often with less respect. And my job doesn’t include many of the less pleasant aspects of theirs -- I am hardly ever expected to clean up vomit, for example.

Yes, sometimes I have to deal with someone who’s angry about a change I’ve made or something I’ve said. I have to deal with people who make it personal, and who may threaten my job if I don’t give them what they want. But sitting in the pews are retail clerks and waitresses who have had to bear the brunt of a customer’s wrath over something that wasn’t their fault -- and who probably got stiffed on a commission or a tip to boot.

Yes, I’ve been out until 2 a.m. after spending hours in the emergency room with a desperately ill parishioner, and driven home exhausted. But the guy who does tech support for the multinational firm was up just as late trying to solve a critical customer problem, and he’ll probably end up doing it again tomorrow night.

Yes, I am sometimes the only person in the world entrusted with hurting, broken people’s deepest griefs and greatest burdens. And yes, I worry about them, and I carry those burdens alone, because to share them would be to violate the precious trust they’ve placed in me. But the psychologist, the addiction counselor, and the social worker in the congregation know just as many secrets and are just as much alone.

Yes, I am regularly called upon to sit with the dying and comfort the grieving. But I almost never do it alone. I am joined by hospice workers, doctors, nurses, and funeral home directors who are kind and compassionate and who see to the mundane details of death with grace and patience. After the funeral, I will turn my attention to planning the next week’s baptism or getting ready for a preschool celebration, while those I ministered alongside meet another grieving family and start the process all over again.

Yes, sometimes my sermons flop, and I spend all week stewing over what I should have said instead. But that’s nothing compared to the politician or local town official who says something ill-considered and is castigated in the media and the local coffee shop all week, or the middle-manager who blows the big presentation and loses the company’s most important client.

And those are just the hard parts of my job. There are also days when I’m called to the hospital to hold a newborn baby. I get to be part of the happiest moments in people’s lives, presiding at weddings and baptisms. There are days when I rock the sermon, and people pause as they walk out the door to shake my hand and say, “Great sermon! Thank you! ”

I get invited to lunch and to tea, and small children offer to let me hold their favorite stuffed animals or ask to sit on my lap. Little old ladies hug me and tell me how very, very happy they are that I am part of their church. People bake me banana bread and mince pies, and send home cookies from coffee hour for my teenage children.

I preside at the Eucharist week after week, welcoming God and lifting up the deepest longings of the people gathered around the Table. I reassure the penitent of God’s forgiveness, the lost of God’s love for them, and the frightened of God’s protection and care. I get to pray for those in need, and hear the stories of healing and hope that so often follow.

I tell stories of miraculous rescue, long-awaited return, and never-ending love to small children and harried parents and weary elders. I help people wrestling with hard truths and difficult realities to deepen their understanding and come to know God better. Every now and then, the Holy Spirit uses me for healing and wholeness and comfort and strength for others in ways that leave me gasping with gratitude and awe.

I have the best job in the world. I am so unbelievably blessed to have been called to this work. I cannot express my gratitude to have the opportunity day after day to be part of what God is doing in all these places, the beautiful and the ugly, the hard and the holy.

Yes, sometimes I get tired and depressed and frustrated. I’m only human, after all, and sometimes the hard things are very hard indeed. Sometimes the burdens are very heavy. But that’s true for all of us, which is probably why St. Paul once wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I try to remember the advice of Colossians: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”

There is so very much to be thankful for, and I hope all of us blessed to be pastors and priests will try to remember that even on -- or maybe especially on -- the days when it’s hard.

Monday, January 26, 2015


A couple years ago, I realized that I probably have Attention Deficit Disorder. 

I was reading up on ADD because I have several friends diagnosed with it, and I was startled by how much we had in common. I began to wonder what, exactly, the difference was between having ADD and not having ADD. The more I read, the more I realized how much I fit the descriptions I was reading. 

