Man’s Inhumanity To Man…

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”

Matthew 15:7-9 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

About the language: When I was a kid, “man’s inhumanity to man” had a certain dignity as words. Modern inclusive language makes it “humanity’s inhumanity to humanity” which doesn’t even seem possible, so I chose the older style of complaining. Perhaps that’s the problem — all the crazy-making of our lives has finally gotten to me.

“Crazy-making” is a technical term where people see one thing, and are told they seem the exact opposite of it and, furthermore, they had better say it loudly. I see people all day who are, “officially”, some form of crazy because they have been living in families like this and I have to convince them, for the sake of truth and healing, that they are not crazy, they are not making this stuff up, evil things really did, and/ or continue to happen in their lives. Then I come home and watch the news or read the paper or see people’s experience on Facebook, and I see just how crazy-making our whole society is. I made the mistake of reading a recent copy of The Nation magazine and the truth within its pages was just too much to bear — truth about Flint, Michigan and voting rights. Later I saw another edition of the magazine that talked about the Paris terrorist attacks and asked for “justice, not revenge”, so I knew their heart was in the right place. Experience has taught me that they are truthful, which made reading the pieces even more difficult.

I am writing from a place of rage today, and it’s not all politics, nor personal, nor therapeutic, but some combination of them that has brought me to this place. I thought I might write until the rage changes to just plain anger, then drains down to peace or understanding or light or something.

I can’t believe what we do to ourselves on a daily basis as human beings. This is not America as I know it. This is not the world as I know it. It can’t be. Evil makes no sense, at all, but we’re getting good at it. I never want to hear another person say “America is a Christian nation”. It’s not. By that, I don’t mean that Christianity should or should not be our national religion. I mean that we don’t act like Christians. In fact, we are so far from it, that we have become demonic. The more we scream that WE ARE CHRISTIANS the more I swear we are not. If we were, we wouldn’t have to say it. The world would “know we are Christians by our love”. They don’t. Can we name one thing in the last year that America has done for others? Can we name one thing daily that we have done against the world?

Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. That is the standard for claiming Christianity, as it is the core of Christian teaching. I don’t expect people to actually live up to that standard 24/7, but I do expect them to try to live up to that standard. That seems reasonable to me.

What part of the crisis in Flint, Michigan says we did that?

Was it leaving them high and dry years ago, when GM moved out? Was it then taking over their political system because, supposedly, they couldn’t do it? Was it refusing to spend money on an infrastructure when we know that people need clean water? Was it choosing to use contaminated water because we refuse to spend money on it? Was it trying to cover up the problem with chlorine because we didn’t want to acknowledge the problem existed? Did we love our neighbor when they complained for months and government did nothing? Did we love our neighbor when lead levels began killing brain cells? Have we loved our neighbor yet? Let me know when we do.

What part of our attitude toward the poor says this? When we believe that “if you’re poor, it’s your own fault”, does that sound like loving our neighbor? When we make people scramble for a few extra dollars in their welfare checks or social security — when we make them work harder for less, does that seem like “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”? When we get angry at people for being victims, does that seem like loving our neighbors? When we shoot them in the back, because they are running in fear, what part of “you shall not kill” do we not get?

When we create a fear of “voter fraud” which hasn’t happened or been reported, does that sound like “don’t bear false witness”? When people then vote for voter ID laws that accept gun licenses as ID, but won’t accept student IDs as proof, what part of taking away people’s rights seems like “loving our neighbor as our self”?

When politicians try to be meaner to fellow humans than their rival in order to win approval from the voters, which ones are the Christians there?

When children die and our system doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with it, again — what part of “you shall not kill” didn’t we understand? How Christian do we seem? Which part of Christ’s words justify this?

When we get angry at, or dull down the message of, people for saying that their lives matter, which part of Christianity are we invoking?

When an appellate court says, “Certain semiautomatic firearms deserve the highest level of protection the Constitution allows”, how do we square that with the ban on false idols?

When we try to divide people against each other, when we say “this group’s rights are more important than that groups” how are we modeling unity of Christ? When my daughter asks me if I’m “an ally” to a whole group of people, why should there be any question?

When I see client after client whose experience is that they aren’t loveable because they have been abused by more people than have cared for them, how does this happen? How does nobody notice? When I see women who finds a decent partner in middle age and doesn’t know what to do with the possibility, how can we say that God’s love is apparent in our society? How do some people abuse others and expect love to come from it?

How do we justify the existence of the Ku Klux Clan as a Christian nation? How do we create members of ISIS, or Al Qaeda in America? How do we create kids like the boy who shot up Newtown? What in our national psyche explains this hate?

If Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the light”, how do we justify denying climate change? Why do we need laws to protect whistleblowers? Why is “telling on someone” worse that whatever it is they’ve done. If we believe that the truth will set us free, why do we have whole industries whose job is keep it from us? How do we justify “spin doctors”?

 

By now, I’m feeling better, having gotten it off my chest, but the questions still hang around. I see what we could be as a nation, or as Christians, and we are so, so, so far from that dream/fantasy, I just can’t imagine how we got here.

Let’s start working instead on actual Christianity and finding…

Peace,

 

John

We Need to Reign In Deadly Force…

There has been some interesting news lately regarding the rash of police shootings of citizens that plagued our country in 2015.

  1. In a study of Chicago police and a wider policing, many of the police who have killed people recently have a history of abusing their power.  That means that fewer police are actually involved in the shootings we saw last year.
  2. Today, the Huffington Post noted that none of the fifty states have laws regarding when deadly force is appropriate/ is not appropriate.

I have struggled with what to do re: racism and police treatment of Blacks in this country which became so much an issue last year. There are so many forms of racism to deal with that it was difficult to know where to start, and how to make any strides against it — specifically how to change people’s hearts and minds and treat each other decently.

At the same time, there were so many mass shootings last year, it appeared that the world had gone off the deep end. While, as a pacifist, I’m not a big fan of guns or killing in general, I can understand people’s need to feel safe and the world felt very unsafe last year.

It is bad enough to feel unsafe and out-of-control, but to be made to feel unsafe and out-of-control by the very people who are supposed to keep you safe and society in control is beyond my comprehension. I see every day what happens, and its lingering effects, when I see clients who were or are abused by their parents, who are supposed to protect them.  What must it be like to be a victim of a crime and not be willing to call the police, because they’ll abuse you as well? This is the plight, apparently, of African Americans who already don’t trust the police (e.g. “driving while Black”, laws written with minorities in mind for more persecution (ever wonder why powdered cocaine had one penalty and rock cocaine had another?)).

How can we love each other, care for each other, see each other as Americans if we have two sets of standards and two sets of laws or two very different applications of the law? And how do we define morality — good and bad — when the good guys do bad things and get away with it?  We expect the bad guys to do evil things. When the good guys do evil things, what does “good” even mean?  None of us feel safe in a society like that.  If we equate “good” with being violent — via guns, choke holds, tasers, intentionally had driving — we had them all from police last year — then the more violent we are, the more “good” we claim?

The problem isn’t that bad cops are the norm. They aren’t. The problem is that cops are — by definition — supposed to be the good guys. When they aren’t, it’s a larger drop in our confidence, a larger drop from what we expect. In short, it messes with our heads and our sense of order in the universe.

If there’s anything that last year taught us, it’s that between corrupt Grand Juries, rebel police who shoot innocent victims in the back, Chicago’s “black ops” station, and ridiculously strong police unions, it’s almost impossible to convict a bad/killer police officer.

Society needs to make a statement that no one is above the law, that the law applies to everyone, that violence is a bad idea. For states or the Federal government to create laws about when “deadly” violence  might be appropriate — and therefore isn’t appropriate, is to make all of those claims, and to restore some portion of justice to America’s racial problems.

This is something we can and should do.

Peace,

 

John

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No, they don’t.

If ever there was a societal response to Black Lives Matter, it came today. Tamir Rice, a young Black boy was killed by a police officer with no discussion because he was waving a possibly real toy gun around in a park and police were called. Today, after legal analysis, the policeman was fund not guilty. All you have to ask yourself is this: if a 11 year old White boy was waving a possibly real gun around, would police have been called at all? If that same White boy had the police called on him, would the policeman have shot him without a word, barely out of his car? If there were videos of this event where the police officer at the scene basically deliver his own version of “drive by justice”, would that officer have gotten away with it?

As someone who has worked with actually dangerous White children, my unequivocal answer is no. An eleven year old White boy would have been told to put the gun down by the person at the scene. End of story. If he had actually had a real gun or shot someone, he would have been presumed to be mentally ill, and they would have tried to talk him into surrendering. If the boy had fired at the policeman, then and only then, would the officer have shot back. Then it would be considered a tragedy, and the officer would have apologized to the family and regretted it til his dying days.

The fact that the police found the officer’s actions were “justifiable” simply means that we’re asking the wrong question. The question is “would any of this event have happened under other circumstances?”. As long as that answer is “no”, and it is here, then “all lives” may matter, but Black ones do not. Logically, then either, all lives do not matter, or Black lives aren’t thought of as lives at all. That is the real truth in America.

