Remembering Lives Lost to Gun Violence

memorial-to-the-lost-2016On Sunday morning our congregation again erected a Memorial to the Lost on our church lawn reminding us to stop, remember, pray, educate, organize, and advocate on behalf of the 202 people killed by gun violence in greater Washington DC in 2015. This is the third year we have erected the Memorial created by Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence and rotated to the lawns of different churches and faith communities in the DC area.

The Memorial includes 202 tee-shirts with each victim’s name, age, and date of death. It becomes a holy labor of love as we work together to pound in stakes, erect frames, and place the tee-shirts on them. When our work is completed we dedicate the memorial with this scripture taken from the book of Habakkuk 1: 2-4a:

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.

Then we read this litany of commitment for the Memorial before processing silently into our church to begin our worship service:

Faced with gun violence,
We grieve for those who have been killed
and those whose lives are forever changed;
We seek comfort for those who have lost loved ones;
We pray for healing in the hearts
of those who have been left to mourn.
Faced with gun violence,
We seek healing for the perpetrators,
so they no longer inflict pain upon others.
We pray for healing of the violence in our culture.
Faced with gun violence,
We pray for those in positions of power
that they may use their power for peace.
Faced with gun violence, may we
Educate; Organize; Advocate;
and in all the ways we can, work for the day when
guns and weapons of destruction
are transformed into instruments of healing.
May it be so. May we do so.

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Being Liberated from Stuff (part 2)

Jesus told that story of the rich man and Lazarus in response to the ridicule he was receiving from some prominent religious leaders who were, according to Luke’s Gospel, “Lovers of money” (Luke 16: 14). This brings out another aspect of the problem. Flaunting our wealth is a way to tell ourselves and our neighbors that we have arrived and are important.

Religious people tell themselves that their wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Such prosperity teaching is as old as history but Jesus isn’t having any of it. Instead, “being liberated from stuff” is the sermon he keeps coming back to again and again. The Apostle Paul picks up where Jesus lets off when he rebukes those who “imagine that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6: 6-12).

Thinking that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing makes it all too easy to ignore the seamier aspects of acquiring great wealth. Different professions reward people much more than others not because they contribute more to society but because they have more political and economic clout. And most of us who are wealthy received out wealth by being born into wealthy families. It’s worse when our wealth is connected to organized crime or the destruction of whole communities in other parts of the world. Such recognition makes us humble about all the stuff we’re accumulating.

Paul flips such prosperity teaching on its head as he takes on those who “imagine that godliness is a means of great gain.” Sure,” Paul says, “there is great gain in godliness when it’s combined with contentment.” We brought nothing into this world and we’ll take nothing with us when we die. Contentment, therefore, is being satisfied when we have food, clothing, and shelter. Such contentment is the first step to being set free from the tyranny of stuff.

It doesn’t necessarily mean giving everything away but let’s do it if that’s what it takes to be free. Mother Theresa is an example. She lived in a small single room in the Sisters of Charity house in Kolkata, India. The furnishings of the room were a small desk, a chair, and a single bed to sleep in. She wore the simple white dress with a blue border of the Sisters of Charity and she picked out her shoes from the donated shoes that her order gave to poor people.

The problem isn’t money itself. It’s our love of money. Money is a great resource that makes so many good things possible. But it’s very alluring, tempting us to want more and more of it. That’s why Paul says that seeking to become rich is a snare. We get caught up in our desires and lose our faith in God. We also lose our humanity.

Jesus, makes it stark, “You can’t serve both God and money.” So how shall those of us who are rich thread that eye of a needle so that we can be part of God’s exciting new world coming? Listen to Paul’s advice in I Timothy 6: 17-19 in Eugene Peterson’s translation:

Tell those rich in this world’s wealth to quit being so full of themselves and so obsessed with money, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Tell them to go after God, who piles on all the riches we could ever manage—to do good, to be rich in helping others, to be extravagantly generous. If they do that, they’ll build a treasury that will last forever, gaining life that is truly life.

