Wednesday, October 4, 2017

With Las Vegas Before and Behind Us

According to the UMC Book of Discipline, "new issues continually arise that summon us to fresh theological inquiry.  Daily we are presented with an array of concerns that challenge our proclamation of God's reign over all of human existence."(¶104 UMCBOD)

I think sometimes that the "new issues" are arising at a faster pace than the church or any of those living in our country could have anticipated.  I remember thinking how the threat of nuclear war was theoretically dissipated when the Cold War ended only to find myself once again wondering if some maniac is ready to fire the missiles just to make a point about who was really the most powerful. 

And then there are hurricanes that demonstrate how quickly and easily the planet can put us in our place.  We see how, as the writer of Ecclesiastes said, all things crumble.  No matter what kind of confidence we have in our preparedness, we still have to respect the wind, the rain, and the storm - even though, as Elijah learned, God was not to be found in their destruction.

And then there are shootings.  Las Vegas.  Sandy Hook.  Chattanooga.  "Shots fired!" goes the cry.  And we wonder about our confidence in humanity and our willingness to arm ourselves to the teeth to prevent some shooter from going nuts only to find that a shooter armed himself to the teeth and went nuts.

In the face of these atrocities, our task continues to be as follows: "We seek an authentic Christian response to these realities that the healing and redeeming work of God might be present in our words and deeds."(¶104 UMCBOD).  That is really hard to do when bodies are on the ground - either from the hurricane or the hail of gunfire.  What we try to do more often than not is to find out who we can blame.  Blame the NRA, blame the Democrats, blame the Republicans, blame the Left, blame the Right, blame this historical event or that one.  Condemn those who want to talk about gun control, condemn those who don't. 

As to that last point, I think it should be said that we all handle grief differently.  Some want to spend time processing it, some want to talk, some want to be quiet.  When the nation is rocked by such atrocities, we all try to process the event in our own way - and sometimes we think that someone who doesn't act or react the way we do is uncaring, insensitive, or part of the problem.  But we have to learn to give ourselves time to grieve as well as time to process.  Some just move through that at different speeds.

But blame?  I blame the shooter.  He did this.  Of course, we could then write him off as crazy, a maniac, or whatever else.  The condition of his mind is certainly a question, as are his feelings of apparent indifference to human life.  Or we could just say that this proves that he was a sinner and that if only he had had Jesus in his heart, this wouldn't have happened.  As the Apostle Paul said, though, we are all sinners.  We can't call him that unless we are prepared to say that we are better in some fashion.

And maybe we are.  But then we start arguing about which sin is worse than our own.  According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said that the unforgivable sin is when we call evil good and good evil and when we say that the working of the Holy Spirit is the work of the evil and vice versa.  Sometimes our theological and political rants get very, very close to that line.  "We look," as United Methodists, "for answers that are in harmony with the gospel and do not claim exemption from critical assessment." (¶104 UMCBOD).  Critical assessment.  Which means that we have to not only hear the words of scripture, but be willing to talk and reason things out. 

Part of the problem we find ourselves facing today is that we do not take time to reason, to study, to examine.  Figuring out why this happened in Las Vegas will take time, but we are not a patient people.  So we start texting, tweeting, Instagraming and foster rumors and half-truths, even on national news, which has become the battleground for our short attention spans.  Critical assessment takes time and patience is a virtue.  Sometimes, though, we are not virtuous people. 

But we need to be.  As part of the United Methodist Church, we need to be the virtuous examples of faith in the face of tragedy.  Perhaps part of that needs to be the ability to keep quiet.  As a chaplain in the Niota Volunteer Fire Department, I learned quickly that sometimes the best thing to say in a crisis is nothing at all.  It is called the ministry of presence.  Just be there.  In being there, we bear witness.  We don't blame, we seek to console.  As the prayer of St. Francis says, "may we not so much seek to be consoled as to console."  That, of course, comes after the request to be an instrument of God's peace. 

"As servants of Christ we are sent into the world to engage in the struggle for justice and reconciliation.  We seek to reveal the love of God for men, women, and children of all ethnic, racial, cultural, and national backgrounds and to demonstrate the healing power of the gospel with those who suffer." (¶124 UMCBOD).

Who suffers?  We need not look far.  Our task then is, as the hymn says, to rescue the perishing, care for the dying.  And so many are hurting all around us.  The church, so crippled by internal debates over who really is loved by God, is loosing the ability to be a bastion of hope and light.  But that doesn't have to be the case. 

I once described the United Methodist Church as follows:
Where are we in the world?  Imagine someone about to be executed by lethal injection.  Where are we in that story?  First, we stand with the family of the victim.  We know that justice is cold comfort, and that the loss that they might have is a void that may never be truly filled. 
Second, we stand with the protesters outside.  We want justice, but we want honest and true justice.  Sometimes politics mar our attempt to be just people. 
Third, we stand with the ones who administer the injection.  Even in justice, a life is being taken, and we have to be in prayer for them.
Finally, we stand with the prisoner who is to be executed.  Because they are human as well, and we pray for God to be merciful on their souls.  For as much as they have ruined lives and ruined their own life, they, like everyone else in this example, are children of God.

Where we stand on guns, where we stand politically, where we stand concerning race, sexuality, or whatever else is less important than the ability of the church - the representatives of Christ - to stand with humanity.  We grieve.  We weep.  We pray that one day our minds and our lives might realign to find ourselves facing God.  In the end, we do what we can in the name of Christ our Lord.  And perhaps there is the true test of what we do as a church and as individuals.  Do we offer them Christ, as our conference once said for a slogan, or do we offer them grief for not being on board with us?

"Orthodoxy," said John Wesley, is at best but a very slender part of religion, if any part of it at all."  Do not let our opinions on issues become our orthodoxy and in so doing limit those to whom we offer Christ and the grace of God.  Instead, may we understand that "the heart of Christian ministry is Christ's ministry of outreaching love." (¶125 UMCBOD).  To drive that point home, the Book of Discipline states, "This means that all Christians are called to minister wherever Christ would have them serve and witness in deeds and words that heal and free." (¶127 UMCBOD).

So I close with this prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.


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