I have run out of words to say how dysfunctional, how bad, how evil , how wrong, and how sinful this is. I have run out of expecting that justice will prevail. I don’t even know where to go from here regarding the issue. I have run out of emotional energy trying to deal with this issue. Tonight, and tomorrow, and the day after that, some Black parent doesn’t have that option. They will have to get up and look at their child and know how bad things  are — even under a Black President that Whites are so afraid of because he might take their power. In fact, I think it all comes back to that. Racism is to America would Carl Jung would call our “shadow side” — the part of ourselves we don’t want to admit we have and go out of our way to deny.

Racism of this magnitude is fear. It is the fear that Blacks might ask for actual justice for the KKK and lynchings and slavery and dogs and firehoses and fleeing suspects shot in the back. We know as a nation what we have done. It hasn’t been hidden. White society knows that with a Black man in power, if justice were delivered using the present system, there would be a lot of dead White folks.

The time has come for us to stop asking Black folks to act differently so this won’t happen. The time has come to stop blaming them for being morally inferior, because clearly they are not. The time has come for us to repent and repair and give mercy because — despite our fears — punishment has not come.  And, if we’re Christians, we had better do it soon, before we meet our final Judge. If we think this could get ugly, that could be worse.

Meanwhile, on this planet, in this country, when  Voting Rights are threatened, when Affirmative Action is denied as needed, when racial profiling is encouraged, when Back children are treated like this, we need to stand up for those whose rights and character have been so denied for so long. We don’t need to dig ourselves into a hole any further. We must protect Black lives and we must treat them with the dignity that God and our Constitution say they deserve. We must not, under any circumstances, let this kind of thing go on.  We must listen, and we must do the work to fix this.

 

Peace,

John

 

 

 

 

 

 

OMG –Racism in America

Oh, my God! How long will the wicked prosper in America? It’s Thanksgiving Day and my break from reading the news should have been longer, apparently.

It has been a long time since we had ignorance regarding race in this culture. The first Black president elected, then stonewalled. Trayvon Martin. Ferguson and Michael Brown. Baltimore and the man with the broken neck.  New York and the man choked by a multitude of police. Men shot in the back while running from police in Kentucky. A church bombing in the Charleston. Now, man shot 16 times in  Chicago. The slow, painful period of denial, then shock, then anger, then prayers and tears. Then more prayers and tears. Riots, peaceful protests, older men 10 year old boys — it doesn’t matter. Next day, next month, next year it’s the same story. How is this possible? Can someone please explain how this is possible?

My friend Santiago has said that killing Black men was “policy” for the police and I have come to believe that he was right. Still, it’s not just the police. The city of Chicago sought to keep the truth from coming out. The judicial system in Ferguson used a rigged Grand Jury with different rules. The press doesn’t know what to say and it doesn’t seem to matter when they do. It’s not a North/South thing — Ferguson meet Chicago. It’s not a Black/White thing — the mayors of Baltimore and Chicago were and are Black, respectively. It’s not a male/female thing — again, leaders of both genders. L0cal vs. Fed? No records kept of shootings on both levels. I’s not a Urban/Rural thing. The only connection that I can find is dead Black men and police, dead Black people and White Supremacists, dead Black people at the hands of people carrying guns, after a dead boy at the hands of a Hispanic man. In the long run, all I get is “dead” and “Black”.

What did the Black community do to deserve this? What could any community do to deserve this? Let’s see… wear a hoodie, go to church and pray, steal cigars, sell un-taxed cigarettes, play with a toy gun, get pulled over. Do we shoot White folks for such things? Of course not. That would be wrong. So why would we kill  Black folks for it? I don’t believe that that’s enough to have everyday be Newtown for Black Americans. There must be something wrong with our hearts, some thing wrong with our minds. Let’s call it sin — the sin of racism. We must stop. We must stop ourselves from saying racist things, we must stop ourselves from doing racist things, but more that that, we must stop ourselves from thinking racist things. We have to stop each other from saying and doing racist things. We have to stop our officials from enacting racist policies — and realtors, banks, schools, as well. We need to really believe that Black lives matter, and we need to act like it.

Why do we need to? We need to because everyone deserves life, because the Constitution acknowledges the Creator endowed us with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and “liberty and happiness” come only with life.

If that weren’t good enough, there are people like who Gerry Claytor who fed people, physically and spiritually and changed her city. People like Jeff Brown are changing many cities by bringing down the violence in them. There are ministers, and scientists, and philosophers, and nurses and teachers, and moms and dads in the Black community who the world would be lost without.

Let us repent of this sin, and let us do something different each and every day.