My mother has told me for years that when I was in fifth and sixth grade, my teachers regularly brought up in parent-teacher conferences my inability to pay attention in class. My mother was confused by this, because I was a straight-A student, and she couldn’t figure out how I could be getting good grades if I wasn’t paying attention. In those days, ADD was only just starting to be diagnosed, and mostly it was diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in boys. I did not fit the profile for ADHD, since I was not disruptive in class and I was intelligent enough that whatever I was getting in class was enough for me to do well in school. But I spent many hours in class reading a book under my desk, where I would lose myself so thoroughly that the entire class would go to lunch and I wouldn’t realize it, something brain scientists call hyper focus.  Throughout my teens, my mother called me the absent-minded professor, because while I was a brilliant student I was notorious for losing things and leaving things behind. She complained that I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached. And when I worked at Sears during high school, I would regularly go to the stock room looking for something for a customer, get distracted on the way, and forget why I was there. I joked with my colleagues that I was getting senile at the ripe old age of 17. 

All of which is pretty much textbook for girls with ADD.  But I’ve never confirmed it with a diagnosis, mostly because a diagnosis requires that all of this interfere with my life, that it be a disorder. And for me, at least, it’s just how I operate in the world. 

As it turns out, I come from a long line of people with attention issues. My grandfather’s inability to sit still was legendary, and well into his 80s he was a familiar sight pacing the driveway or walking the neighborhood. My mother looks back on her own childhood (and adulthood), and sees the same behaviors and challenges that I have, and even more so in her brother. All of which means that I was surrounded with people who knew how to cope, and could teach me all the ways of managing distractibility that many people get from professional counselors. 

It’s true that I couldn’t live without checklists and routines, and sometimes I get distracted on the way to write something on my to-do list, and whatever it is never gets done. It’s true that I still have to look for my keys every time I go out the door, something that drives my husband nuts, and the altar guild finds my prayer book in a different place each week after worship.  But it’s also true that none of that particularly bothers me, although I still feel bad about the poor lady I left standing in the aisle at Sears for over 20 minutes while I didn’t look for the bra she asked me to find two decades ago. 

In fact, the only downside to not having a diagnosis is that I still find myself reluctant to claim what I need to function at my best. It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve come to realize that some people actually enjoy the presentations at clergy conference and diocesan convention.  There are people out there who look forward to spending hours sitting with other people in a room and learning about what’s going on in the diocese, or the newest ideas in self-care, or whatever this year’s day-long program is about.  I’ve always assumed that everyone was suffering the way I was, sitting and listening in a ballroom or church sanctuary, growing ever more anxious and irritable and coming home exhausted.

And then this year, after Diocesan Convention, I had an epiphany. It was the first time in years I did not have a task that required me to spend some time away from the convention floor, and it was held in a church that didn’t really have enough space for everyone who attended. I arrived early to secure a seat, and found myself crammed into the inner side of a pew, shoulder to shoulder with the four people between me and the aisle. And so I sat still, not wanting to disturb the others sharing my pew, and grew more and more frustrated and desperate for the whole thing to be over.  

It was only after the last prayer was said and I chatted with the two members of my church who serve as representatives to convention that I realized my frustration was not shared. Around me everyone was talking about how wonderful the worship was, how interesting the presentations, and generally, how much they had enjoyed convention. My experience had been so very different! By the time Eucharist came around, I just wanted it to be over; by lunchtime,  I was so tired I almost cried when I couldn’t find a seat or figure out where my compatriots had gone to in their quest for a place to sit. Far from buoyed up by a  wonderful day and excited about the church’s future, I was snarky and irritable. 

Listening to our wonderful senior warden talk about how much she had learned and how glad she was that she was to be the rep this year,  I realized that maybe my attention issues sometimes interfere with my life after all.  Maybe our rep is the one who is unusual, and everyone else in that room was just as cranky as I was. But there’s a strong chance that it really is just me -- or at least, just me and all the other ADD folks in the room. And maybe I have lots of company because, well, I have lots of company, but we might not be the majority. 

Looking back, I also realized that I enjoyed clergy conference and clergy day more this past year, in part because on both occasions I hadn’t made an effort to sit still in the room for the entire thing. At clergy conference, when we broke up into small groups, I blew the off the workshop on writing to go and actually write. At clergy day, when they came to the hour dedicated to providing information about a health plan I’m not on and don’t ever anticipate using, I went off and took a lovely walk with a clergy colleague in the same situation. 

