Saturday, September 28, 2013

The gun control debate is over

The great American gun debate has ended. The NRA won. It’s best for the country if those of us on the other side accept that reality and move on.

President Obama and others mistakenly thought the Sandy Hook tragedy opened the door to a new era of gun safety laws. Instead the deaths of those twenty-six children and adults were the denouement. In theater, “denouement” refers to the final part of a drama in which everything becomes clear. It’s the climax to a series of events. No questions or surprises remain.

It goes without saying how tragic was the shooting at that elementary school in Connecticut. But there’ve been thousands of gun deaths since. The chorus of crickets following the slaughter of twelve more at the Washington Navy Yard confirms what we should have recognized in the political aftermath of Sandy Hook.

If those tiny coffins could not overcome the NRA power base, the coffins of twelve adults won’t do it either.

The President spoke of the Navy Yard victims saying, “So the question now is not whether as Americans we care in moments of tragedy. Clearly, we care. The question is do we care enough to keep standing up for the country that we know is possible even though it's hard and even if it's politically uncomfortable?”

Whether a gun rights advocate or a gun control activist, we all care. The political reality demands a confession that those of us who’d like to see gun control measures enacted are a diminishing minority. We had the debate. They won.

Polls show voter support for gun control has dropped from 58% in the aftermath of Sandy Hook to below 50% after the Navy Yard killings. Public support mattered not at all following Sandy Hook. Congress didn’t have to witness the recall elections in Colorado to ignore those polls. They knew better than to ignore the intensity of single-issue gun owners.

Part of it is money. The NRA has a budget of more than 200 million dollars, likely the largest of any American lobby. But it isn’t just the money. It’s also the intensity of their believers.

So for all of us on all sides of this issue the real question becomes, “What’s next?” If those on the left will accept the fact that there will be no new gun regulation, can the NRA and its supporters accept the fact that gun deaths in America are an issue demanding some solution?

Is it conceivable that people of good faith on both sides could put the harshness of the gun control debate behind us, lower our voices, and combine our considerable resources to find the places where our mutual concern and caring for the victims and their families intersect?

Memo to Wayne LaPierre: It’s probably not your proposal to arm teachers. But, what about an honest effort to improve mental health services? Not more money but demanding research-based practices that actually identity people with serious mental illness and addresses those problems earlier?

How about criminal court reforms that demand the judges use their considerable authority not just to punish, but to rehabilitate? 

The Navy Yard massacre might have been prevented if Aaron Alexis’s prior gun crime had been addressed with something other than a plea bargain. Gun crimes, particularly when committed by youthful offenders could be addressed in “gun courts.” Gun Courts are designed for juveniles and young adults who have committed gun offenses not resulting in serious physical injury. They focus on intense supervision, educating defendants about gun safety, and providing immediate responses to violations of court orders. Just as drug and DUI courts get to the heart of the offender’s problems, so do gun courts.

Another point of agreement could be corrections reform. Giving probation officers the resources they need to adequately supervise probationers would make a huge difference. Current unmanageable caseloads are a part of the problem preventing a promising practice from fulfilling that promise.

It’s time for a debate that generates more light and less heat. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

“Avoiding controversy risks your relevancy.”

Barry Gordy wasn’t defending religious controversies when he said, “Avoiding controversy risks your relevancy.” Gordy was defending Elvis’ music when it got caught up in the debate over racial equality. The quote works whether talking about musicians or church leaders who try to avoid controversy. Elvis didn’t shrink from it. Neither should we.

Recently Rev. Paul D. Etienne, Wyoming’s Catholic Bishop, responded to my column on the Pope’s assertion that gays shouldn’t be marginalized. The Bishop argues I was in error reading the Pope’s words as a change in Catholic doctrine. He acknowledged why the Catholic Church has withdrawn its membership from the Wyoming Association of Churches, citing disagreements, “such as (WAC’s) lack of support for the unborn or any kind of defense for traditional marriage.”

The Bishop added, “Happily, we as Catholics share a number of beliefs in common with other Christian denominations. Sadly, we still have strong disagreements regarding the application of our belief in Christ and his teachings to the social issues of our day.”

Having made that argument, the Bishop said, “I will not argue those differences in a forum such as this. The dignity of our faith is above such public banter.”

That’s an odd assertion from a representative of a Church that involves itself fully in very public “bantering” on issues ranging from immigration reform to marriage equality and, of course, abortion rights.

As for me, the “dignity” of my faith requires such “public banter.” Those we seek to teach and lead, and even more so, those who are impacted by our teaching are entitled to a public debate. There is far more dignity in a public discussion than one targeted only to those in your pews. Questions, such as those named by the Bishop, have answers that create winners and losers and impact what lawmakers and judges decide.