Peace,

 

John

 

 

 

 

 

A Legacy in All Caps — Prophetess Geraldine Claytor

November 12, 2015

Dear child of the future:

If you’re a student at Geraldine Claytor Magnet Academy in Bridgeport, CT and you had to research who she was, I wanted to tell you about the Gerry I knew. Yesterday, I attended her funeral with my wife and the service was everything I could have expected — the kind of service I would want, and the kind of service which I hope you will have someday, after you’ve changed the world. It was a funeral with lots and lots of people, giving her funeral the appearance of a famous dignitary. Yet, I don’t think anybody , save one or two, who were there because she was a “dignitary”. We were there because she was a friend who touched their life in some small way, and there had to have been 500 people there.

My friend Chris Drew posted on Facebook a picture of a manger with a back on it with the caption “First king-sized chair”. Gerry would have liked that because that is how she lived: knowing that small things make a big difference — and that small people are important. She was a para-professional at schools in Bridgeport, and now she is the first para-professional to have a school named after her. Why did she think this way? Mother Theresa is known for saying,“Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” She and Gerry would have believed that because they believe that all life is important. Every living thing is important to God, so people were important to her.. She would want you to know that you are important to God, and whether you can do great things or not, you can do everything with great love, and Gerry would have been impressed.

Gerry’s life stuck out among us because… well, there was no one like her. She said “I love you” to literally everyone. She had the most incredible smile and everyone who she every came into contact with saw it. It would be incredible if you met someone like her in your lifetime, but I hope you do. Also, Gerry did things which the present world seems to have forgotten. You’re reading this, so she was “famous”. Yes, she had power (or rather was a powerhouse) in Bridgeport. BUT — and this is the big thing. She never did things for fame or power.. She did them because they needed to be done.  That is how you change the world you live in.

When other people wanted power, Gerry fed the homeless. When other people wanted fame, Gerry made sure children had a better life. Oddly, (or not, if you believe in Christ’s example) she got all of it — power and fame, fed people and safer children). Gerry stood out because she didn’t chase the things other people wanted. She was “that lady at the diner who smiled at the owner”, then “that lady who gave a child a hug”, then “that lady who gave out turkeys” and so on… Why did she do this? Because she could, because it was what she thought God called her to do, because she liked hugs and smiles and food, so she gave them out — that whole “do unto others” thing you have heard of.

In thinking about her contributions to Bridgeport, and knowing her personally, I would have to that she was a great role model for children and parents in the inner city — and anywhere else she went, as well.  Years ago, when I was in seminary, a Black friend asked me if the UCC had anything like the role of “Church Mother”. I guessed at it for twenty minutes or so, and it was apparent that, no, we didn’t have a role in our denomination like that. Years passed and — with enough contact with Black churches — I got to see it in action.  I don’t know if Gerry was a “Church Mother” at Rev. Kenneth Moales’ church, where she attended after Benny died. I do know that she was that to the community at large. Church mothers have a slow, quiet dignity about them — a measured respect that comes with time and faith, and I suppose suffering. They are faithful and they just keeping moving toward their final destination, keeping their eye on the sparrow and The Prize both.

One of the things that concerns me about this rising generation is that they don’t seem to believe in work giving dignity or meaning to life.   Perhaps because they have seldom seen it pay off, perhaps because they have technology which does so much for them, or perhaps because they are simply too distracted.  In any case, Gerry was the model of working every day. She just lived her life doing things, making a difference here, making a difference there. She got up, worked for the Lord, and went to bed. The next day, she got up, worked for the Lord, and went to bed. This kind of a rhythm is boring to the younger generation. It’s tedious and not fast-paced. Gerry did this every day of her life, as far as I can tell, and Bridgeport is soooo much the better for it. Any kid who follows this pattern will go far in life, and the idea that children like you will have to study who she was means that Bridgeport will grow stronger day by day, year by year.

The other thing that I hope children learn is that they can overcome difficult lives. We never spoke about it much, but over the course of time, little hints here and there suggest that Gerry had a tough time of it growing up in a deeply racist society in the South. When we lived in town, she was terrified of our German Shepherd/Akita mix dog, I think she had seen German Shepherds in her childhood with police or others at the other end of the leash. This past summer, when my family went to Florida, we stopped in the town she grew up in, and she said there were a lot of stories to tell my children about racism there when she grew up. If she was in the pre-Civil Rights area she would have seen horrifying things — dogs, fire hoses, etc. I heard last night about a life-threatening event in New York City which I had never heard. Her life, as a Black woman, was never easy, in all the time I knew her.. When others knew about “environmental racism” as a concept and something to be concerned with, Gerry just would just say it was wrong, and it was affecting people. So, she got up, worked for the Lord and did what she could, and went to bed one more “day at a time”. I don’t know how she did it, she just did. Yet, I never heard her complain a day in her life. Other than the period after her beloved husband Benny died (when I was away from Bridgeport), she was unstoppable. It is ok to have limits to how much you can take, as well. But Gerry couldn’t stay that way, and neither should you. If you’re still alive, there’s work to do.