In other words, when I gave up trying to be a good girl who sits still and pays attention in class, everything got better -- my experience, my mood, and in all likelihood, how much people enjoyed sitting with me at lunch. 

But I feel guilty skipping out on stuff, even when my presence offers no particular value. I feel self-conscious when I work on an embroidery project while listening to a presentation, knowing many people see it as a sign I’m not paying attention. Without an official diagnosis, I’m reluctant to say I have ADD, which might make it easier for people to understand why I do that stuff. But I’m beginning to think I’m not doing anyone any favors, since forcing myself to be the good and attentive person I think I should be makes me rather unpleasant company. Especially since now that I think about it, it doesn’t seem to have that effect on everybody.

I wonder if I should, perhaps, consult a professional and see if I qualify for a diagnosis. But I’m not sure what difference it will make. I don’t really want to take medications, and mostly I do just fine. I have a pretty impressive collection of coping mechanisms and organizing strategies, and I’m already surrounded by people who are fully aware that if it looks like I’ve forgotten something, I probably have, and who cheerfully offer reminders. I don’t know if it matters if I have ADD or if I’m just one of a pretty large gorup of people who have a limited capacity to sit still and listen. I think perhaps all I need to do is give myself permission to need regular breaks and to find ways to contribute that don’t require me to sit around a table for more than three hours. 

Maybe, in other words, I’m not disordered at all. In fact, maybe none of us is disordered -- we’re just different. Some of us love chaos and change, and others value order and stability. Some of us thrive in settings where there are constant distractions, and others are much more productive when allowed to stay focused on a single task until its completed. Maybe the problem isn’t having a disorder, so much as it is the way the world tends to insist that there is only one way to be successful. Maybe I don’t need a diagnosis, just a willingness to acknowledge my weaknesses and stop feeling guilty about the need to make adjustments because of them. 

The world would be a better place if we all did that, in fact. As St. Paul says, there are many gifts, and the hand cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you.”  A couple years ago, I asked an adult parishioner with autism to be cantor for the Easter Vigil. The vigil is a service we do only once a year, so the proper order isn’t ingrained in me like Sunday morning Eucharist, and I have a tendency to skip collects or forget that we were going to recite a psalm after an energetic skit telling the story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.  But order is very important to Michael, so that year he took on the role of reminding me what came next as the vigil progressed from story to story. The result was a lively, creative service that also moved in an orderly fashion, and it was far more wonderful than it would have been if it had been left to just one of us. 

Maybe my attention issues are worse then most people’s, or maybe not. Either way, I know how to adapt, and I’m going to work on feeling less guilty when I do so. I hope you’ll do the same thing, because all of us are made in the image of God, and we are all so much more than the sum of our weaknesses. I may not be the person you want organizing rehearsals, sending out reminders, and labeling costumes as the church school prepares for the Christmas Pageant, but I am totally the person you want in charge of a half dozen sugar-hyped “sheep” and a Mary talking nonstop in excitement, while Joseph’s mom is on the phone to tell you that he has a fever of 102F and can’t come. Chaos is my natural element, and that can be a good thing. 

Now, if I could just quit losing my car keys… 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Gun Toting Yahoos

This morning’s newscast included a deeply disturbing story. Sandwiched between breathless reports on two cases of ebola in Texas and a story about a “salmon cannon” being used to move fish in the drought-striken Northwest was a story about a cancelled lecture at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.

Yeah, I know, doesn’t sound like that big a deal, does it? The lecture in question was by a woman who has been an outspoken advocate for tamping down the sexism in video games and increasing the diversity of female characters. This has been so inflammatory to a group of gamers that she is receiving death threats. That’s pretty disturbing: There are actually guys out there so wedded to the sex-goddess-damsel-in-distress female character that they would threaten to kill anyone who suggests portraying female characters exclusively that way is kinda sexist, and it might be a good idea for video games to have some strong, ass-kicking, fully-dressed women warriors as well.