I recently saw this relationship with wealth in action when I had the privilege to be part of an informal advisory group for Ray Martin. The problem of climate change has become Ray’s passion and one way he has responded is by donating $ 1 million to begin a Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions at Eastern Mennonite University. Driving with Ray and others to participate in the launch of the Center was richly rewarding. He told me that he felt very privileged with the amount of wealth he had accumulated but he didn’t want to die as a rich man. Ray’s extravagant generosity was focused on making our world a better place. In return, he received so much joy and satisfaction,”gaining life that is truly life.”

Being Liberated from “Stuff”

What is it about “stuff” that gives it such a grip on our lives? And how do we find liberation from it? These are tough questions with no easy answers. Well, perhaps no easy answers that most of us are willing to consider. I think of Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler when he told him to give away everything he had and come follow him.  That’s not easy but it’s straight-forward. Giving it all away could have liberated him from the thing that had the biggest control over his life.

I live in Fairfax County, one of the richest areas of the most powerful and wealthy county in our world. That makes me feel poor. Many of my neighbors have so much more stuff than we do. They drive fancier cars, live in bigger houses, wear better clothes, eat at more upscale restaurants, and send their kids to more elite schools. And stuff costs so much here. On and on it goes and I begin to feel jealous and resentful.

My wife Ruth and I have worked for churches and faith organizations all our lives. Neither of us ever drew six figure salaries. Even so, we have been comfortable and have never been in need. So why do we feel poor and worry about our retirement? Probably, because we compare ourselves with people who have more stuff than we do. And we live in a financial system where we need to stack up money to support ourselves after we retire.

We need to get a grip and one place to start is by going to www.globalrichlist.com developed by Care International. When I punched in our income and net worth I discovered that we are among the richest 1% of people in our world. Come on! That can’t be us. I don’t think of myself as being so incredibly rich. No! It appears that I am one of those rich guys who Jesus said is like a camel who has to thread the eye of a needle to get into the kingdom of God.

Especially troubling for folks like me is Jesus’ story of the rich man living the good life and the poor beggar Lazarus sitting at his gate covered with sores and longing for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table (Luke 16: 19-31). Is it a simple morality tale of a reversal of fortunes where the poor go to heaven and the rich go to hell?  No, but it’s a stark warning that our love of money combined with our unwillingness to see and respond to the plight of others is a sure road to hell both in this life and in eternity.

The first step toward liberation is an honest recognition of how much stuff we actually have. On my next post on this topic I will explore avenues toward further liberation and living in the freedom of having our wealth become a source of joy-filled giving and service.

Faith Values that Guide Our Politics (part 2)

engaging-politics

 

Many of our faith values are in serious tension with or even antithetical to every political system our world has ever known. Even so, we can use them to help us discern which candidate and which political platform is more in line with God’s purposes:

  • We will want to discern which has the most respect for all people, including recent immigrants and racial minorities.
  • All politicians spin the truth but some are more honest than others and more able to admit when they made a mistake. Being able to admit mistakes is an important indication of one’s character.
  • Wealth and power are ingrained in all political systems. Even so we can discern who flaunts it as a way to impress people, who takes advantage of our legal system for unjust personal gain, who is more generous, and who seeks to live a simpler life.
  • Religious freedom and freedom of conscience go together. Does the candidate respect the rights and consciences of all people on deeply dividing issues such as abortion and sexuality? Does the candidate respect or demean people from other faith traditions?
  • All politicians claim to support common people and all are beholden to the rich and powerful people who help put them into office. Even so we can discern which will do more for common people, poor communities, and small businesses, and which has policies that benefit the rich and powerful.
  • Caring for the earth and all creation has become one of the most important social problems of our generation because of rapidly decreasing natural resources and the problem of climate change. We will want to discern which candidate and political party takes these matters seriously.
  • We will want to discern which candidate and political party is more apt to rely on military solutions to international conflicts and which will be more ready to use diplomacy and other means.

Let’s vote our values as best we can in the upcoming election but let’s also resist getting sucked into the agenda of either political party. Political parties recruit churches and religious leaders as errand boys and girls to help deliver the vote but give little in return. Let’s be wise!

Evangelical writer David Swartz encourages Evangelicals to learn from the Anabaptists who found themselves the target of every civic authority in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, our Anabaptist peace position has always kept us from completely fitting into our American political system. We’ve learned how to live with that tension.