Finally, I think she would want you to know that if you are a Black child, you are special because you have access to cultural things that White culture doesn’t really like and doesn’t think it needs. This article is called “Legacy in All Caps” because when Gerry wrote on Facebook, she would write IN ALL CAPS!!!! in just about everything. In the White world, ALL CAPS is a bad thing. I’m White (but Gerry never held that against me) and we don’t like being yelled at, and so when we see ALL CAPS, we tend to write “Stop yelling!” in response. Gerry yelled all right — but what she yelled wasn’t at people for being bad. It was yelling to people that GOD IS GREAT! or I LOVE YOU!!! EVERYDAY!!!! or PEOPLE NEED TO BE FED!!!! or I AM PROUD OF YOU!!!

I knew her best and spent the most time with her when she and Benny had their church meeting in my congregations’ building. During that time, I saw her shout a lot. She was shouting “HALLELUJAH !!!!!” and dancing in joy — a lot. When she was out of church, you knew that was she was saying and doing that on inside, as well. Gerry was JOYOUS!!! and she brought joy to everyone who knew her, no matter what their lives we like. She made it a point to do that during her “Feed the People” ministry, but it was no different than who she was all her life. She was just that way now with the new people in her life, people who had never experienced anyone like her — people who had not experienced a good word or a good deed or respect for them in years. That’s who Gerry was to me. Her service last night helped me to know I wasn’t alone in that. Even the powerful were delighted to call her “friend”, because that’s who she was.

Gerry Claytor was a friend because she was a woman of God, a friend to people because she was a friend of God’s. She got up because God made the sun come up, and she went to bed exhausted, thankful that God had made the sun go down. If you only could have known her, you’d have been amazed.

Peace,

Rev. John Madsen-Bibeau, former pastor of Olivet Congregational Church and a friend of The Prophetess, Geraldine Claytor.

Guest Blogger — Rev. Todd Farnworth on Guns and Us

Editor’s note: This is probably the third time I have had a guest blogger whose ideas I wanted to share. The first was Joe Roberts and Cathi Chapin-Bishop on saving energy. The second was Liz Solomon Wright’s story about a Veteran who couldn’t get aid due to a policy. This is the third.

Rev. Todd Farnsworth is the pastor at Hamden (Mass.) Federated Church, UCC. One of the most kind and friendly people I have ever met, his preaching style is –and always has been — experimental. While I try to be serious and loving in my writing, Todd just tries to be well, Todd. He just loves his people, and his message here shows that. I am posting this sermon — preached last Sunday at his church for two reasons: 1) It’s a different take on the subject than mine and 2) to point out that great preaching happens in just “regular old” UCC churches all the time. I don’t know anybody at a BIG church like Riverside in New York. Generally — though there are some jerks among us — if you go to UCC church, you can find preaching like this.  OK, not like Todd’s preaching, but of similar quality. May you be fed by this sermon, and may you consider any UCC church where you can be fed…  [The sermon is printed in its entirety here, as it should be].

Title: Perks of Faith

Mark 10:17-31

The parallels are Matthew 19:16-30 and Luke 18:18-30. [ NOAB]

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[a]” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

I’d like to begin with vs 21 of today’s text. “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

It’s important for you to know that the rich man in today’s story was not a bad man. He wasn’t a haughty man. He wasn’t a man trying to make a name for himself. He was a good guy. Tried to be faithful to the Law of Moses. Tried to follow the rules of his day. He was a decent guy. Even his repartee with Jesus was sincere. It was the kind of conversation that students and teachers had all the time. A little give and take discussion to clarify, to crystallize one’s thoughts. Probably similar to the questions and answers you would hear at a Bible study or during a children’s message. Perhaps a little bit of cheekiness thrown in on either side to keep things lively…but all done with respect and a desire to learn…to grow in one’s awareness of faith stuff.

So this beloved man runs up to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” He sincerely wants to draw closer to God. He really desires to “make the grade.” Jesus parries with a teasing comment about only God being good, and the young man replies that he has done his best to keep the law…keep the rules….do what is right!

And Jesus looks at him and loves him.

What happens next is remarkable.

Jesus invites the rich man to “draw closer.”

Jesus offers the rich man a way into the “perks of faith.”

Jesus says, “do this, and you will receive:

peace of mind, healthy respectful relationships,curiosity and humility, wonder about the world, hope, healing, compassion, joy, a sense of safety,  a leaning toward justice, and love.

Not a bad list. Notice, it’s not things that can be purchased; it’s not things that can be forcibly taken; it is the stuff of heaven, it is the inheritance of those who follow Jesus…and this guy seems like a good candidate.