But that wasn’t actually the most disturbing part of the story. (Which is terrifying in and of itself.) No, the most disturbing thing was an almost casual mention toward the end of the report that the talk was cancelled because gun laws in Utah mean that police can’t ban guns from the auditorium. Campus police will have to let a gun-toting would-be assassin sashay right past them, because hey, they might be a good guy with a gun. Can’t tell until they pull the trigger, after all, and state law says the guys with guns have a right to be in the auditorium. Anonymous death threats do not, apparently, constitute a reason to suggest people with guns shouldn’t be allowed to get within shooting distance of the person who is being threatened.

I’ve always been pretty moderate toward gun ownership. I don’t own a gun, and wouldn’t consider it, but I learned to shoot a rifle as a teenager and people in my family are responsible gun owners. I’ve argued that there are many situations where having a gun in the house might be prudent, especially in settings where the innocent are vulnerable and help is far away, and that one-size-fits-all gun laws are a bad idea. I’ve encouraged my children to learn about firearms from their grandfather, because I believe knowledge is the best way to keep them safe around guns.

I’ve always said I don’t want to take anyone’s guns away. But I’ve changed my mind. I want to take the guns away from the gun-toting yahoos.

Let’s be clear: You are not a good guy with a gun if you cannot put up with a little inconvenience in purchasing a gun so that we can take a stab at keeping guns out of the hands of people with a history of violence and mental illness. You are not a good guy with a gun if your right to carry your assault rifle trumps the right of someone who has received death threats to feel safe. You are not a good guy with a gun if it’s just too much trouble to get real training in how to handle yourself in an emergency, so you don’t accidentally shoot innocent bystanders.

Let’s clear something else up too: There is no “God-given right” to a gun. Whatever right you may or may not have to a gun is conferred by the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, not the Bible. In fact, Jesus has something very different to say about self-defense: “But I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” (Luke 6:27-29) Jesus lived that out, too. When the authorities came to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, some of his followers wanted to fight. Jesus knew what he was going to if he surrendered -- but he did it anyway, chastising Peter when he tried to defend his lord with the warning that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

And we are dying by the sword. (Or more precisely, our guns.) Some 32,000 people every year die of gun violence, and both the FBI and a new study from Harvard University show that mass shootings in public places where the victim and shooter don’t know each other are becoming more and more frequent. Our urgency to make it easier to arm ourselves out of fear that no one will come to our aid, that we and those we love could at any moment be a victim of violence, is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I get that most of the gun owners out there are law-abiding citizens. I get that a fair number of the ones that aren’t will probably be able to get a gun anyway. I agree that we need to do a much, much better job at caring for those with mental illnesses. But none of that trumps that fact that we have gone too far when a speaker feels they have to cancel because someone is threatening to shoot them, and we can’t even ask people not to bring their guns into the room.

Being afraid of bad guys is not sufficient reasons for Christians to carry guns everywhere they go. If we truly believe that our God is Lord of All, that God’s power is greater than death itself, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God, we should have enough faith to leave the guns at home when their presence might actually make it harder for us to be safe. We should trust enough to wait a few days for a background check and avoid looking like Rambo at the supermarket. Fear should not drive our decisions, because we are a Resurrection people, and we know that there is nothing to fear, not even death.

So let’s do something about the gun-toting yahoos. Let’s say, “Enough!” to those who sell us fear alongside of ammunition. Let’s work together to find a reasonable middle ground, that recognizes the rights of sportsmen and hunters and responsible gun owners who are willing to do what it takes to be a “good guy with a gun.” Because we have been afraid long enough.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Of Prophets and Pastors

If you hang around with religious people long enough, sooner or later you encounter a prophet or two.

These days, I suppose most people call them activists. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, because they almost always are activists of one kind or another. What makes them prophets, though, is that their passion for change is deeply rooted in their longing for God’s healed and redeemed creation. They are not shy about condemning the current order because of the way it falls horribly short of God’s will for us. And they expect us to do something about it.

The prophets I know are a pain in the neck. They have no sense of moderation, and are not at all interested in hearing about what is actually possible. They’re impatient with compromise and process. In the church, they always seem to have at least one foot out the door, because they’re frustrated by our timidity in responding to God’s call to us. They are disruptive and annoyingly single-minded.