David Swartz says that “the vocabulary of nationalism we hear in the Republican and Democratic parties—and then echoed in Christian groups—typically shades toward idolatry. . . Both sides practice realpolitik to accomplish their goals. Anything goes in the attempt to win. Parties enforce platforms, leaving little room for dissent, and they coerce adherents into following culture war scripts. They encourage the demonization of the enemy.”[1]

This political system is at the root of the partisan gridlock in our country. The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to find ways to rise above, go around, resist, and engage this system. We don’t expect it to bring in the reign of God and we will not become its errand boys and girls.

Even with this critique, I’m grateful for many aspects of our political system and our American culture and seek to work within it to, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “seek the welfare of our city.” Our democratic system of government is a huge improvement over the domination and violence in in past centuries and in other parts of the world today. There’s much to be thankful for.

We respect and pray for our political leaders but we will not give them our religious blessing. Our loyalty belongs to God and to God’s reign. We bless and seek to be a blessing to all people. We trust that our church is a sign of that new world bubbling up in our midst. This is where we place our hope.

Jesus repudiated the very premises of systems of domination and called disciples to come follow him. He rejected the right of some to dominate others by means of power, wealth, or titles of prestige. Through his beatitudes, his healings, and by eating with outcasts and sinners, he declared God’s special concern for the oppressed.

As his disciples, Jesus calls us to create a community of equals that includes women. He asks us to do away with the hierarchical relationship of master and slave, teacher and student. So welcome to this new world coming! It’s a good time to be Anabaptist. Vote your faith values and encourage others to do the same, then place your trust in God and the power of God’s Spirit creating a new world in our midst.

[1] David Swartz, “Hey White Evangelicals, Welcome to Anabaptism (September 28, 2016)

Faith Values that Guide Our Politics

engaging-politics

This is the strangest and most worrisome presidential election I can remember because of the temperament of the GOP candidate Donald Trump. Personalities matter but American elections go beyond the individual candidates. We have become so politically polarized that people support their party no matter what and live in echo chambers where they only listen to people who reinforce their beliefs. This is especially true when our sole sources of information are the internet, talk radio, and certain TV channels.

Presidential elections become horse races. The media loves the excitement. The more they hype it the more viewers and advertising dollars they get. Partisan commentators from both sides spin all the bad stuff they can dig up on the other candidate while praising the accomplishments of their candidate. Half-truths or outright lies are exaggerated and repeated over and over again until many accept them as true.

The rhetoric becomes so shrill. We’re told that this election is a crucial turning point or even the last chance to save our country. We should always question such claims. Fortunately, cooler heads generally prevail. Nevertheless, we need to take a step back—breathe in and breathe out—and seriously consider how our faith values guide our politics.

We need to remember what a presidential election is. We’re choosing the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military and the leader of the dominant economic system in our world. Who that person is and how she or he assumes that leadership can make a big difference. Nevertheless, that person will always be beholden to those systems of domination. That goes with the job.

This needs to temper our hope that a new president will somehow usher in a radically more just, secure, and prosperous world. Even though a president can make big differences, more radical and lasting change will necessarily come from elsewhere. For followers of Jesus, change and new life begins with the good news that Jesus lived and proclaimed. This politics of Jesus shapes our political engagement. Core gospel values include:

  • Respecting the basic dignity and worth of all people
  • Honesty and truth-telling
  • Generosity and simple living
  • Religious freedom and respect for people of all faiths
  • A special concern for the poor and most vulnerable among us
  • Caring for the earth and all creation
  • Peace, justice, and reconciliation.

In my next blog post I will discuss how these values inform our political engagement, including how we vote.

 

 

Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone

Our congregation has recently been working together to come up with a motto that expresses the song of our hearts that we’ll include with our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church.” Several things became apparent.  We want to be a welcoming fellowship epitomized by our love; we seek to be a diverse church that’s growing in equality and justice.  And all of this begins in the shared life of our fellowship as followers of Jesus but we seek to extend such winsome love and justice to our neighbors and our world in ways that are healing and empowering.

Love and justice walk hand in hand. Together, they’re what peace looks like. The prophet Isaiah envisioned Israel (God’s people) as a choice vineyard lovingly nurtured by our Creator. God had expected Israel to be a loving community where justice prevailed but instead saw bloodshed and heard a cry (Isaiah 5: 1-7). We imagine violent, cutthroat elites oppressing poor people and fighting among themselves to gain power. I’ve been around the block enough times, however, to realize that these were most likely pious people who had convinced themselves they were doing the right thing.