Jesus does all this by giving the rich man a directive designed to set him free so that he can really experience what it means to be part of the realm of God.

Now, I’ll confess that I am not a rich man…young, old or somewhere in the middle. I know that probably comes as a shock! But the point of Jesus’ words are not targeted at wealth or age, so in light of recent events in our country, I’m going to paraphrase Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell your guns and give the money they raise to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I could have said, “Go, sell your cell phones…or Go, sell your tablets….or Go, sell your Hummel collection….but I’d like to stick with “guns” for the moment.

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell your guns and give the money they raise to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had many guns.

We have many guns in our culture. We have come to treasure them. To stockpile them. To rely on them to keep us safe and secure. To protect us. To do our talking for us. To resolve our differences. To make our statements of dissent. They have become, like cell phones, tablets, or Hummels…our treasure; a distraction to our faith…and when I say, “distraction” I mean, “they stand between us and the realm of God.”

When we keep guns to do the work that God is capable of doing, we lose focus on the Holy and become obsessed with the mini god at hand.

I believe that happens in situations where people are killing each other with guns on college campuses. I believe that happens in situations where people are killing each other in the streets of our community or in local homes. I believe that happens where people are going into schools and movie theaters and claiming a godlike power over people who may or may not have done them wrong in the past. I believe that happens when we fool ourselves into believing that if we wake up in the middle of the night and find someone stealing our stuff, we will have the presence of mind to shoot the invader before he or she shoots us…or, before he or she wrestles the gun from our sleepy, frightened hands, and then shoots us.

These uses of guns do not point us toward Heaven. They lead us toward fear, and anxiety, and distrust, and anger, and retribution, and hatred.

This is different from the gun owner who uses guns to hunt their dinner, or practices a steady hand shooting targets. That mental and physical challenge can give us an awe of the power and the responsibility inherent in gun ownership. It can lead us to a life of discipline; a life that points us toward the realm of God; a study that leads us closer to the stuff of healthy respectful relationships, curiosity and humility, wonder about the world, and hope.

Please hear me clearly: Guns are not inherently evil...but a reliance on them that surpasses our reliance on God, can be a distraction…and Jesus understood that…and Jesus knew that rich man was a good man…and Jesus believed that rich man really wanted to get closer to God…and Jesus loved that man who was coming to him seeking a deeper relationship with the Holy…and Jesus advised that man to “Go, sell your guns and give the money they raise to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had many guns.

We have many guns. We have many cell phones. We have many tablets. We have many Hummels. We have lots of  stuff that is drawing our attention away from the remarkable perks of faith God has in store for us!

And we can go away sad. Or we can go away mad, claiming that Jesus just doesn’t understand!  Or we can go away and later, change our minds and come back.

At the end of the day, no matter how far we go, no matter what we decide, we need to remember, that Jesus loved that man. He was not trying to hurt him. He was not trying to deny him something important. He was not putting the man in jeopardy…in harm’s way. He didn’t chastise or begrudge  the man for the decision he made or the decision he couldn’t make at that moment.

At the end of the day, the truth is, Jesus loved that man….like he loves little Madison and little Wesley. Jesus loves us, and he wants us to experience all the perks God has to offer. He wants us to know: peace of mind, healthy respectful relationships, curiosity and humility, wonder about the world, hope, healing, compassion, joy, a sense of safety, a leaning toward justice, and love, without distraction. He wants us to experience the kingdom of heaven…the realm of God…In this moment. like Jesus experiences those things in this moment.

The choice is ours. To hold onto what we have, or let go and receive something far more valuable.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record, that  As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

What will we do? In Jesus’ name. Amen.

“How To Figure Out Anything (About Ethics)”

Editor’s note: Every once in awhile, I have a sermon that expresses an important (to me) theological point. This is one of those. The beginning piece is from the morning’s news about Tamir Rice.

Sermon given at Center Congregational Church, Torrington, CT 10/11/2015

“How To Figure Out Anything (About Ethics)”

            Ask my friends. I’m generally a very loving guy, generally calm, generally peaceful, opinionated, but kind, for the most part. But I have my pet peeves, things that just set me off. Dead kids is one of them. Racism is another. Unhealthy systems is another, which is why I do the work I do — whether for families or churches. This morning I was awoken to the news that all my buttons were set off at the same time. I am so upset, I could spit. Tamir Rice and his family were hurt again this morning. According to the New York Times this morning, “2 Outside Reviews Say Cleveland Officer Acted Reasonably in Shooting Tamir Rice, 12”

            One of the reviewers said “The question is not whether every officer would have reacted the same way,” Kimberly A. Crawford, the retired F.B.I. agent, which noted that Officer Loehmann had no way of knowing Tamir’s gun was fake. “Rather, the relevant inquiry is whether a reasonable officer, confronting the exact same scenario under identical conditions could have concluded that deadly force was necessary.” What she is saying is that the police system has policies that, under the same circumstances, with the same report/ call to the police, would have left open the door to using deadly force.