And they are a blessing to the church. Anyone who spends much time in our midst knows that the great temptation of church life is to become so focused on our own needs and our personal relationship with God that we forget we are part of a larger Body. We come for comfort, and don’t want to be shaken to our core by challenges to what we currently are, even if those changes invite us into new growth. We want a deeper spiritual life, but like the rich young man, we are often reluctant to make the sacrifices that would allow us to have it.

Prophets refuse to let us be complacent. They remind us that while God may meet us where we are, God doesn’t leave us there -- and that there is an urgent need for us to be about God’s work in the world. They call to our attention the devastation caused by climate change and unjust economic systems. They demand we do something about poverty and immigration. They point out the resources we have and then insist we use them for the sake of others. They give us a sense of urgency and drive us out of our comfort zones, where God can transform us in ways we longed for but didn’t dare seek. Yes, as annoying and disruptive as they are, the church needs prophets.

But the church also needs pastors like me. Whatever my prophetic friends think, it’s not fear of rejection or losing my job that softens my tone and makes me insist on patience. It’s that I want people to be able to hear what I say -- what I’ve learned from them -- and I know shrill voices and guilt trips cause people to tune out. In order to grow, we need someone wiling to meet us where we are, and hold our hands while we seek healing of the wounds that keep us from being the people we are called to be. We need someone to reassure us that we are loved, because if we do not know we are loved by God, we cannot offer God’s love to the world. We need someone to encourage us when we are afraid, so that we can find the courage to take the next step.

As a pastor, one of my jobs is to care for people in that strange, ambiguous place where we want growth but don’t want to change. My job is to invite, to encourage, to strengthen, and to prod so that people who arrive looking for comfort go out empowered by God to do things they never believed possible. My task is to hold hands with people facing terrifying realities and promise them they are not alone, and then to embody that by staying there no matter what comes, whether it’s new life or deep disappointment. Only then can I point out when it is fear itself holding us back, and that God is inviting us to come walk on water in the middle of the storm. And yeah, it’s my job to get out of the boat first, and sometimes I see the wind and fail just as Peter failed, and I have to be helped back into the boat by Jesus. That’s my job, too.

Prophets, with their impatience and their passion, are lousy at nurturing people who fall short in responding to God’s call. They are always ten steps ahead, impatiently looking back and demanding we catch up. Pastors are the ones that help us up when we fall, bind our wounds, and urge us to try again.

And we need one another. I think it’s a little like instilling a love of hiking. Prophets are the ones who write the guidebooks and build the trails. They tackle 4,000 foot mountains and tell us all about the wonders we’re missing out on, and warn us of the perils of staying on the couch, of letting the forests be cut and the land mined for another’s profit. They tell us to come out and see for ourselves -- and hurry up about it, because the opportunity isn’t going to last forever. They get us moving, teach us to value the longer view, and convince us to try even when the summit seems a long way away. We’d never experience these amazing places if it weren’t for the prophets urging us onward.

But pastors are the ones who prepare us to get to the top of the mountain. Like teaching children to hike: When you take a small child on their first hike, you don’t try to summit a 4,000-footer. For one thing, you are doomed to fail -- it’s just too hard for a small child -- and if you drag a child on past the point where they are tired and whiny, they will come to hate hiking very, very quickly. If you want your child to love hiking, so that they will eventually climb mountains, you start with an easy hike with lots of interesting things to see and an end that comes into sight when they are just starting to get tired. As your child grows, you do longer, more challenging hikes. Eventually, the day comes when you choose a hike that’s challenging for *you* and your nearly-grown children bound ahead of you, calling back “Hurry up!” and expressing impatience when you have to stop and rest, again. Soon they are eagerly planning for longer, more ambitious hikes -- ones you know you will never go on, because they have far outpaced your strength and skill. If you are very lucky, they will become prophets who tell everyone down below how wonderful the view is and how important it is to learn to climb.

In the end, the church would have no hope of being what it should be if it weren’t for the prophets and the pastors. We complement each other, part of the whole Body of Christ, and the hand cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you.” We may not always like each other, but we do need each other.

It’s not easy for us to be friends, prophets and pastors. We know each others’ limits all too well, and we irritate each other. Prophets are never patient enough, and pastors never bold enough. But I suppose that’s why God gives us both -- so that as the people of God, we will be both patient and bold.

God bless the prophets and the pastors.