Take for example, the issue of ending job-related discrimination against the LGBTQ community. The Bishop’s quoted Section 2358 of the catechism “in which chastity and homosexuality are addressed. In referring to people with homosexual tendencies, it states, ‘They must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

Regardless of your position on the nature of marriage, it seems elementary that permitting employers to fire someone because of sexual orientation is “unjust discrimination” which under the catechism “should be avoided.”

Yet the US Conference of Catholic Bishops told Congress job-related discrimination can’t be equated with ‘unjust discrimination,’ because the teaching is based on fundamental truths about the human person.” They worried that if Congress denied employers the ability to fire good workers because of sexual orientation, following Church teachings would be penalized.

I suppose that’s true just as when Congress and the courts finally determined that following religious teachings about inter-racial marriage, racial segregation, and the treatment of women should be penalized.

There’s a limit in a democratic society on the reach of church teachings. They might well be used to control who can join and remain a member of your faith and receive communion (though even Judas received communion just before betraying Jesus). But once you get beyond the church door, the US Constitution prevails.

However, that line continues to be blurred by lawmakers seeking to impose their beliefs on others and by Church leaders who use their pulpits to either endorse political candidates. Recently Detroit Archbishop Vigneron said receiving Communion while supporting same-sex marriage would “logically bring shame for a double-dealing that is not unlike perjury.”

Raymond Leo Burke, of the Vatican’s highest court, said it’s impossible for politicians to be in good standing as a Catholic and support “the killing of children in the womb.”  

A debate over the use of such tactics, aimed at making or changing public policy is much more than “public banter.” The dignity of our flock requires a thoughtful dialogue.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pope Francis...a fresh breeze

I have a “love-hate” relationship with religion, particularly Christianity. I know that’s weird for an ordained minster but, truthfully, there are days when I believe it all and there are days when I don’t believe a word of it. I haven’t hidden this from my congregation at Highlands Presbyterian Church. They know.

For so long I have not felt as deeply moved by a voice from the church as I am today by Pope Francis. For the first time in my life, I see this Catholic as the leader of our church, Christ’s representative on earth.
"This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity." The words of Pope Francis!
St. Catherine of Siena said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” Pope Francis has lighted the fire.
One can hear the voice of Jesus of Nazareth saying, “Amen. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” In the words of my favorite hymn, “I scarce can take it in.” Did you hear that confession, that prayer for pardon? “This church…the home of all” cannot be “a nest protecting our mediocrity.”
Over time the church has gotten so small that it easily fit into the pockets of those who think they have God right where they want God. A God made in their image became so mediocre that they were justified in engaging in quality control. The church became irrelevant as it shot its wounded from a circular firing squad.

I was ten years old when Pastor Jack issued his usual altar. I was moved. I went forward. Pastor Jack prayed over me, talked about being reborn. My parents smiled. I don’t remember precisely why I did it, but I remember the excitement of believing God wanted to have a relationship with me. It’s been a long time since I felt that. Like Mother Theresa I have since felt “such deep longing for God.” But, like her, I have often felt “empty, no faith, no zeal.”

I have no way of knowing why Mother Theresa felt that way but for me it began when I had to reconcile the God Brother Jack and others taught me about with the smallness and the mediocrity of the church. God, it seemed, got smaller as the church denied a relationship with people of color, women, and gays and lesbians. The church got smaller as it made God smaller. The “good news” or Gospel had no place in a diminishing church and was necessarily cast aside, replaced by dogma that, as Pope Francis confessed, elevated “moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized.”

Today a fresh breeze is blowing through the church. A Pope has reopened the stale pages of the Gospels. “We have to find a new balance,” Francis proclaimed. “Otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

The moral of the Gospel story is fundamentally about the urgency of exchanging a “house of cards” church of small things for a Moses-like experience of a “the pillar of cloud (that) would descend and stand at the door of the tent, and the LORD would speak with Moses. And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the door of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship.”

The defenders of the small church are quickly denying the impact of the Pope’s words. They are assuring those who have a stake in the smallness of the church that Francis did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. But there is no denying the evidence. This Pope is now “eating with tax collectors and sinners.” There was a time when that kind of boldness changed the world.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Our abstract notion of justice

Following this year’s Cheyenne Frontier Days a Wyoming Tribune-Eagle headline announced “6 Animals Die at CFD.” What if…just what if the headline had read “6 Cowboys Die at CFD?”

Unlike many humans, King Solomon believed animals share the same place in God’s kingdom as do we. “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals,” he wrote in Ecclesiastes 19, although he went on to assign us all the same vain end, “for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.”

The question was raised on, “Do animals have souls like human beings?” The answer? “Animals have souls--and so do plants. Does this answer sound like something out of the New Age movement? Don't worry--it isn't. Rest assured we're not saying animals and plants have souls like ours.”