We’re all involved in social structures that oppress and ignore the neediest. Sure, poor people often contribute to their own problems but when we learn to know them we discover that there’s always a backstory.  Poor kids get caught in violent neighborhoods, racial prejudice, an abusive foster-care system, poor schools, and a skewed criminal justice system. I imagine God looking at our country and saying, “I expected justice but saw bloodshed and heard a cry.”

Jesus chided his listeners and called them hypocrites because they were blind to such things. He told them that they were good at interpreting signs for the weather but incapable of reading the signs of the times (Luke 12: 54-56). How do we interpret the signs of the times in our world? They are those places overcome by spiritual brokenness and social injustice. We will also want to discern where and how the reign of God is penetrating our world, bringing healing, and social and spiritual transformation.

What does that look like? I was recently talking with a friend who is the pastor of another emerging church here in Fairfax. We share the goal of forming diverse, multi-cultural congregations. We also share the free-church conviction that dynamic expressions of God’s kingdom always emerge on the margins. Giving up our compulsion to be in charge is very liberating. It gives us the freedom to be different in ways that matter.

That’s what makes experimenting with different mottos for our church so much fun. I especially like the sentence one of our church members came up with, “A loving, multicultural congregation with a passion for peace and justice, following the path of Jesus Christ.” We eventually agreed on a shortened version that we will put on church sign by the road. Under our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church” will be the motto “Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone.”

 

Building an Inclusive Church

The raw fear can be overwhelming. Last week we saw images of a big truck ramming through the crowds in Nice as people ran for their lives. There have been so many mass shootings in our own country creating a fear of others. Then there are all those video clips of black men being killed by policemen and now of police being targeted by lone shooters.

Matthew Boulton, the president of Christian Theological Seminary, expresses our angst, “As the sound of gunfire continues to echo in our neighborhoods — from Baton Rouge to St. Paul, Dallas to Charleston, Newtown to Orlando — so many of us are angry, exhausted, heartbroken, devastated, lost. Violence like this strikes at the heart of who we are, and threatens again and again to divide us, segregate us, polarize us, turn us against our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, ourselves.”

We need to confess that our country was born in violence as we destroyed native American populations, enslaved Africans to work our fields, and fought a revolutionary war against Great Britain. Later there was racial and religious violence against Jews, Catholics, and Asian immigrants. Still, we have been inspired and energized by greater ideals that are enshrined in our constitution: equality under the law, justice for all, religious freedom, a free press, and the right of assembly.

We have always lived with the tension between these two realities. Racism and the oppression of minorities are the original sins of our country. At the same time, many of our ancestors migrated here because they were fleeing persecution and poverty in the lands they came from. They brought with them the hope of religious freedom, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

Recent events have brought our racial and economic divides to the surface. They emerged at a recent Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting as they deliberated about creating an outside civilian review panel for police abuse investigations. Some activists attended to meeting to bring attention to the recent report showing that more than 40 percent of use-of-force cases in Fairfax County last year involved African Americans, who account for about 8 percent of Fairfax’s population.

A related incident people have been protesting is the death of Natasha, a mentally ill black woman who died in detention. She was in shackles and handcuffs and was still Tasered four times with a stun gun while surrounded by six deputies. An internal investigation concluded that they had followed protocol and no charges were filed.

We dare not focus our blame exclusively on the police. Many serve with integrity and devote their lives to keeping our community safe. I commend progressive policing initiatives here in Fairfax such as instituting restorative justice processes and a Diversion First program where mentally ill people who create a disturbance are taken to a medical facility rather than to the county jail. Prejudice permeates our society and none are immune. Too often our churches participate in this racism. It has often been noted that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America.

That’s why I’m so thankful for the diversity we have in our small church. We’re learning how to worship and serve together across our differences including ethnic and racial divides. My dream is that we will slowly, laboriously keep building an inclusive church one brick at a time here in the City of Fairfax. It can be hard work. It’s much easier to tear down than to build up. But we have a good start and my prayer is that by God’s grace we will grow more and more into the kind of faith fellowship that crosses the divides in our community.