            A 10 year old Black child is dead at the hands of a white police officer, without discussion, without attempts at de-escalation, because the officer shot “was in fear for his life” from a 10 year old sitting openly in a gazebo, while he was inside a metal automobile? Really? Under those circumstances, deadly force is “reasonable”? If that’s the view of the wider law enforcement community, there is a problem with the law enforcement community’s system. From a Christian perspective, it is wrong.

            Now, there are some you who will point out that racism isn’t an issue here, and that the dispatcher didn’t mention that the child was African-American. The fact of the matter, though, is the officers responded quickly to the situation and had to rely on their “intuition” or “instincts” and their instincts told them that that 12 year old was dangerous when any child of 12 like the ones who were just in the children’s time probably wouldn’t. It’s society’s racism that poses for the cop’s “instinct” or “intuition” that led to this shooting.

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Last Week, at the beginning of the sermon, I talked about the recent shooting at a community college in Oregon. This past week, in my “other life” as a therapist, I had a client who was — with her brothers and her mother — smacked across the knuckles by her drunken father and told not to cry because he was trying to toughen up the kids. In the next few weeks, members of the Connecticut Conference will make decisions about various things. All of these things, though quite different, have something in common — they each require an ethical response, and — for us as Christians — they require a Christian ethical response.

There are those who would offer a Republican ethical response or a Democratic ethical response or a capitalist ethical response or a socialist ethical response. There are those who would offer a philosophical ethical response and those who would offer a military response, or an American response. None of those are the same as a Christian ethical response.         There are lots of competing ideas and choices out there on which to make our ethical decisions, and it’s easy to find some idea to hang our hat on and be loyal to.

As Christians, though, we can’t be Americans, or Republicans or Democrats first. We are not socialists or survivalists before anything else. We are Christians — who live in this country, who belong to a party or like a philosophy or whatever, but we are Christians first, because as Christians, we know that if we go mixing loyalty to the country with Christianity, you get “Deutschland Uber Alles” — Germany above everything — being preached from the pulpits, and that doesn’t work. God doesn’t like it when we split our loyalties or worship things that aren’t God, because they inevitable lead to… well, unholy results.

So how do we make difficult decisions — or easy ones — in life? How do we live? How do we know what’s good and what’s bad? And how can we trust others to make good decisions that resemble our goals?

Let me start with an odd source. …Years ago, in private practice, I had a client who was a recovering alcoholic and cocaine user and, well, she had been messed up by every drug she had tried and she had tried a lot of drugs. Early in her recovery, though, she had learned something I had never heard of before: “Do the next right thing”. If you want to live life and you’re not sure what to do, do the next right thing”. It’s as simple as that.

In therapy, we do a thing called “treatment planning”. If a client comes in, and they want my help, I first listen to who they are and what they think is the problem. Then I ask where they want to go with their lives. Between point A (where they are) and point B (where they want to be) are all of these dots that need to be filled in, all of these days to be lived before they get “there”, wherever “there” is for them.

Christians and Christian churches can be like my former client — spun around so many times mentally by all of the different choices and temptations out there that they no longer know what they think or what they feel. Treatment planning in that case looks a lot like interim work. While they first recover, I focus them back on listening to themselves, and feeling what they feel, just to get their bearings.

What do we do in the meantime? I point them in a healthy direction and — using their own senses and intuition — they do the next right thing. Then the next right thing, and the next, then they’re on the yellow brick road until they can click their heels and get “there”. As I like to say, “if you put your ducks in a row, one day they’ll start walking”.

But here’s the real question: How do we know what the right direction is? The early church talked, as I said last week, about “the way of life and the way of death”. We can start by taking Jesus at his word, “I am the resurrection and the life”. If we want to follow the way of life, we could do worse than ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?”. Along with that, what did God do? What does “of God” mean?

In this morning’s texts we see what it means to act in a Godly way. It’s “godly” because, by definition, it’s like God.

1) God creates and likes what God sees. God rests and sits in awe.

2) God creates new things.

2) God, in Jesus, resurrects people.

So, this is the basic character of God: give life to things. Angry people with guns — or mentally ill people with guns or however you understand that whole thing — take life from things. That’s not Good, and that’s not God’s will. What gives life is “of God”, what doesn’t…isn’t.