That answer doesn’t give me any “rest assured.” The answer-person reasons, “Since animals and plants are living things, they have souls, but not in the sense in which human beings have souls. Our souls are rational--theirs aren't--and ours are rational because they're spiritual, not material.” The explanation relies on this distinction, “They (animals) can't, for instance, conceive of the abstract notion of justice. Animals and plants also lack a moral sense.”
Oh really? Remember the video that went viral showing one dog pulling another to safety after it had been hit by a truck on a busy freeway in Chile? Cars and trucks full of soulful humans drove by the injured dog, ignoring its plight. But it was a fellow animal who had enough of that “abstract sense of justice” to risk its own life to pull an injured comrade across several lanes of oncoming traffic to save its life.
If you missed it, see: Watching the video makes one question just who has “a moral sense.”
I was once in Moshe, Tanzania. Driving through the city we saw a Hindu Temple and talked about how beautiful it was. One of the Africans in the back seat leaned over and whispered, “They think God is cow.”
That’s not a completely accurate interpretation of Hindu doctrine but seems closer to a better guess than the one provided by Although, even if you’re working from the understanding that it’s humans and not animals that have an “abstract sense of justice” it would seem that harming animals for human entertainment would violate our “moral sense.”
Catholics are not alone in propagating a Christian world-view relegating animals to lesser status. The idea that animals exists for our pleasure and have no moral soul accompanies a prevalent western theology often leading people of faith to accept little responsibility for the natural environment.
Eastern religions take a different view. India, for example, a largely Hindu nation, has officially given “non-human person” recognition to dolphins. Under law, the dolphins now have the right to life and liberty and dolphin parks across the country are being closed.
There’s a lot of money at stake in deciding whether animals are full members of God’s creation. Unless they have second-class status, we can’t justify our rodeos, zoos, and Sea Worlds. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. alone reported net income of $77.4 million for 2012, a 305 percent increase over 2011. That gives their shareholders 77.4 million reasons to trap baby Orcas, wrench them from their mothers and put them in confinement for the remainder of their lives.
According to the Wyoming Business Report, CFD visitors from outside Laramie County “funneled $25 million into the local economy” in 2012. Dominion over animals is indeed profitable for many human-creatures.
Still, despite the economics of domination, it would seem that the least humans could do with their "superior souls" and “abstract sense of justice” is to fully protect the animals under their care from death in a rodeo arena.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sunday's sermon@Highlands "Searching for lost souls"

Today we hear the parables of the lost…lost sheep, lost coins and lost people. In the first parable, a shepherd leaves 99 other sheep to look for one that has wandered away. I don’t get it…didn’t God have a problem the first time the shepherd left the flock alone. It was Moses. Moses leaves the flock, goes to visit God and comes back to find the people worshipping a Golden calf.
In the second parable, a woman searches her house from top to bottom to find a single lost coin. It’s not like it was the widow’s mite…remember the woman whom Jesus praised for giving away her last coin. The woman in this parable has 9…but tears the house apart searching for the one she lost. Imagine her as your neighbor. She calls you in a very excited voice. “You know that coin I lost, halleleujuia, I have found it. Praise God.”
Of course, the parable is designed to take the listener over the top. They know darned well they would have never left 99 sheep alone in the dark to go search for one lost lamb. They know they’d have never invited the neighbors to celebrate finding one lost coin.
But Jesus is explaining why he’s hanging around with the despised tax collectors. You need to know these were people who wrought enormous damage on the community collecting Rome’s tribute to fund Rome’s oppression…and Jesus is hanging out with these tribute collectors who do Rome’s dirty work and with sinners of other dissolute living low-lifes.
Jesus wants them to know just how weird God is…how God celebrates people and situations humans would not.
And then he takes it another step. He has spoken about lost sheep and coins and now he will tell them about lost people. He has spoken of things that confuse us but we all understand “lost people.”
The Parable of the Lost or what we call The Prodigal Son is about the culture of the world and how enticingly unhealthy that culture is and how easy it is to find yourself lost with no sense of who you are or thought you were or who you had hoped to become.  
Let’s listen to the Parable of the Lost Son from Luke 15:11-32

Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

Isn’t this about the culture, of their times and ours…how much influence the culture can have on us when it tells us repeatedly that what we have isn’t enough...not enough money, not enough fun, not enough fulfillment, not enough period.

Want to get rich quick the easy way? Scam gullible people with a promise that they won the Nigerian lottery and they can claim their 5 million dollar if they will simply send you 5,000 dollars. Eager to get rich quick the easy way…send the 5,000 dollars.

Need money for a vacation but don’t want to take the time or effort to earn it? Craig’s list is advertising “positive pregnancy test” for sale suggesting you can use them to get your boyfriend to give you money for an abortion you don’t actually need so that you can book that trip.

The boy in our parable doesn’t want to await his father’s death to receive his inheritance. He wants what he wants and he wants it now even if that means cutting all ties to his family. And his father loves him enough to allow the boy to make those choices.