The woman who was abused as a child? Her father deadened her soul. That’s not God’s will. His acts didn’t inspire her, he didn’t make her more alive. They didn’t make her be in awe of the universe. They didn’t help her to rest and appreciate life. They didn’t resurrect her spirit. That’s how we know they are wrong. God is the founder, and fountain of, what some theologians call “life-givingness”. Anything that doesn’t make you feel more alive, or doesn’t leave the person you’re trying to help feeling more alive isn’t “of God”. It is as simple as that. Anything that does — anything that makes you more hopeful, more alive, more creative, more forgiving, is “of God”. “God” does not equal “hurt”, and if somebody tells you it does, they’re lying. OK, I know I said “it’s as simple as that” and — generally , it’s true. As a starting point, if you ask yourself, “will I feel more alive?” when thinking about your choices, you’re generally going to be on the right track. If you ask yourself “at the end of this, will the other person feel more alive or less alive?” you can figure out the “next right thing” and go that way, building strength on top of strength.

In a few weeks, the CT Conference will vote on some things. In this church, on every committee, people will vote on things. Each of us — individually and together — will make decisions. If you start with the right question, and listen honestly for the answer, you’ll be doing the next right thing.

Having worked with addicts, though, I have to tell you it’s not that clear in the short term. It’s still very clear in the long term, but right now, at this moment, feeling “good” will hurt and feeling “bad” will lead toward healing. This is why addiction is a lie. People who use cocaine, for instance, I understand, feel better-than-great for some period of time — perhaps 20 minutes or so — but — and this is a big “but” — then they feel horrible and broke and mad at themselves for days, weeks, even years.

But what happens when we non-addicts — do a version of this ourselves? What happens when we — trying to do the right thing — do something with unforeseen consequences? What if — while trying to do the right thing, we do the wrong thing? What if our lives have been turned so upside-down that we don’t know what feeling good looks like anymore and we act out of the lies which have led us there?

Nothing is over til God says it’s over. Richard Bach, in his book “Illusions” says “here’s a test to see if your mission in life is over. If you’re alive, it isn’t”. As long as we’re alive, we can resurrect our souls, and regain our sense of truth and reality. After we’re dead, God does it because only God can. During life, as Robert MacAfee Brown noted in our Bible Study last week, people can feel resurrected (alive again) when they bring their mistakes to God and repent.

Now, by “repent”, I don’t mean say “I’m sorry”. The Biblical Hebrew word for what we would now call “repent”, is the word “shoov”. It means “turn around”, “go back”, do the opposite of what you were doing and return… to yourself — to the truth and the way that leads to life. In the story of the “Prodigal Son”, it says “he came to himself” and returned home. God wants that for you. So again, the goal for our decisions, if they are to be godly, is fuller life for everyone involved.

If you, or your corporation, or your denomination, or your church, is planning something that will hurt someone — take over their land, destroy the earth, shoot them, whatever — if, at the end of your actions, you will see sad faces, or people in pain — it’s not the right thing to do. Don’t do it.

If people will, or do, have new hope, then it is the right thing. If it allows for forgiveness with repentance, it’s holy. If it doesn’t, there is no hope, there is no resurrection, and God is not there.

To illustrate “the way of life vs. the way of death” My friend Dave used to tell a story of a man with a peaceful lion and an angry one in front of him. When he asks a wise man, “which one will live?”, the man answers “whichever one you feed“.

We need, as Christians, to be about the feeding of the good things in life and starving those things which would feed into evil. Which brings me to my final point. This is the first of four sermons with a stewardship theme in them.

If you believe that this church has enriched your life, and fed your soul, brought you closer to God’s creation and awe or helped you turn your life around, then you want to feed it. If you have hope for it, then it’s doing the right things, and you should feed it.

If, on the other hand, you feel abused by this church or by its members, don’t feed it. You know what your experience is. I don’t. We should never expect you to feed our coffers if we don’t feed your soul or bring joy into your life.

If you’re one of those people that hurts others, and you want this church to succeed, then you want to stop hurting others, you want to repent — both by saying you’re sorry and by not doing those things again. You can get more bees with honey than vinegar. If all you’re putting out is vinegar, then you need to stop. Or if you think that honey must always be “flavored” with vinegar, you need to re-think your plans. We are each responsible for our actions and God offers us new choices and new lives if we do — the way of life and the way of death. This church should be about “life”.

But back to the larger picture: as long as I am here as your pastor, I will do everything I can to feed and protect the best parts of who you are. If you see that happening in this church, feed this church. If you see it elsewhere, then feed that other one. If you feel hopeful about this church and enjoy the people you meet here, if you feel renewed by the sermons or the music or the children or whatever, then support it. We’re doing good things for the world. And if this past week has shown us anything, it is that the world needs more good things — things on the way of life, not the things which lead to death.

Amen.