We call it free will. The father in the story allows his son to exercise it just as our father in heaven allows us our own free will.

The question of free will wasn’t big to the early Greek philosophers. The nature of free-will assumed significance with the advent of Christianity. Our doctrine begins with a belief that when God created humans, God commanded them to obey and has promised to reward or punish us for observance or violation of this law. That makes the reality of moral liberty or free will an issue of transcendent importance.

Unless humans are really free, we cannot be held responsible for what we do, any more than for the date of our birth or the color of our skin. God could have created obedient humans but chose to give us the ability to rebel. To suggest that somehow evil and wrongdoing are a part of either God’s plan or Satan’s control is to deny the existence of free-will, not to mention personal responsibility.

Ultimately, we explain the existence of evil and sin in a world controlled by God as free-will. Like each of us, the prodigal son has the power to do that which the father does not want him to do. God didn’t want hundreds of people in Syria to die of poison gas. But Assad did and God created Assad with the ability to do as he pleases rather than as God wants.

Think of what that means. It means the creator of the Universe has shared God’s power with God’s creation. God had given us the choice of whether to follow God or rebel.

The son in this parable chooses rebellion…he took his inheritance, gathered all he had, and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in what Jesus calls “dissolute living.”

We are not told exactly what the young man did. Dissolute living comes in so many different forms. Maybe he drank it all up, perhaps he spent it on women of ill-repute as his brother later claimed, maybe he invested in subprime home loans knowing they’d be foreclosed on or a ponzi-scheme or bought stock in Lehman Brothers or Enron; for all we know he may have contributed it all to the PTL Club, or maybe he used his father’s money to buy weapons and make war. All we know is that he used it all in dissolute living in whatever of the many forms that can take.

When he spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country. His money was gone and even if he had saved some, there was no food to buy. So, as hungry people have done through the centuries, he emigrated…hoping to find a better life in another country.

He did find work…feeding the pigs on someone’s farm. The local folks wouldn’t take jobs like that but he was hungry enough to do the hard, disgusting, humiliating jobs that they wouldn’t.

But, he envied the pigs. He’d have gladly eaten pods that the pigs were eating; and occasionally he did because no one gave him anything.

One morning he realized that he hadn’t had it so bad back home. He decided to reconcile with his father, to go home and apologize for his terrible decision. He had a speech planned. People who are going to apologize usually do.

“I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’

But his father saw him before the boy could speak…and ran to meet the boy and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Let’s eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

There it is again…that “lost and found” theme. There is a power in the universe that rejoices in the finding of lost souls. Why? Consider just how much of what we fear and despise is the work of lost souls. Think of the depth of the damage to our communities and neighborhoods wrought by lost souls who commit crime, abuse alcohol or drugs, children, spouses, take that which is not theirs, treat others as they would never want to be treated themselves.

Consider how much of the damage to our nation and the world is wrought by lost souls who seek to divide people by the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, gender, social status…the lost souls who see war and conflict as the only solution for any problem…war on terror, war on drugs and on crime …incarceration or marginalization, lost souls willing to trade God’s earth for the wealth that accompanies its destruction.

Souls are lost in many ways…illness, poverty, bigotry, irreconcilable differences between families and friends. The parables teach that it a problem for God when we find it is more acceptable, more understandable for us to go searching for some lost souls than for others.

It’s relatively easy for us to search for or forgive some lost souls than it is for others.

If we are asked to visit those whose souls have been lost to, say, Alzheimer’s disease, that’s acceptable, even honorable. But what about the lost souls whose names appear each week in the blotter briefs or on the list of registered sex offenders.

Their names are not published in the newspaper so that local Christians know where to go looking for lost souls. They are published so that we know which souls our community hopes remain lost.

Perhaps Jesus tells these parables for a reason. You think? Maybe Jesus is asking us to consider a lost souls ministry that searches for and welcomes home the lost souls about whom most others don’t care. Wouldn’t it be just like Jesus to suggest such a challenging idea?

Lost souls? Lost souls matter to God. You bet God rejoices when one is found. God celebrates not only the found but also the finder. The parables and the OT reading this morning from Exodus remind us that we have a role, a partnership with God to form the search parties and go looking. Remember when God discovered the people had abandoned God to worship the golden calf?

The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” It was Moses who came to the defense of those lost souls, willing to challenge the all-mighty. “Turn from your fierce wrath,” Moses said to God, “change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

What God came to know through the exhortations of Moses not to destroy the idol makers and Jesus came to teach through the father who runs to meet and forgive and to celebrate the return of his dissolute living son…is that judgment is a far less useful tool if you’re genuinely looking to find lost souls than is a welcoming forgiveness…and God gave us the free-will to decide whether we will really believe that....and live it out AMEN