Friday, February 23, 2018

More Dangerous than Being Killed


For all of my adult life (at least 50 years), as one who aspires to follow Jesus (often not doing as well as I wish), I have been convinced that killing or injuring someone else is spiritually more dangerous than being killed or injured.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Relinquishing the Grasp of a Joy Thief



Through the day yesterday I saw a large number of posts reacting to the Everytown count of school shootings as false and fake news suggesting that the gun problem is not as big as that, and by implication more gun restrictions are unnecessary or perhaps even counter-indicated. I would repeat that that count is not false, all acknowledge that the events did occur. What is in dispute is whether they all reached the level of being counted as school shootings.

I also saw a number of posts suggesting that everything from taking prayer and paddling out of schools was to blame. We need to keep in mind that this is not a school problem, it is pervasive in our society. We have had mass shootings at concerts, in movie theaters, churches, offices, shopping malls, and almost anywhere large numbers of people gather.

I also received a number of posts reminding us (me?) that those who want to kill will find other ways to do this even if they don’t have access to guns. Certainly true enough. We have had several stabbings recently, but I would doubt anyone could stab 17 people to death in six minutes. The lethality of modern guns makes them particularly problematic. Perhaps the only things more lethal than guns are explosives, as was quite evident in Oklahoma City and Boston. Having said that, explosives are not as easy to deploy as guns. Nevertheless, my contention would be that the methods used are symptoms of a deeply underlying problem of violence and anger that is pervading our whole society, not just those who carry out lethal acts.

I am afraid that arguing that “it is not as bad as the news makes it out to be” dismisses and minimizes the pain for victims and their families and friends. I am hearing from personal friends with no agenda in the gun debate saying that their children are having trouble sleeping and are afraid to leave the house. I would not diminish the importance of all kinds of mass killings (by guns or any other method), but I would point out that though they get high public profile, as they should, far more people are killed (and even more injured) by guns (and yes, other methods too) in quiet obscurity than in these mass killings. Accidents, suicides, and domestic disputes bring daily fatalities in large numbers and go unnoticed unless it is your spouse, your child, your parent, your sibling, your friend, your neighbor who dies. The unique problem with guns in these cases is that their lethality is dramatically more effective than other methods.

Combined with the “those who want to kill will find a way” is almost writing off such events as inevitable if the perpetrators are considered mentally ill. Most folk who suffer and struggle with their mental health are not dangerous. When this is raised with a “we can’t do anything about it” attitude, we feed the social acceptance of such deadly events as to expected and almost normal. It stigmatizes not only those will mental illnesses, but also those who try to help them. Not that treatment insures no violent outbursts, nor that all who need it would get treatment, but the mental illness explanation must be seen as doing better with mental health services, not a path to accepting this violence as inevitable.

Some have, correctly I believe, observed that the problem may not be so much mental illness as anger. We are living in a very angry time. Public debates on all sorts of issues before us all too often degenerate into expressions of anger (sometimes with subtlety), and civility of decorum when discussing disagreements is lost. Brawls in the halls of government are rare, but the words and tactics used express and feed the social propensity toward anger, which is all too evident on social media.

The arguments against even simple, incremental steps because they would not have prevented this or that tragedy paralyzes us from doing anything. The problems of violence and anger do not spring from a single source nor can they be addressed with single, simple solutions. But the refusal to try to make progress with small measures perpetuates the problem.

I have found myself deeply troubled by this issue for some time. I don’t consider myself to be a gun control crusader, but neither am I an advocate for totally unfettered access to firearms. I have written what I consider to be a guide for personal, spiritual self-examen on the place of guns in the heart. http://nstolpepilgrim.blogspot.com/2016/01/guns-in-your-heart.html I also recognize that social media rarely, if ever, changes someone’s mind. With my writing, I have tried to prompt thought rather than articulate positions per se, but I’m sure plenty of my readers (if they persist in reading my lengthy essays) think of me as some sort of partisan. So be it. After responding to some of the things that came my way and disturbed my peace yesterday, I felt compelled to write one last essay to put out there as a way of letting go of this. The priority of my life right now is making every day for my wife, Candy, the best it can be as we journey together with her Alzheimer’s. I need to give her full attention without being either mentally or emotionally distracted by some of these things that I do consider to be important. My spiritual disciplines at this moment must be to relinquish the things that steal my joy. My hope is that by getting these thought out, I can let go of them and refocus on walking hand in hand with Candy and Jesus.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Trustworthy Prophet - Glorify God in Your Body - Without Deceit/Guile



As I have engaged in my lectio divina on the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday (January 14, 2018), I have been particularly challenged by one phrase in each selection.

1 Samuel 3:20 says that the boy Samuel grew up to be known as a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. I certainly do not have either the gifts or the calling to a prophetic office as Samuel had. And now that I am not pastor of a congregation, my ministry role is taking a different shape than it had had for 40+ years. Yet, as I came to oratio, I prayed not only that my reputation from those years would be that I had been a trustworthy pastor, but that in my new roles that are still becoming clear to me, God would consider and empower me to grow as a trustworthy servant.

1 Corinthians 6:20 says to glorify God in your (my) body. I remember well using that in teaching teens about Christian use of their sexuality (is directly in the context of the passage). Even at this stage of my life, I can’t say I’m fully satisfied with how well my sexuality glorifies God, but I am seeing that maintaining health and strength to serve in new roles as they emerge, and especially to enable my wife Candy’s life to be as joyful as possible on her Alzheimer’s journey, is essential to glorifying God in my body. So my oratio is not that I will be lauded but that God will be glorified in my daily, physical living.

In John 1:47, Jesus called Nathanael “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” While “deceit” is certainly a proper translation, I still like the KJV use of “guile.” To me it implies a broader understanding of nothing crooked or misleading, a depth of integrity. I have often described my wife Candy as being like Nathanael, a woman in whom there is no guile. She assumes the best about people, even in the midst of their foibles. She takes things at face value and speaks without any twisting of words. Friends and family find this amusing at times and she misses the humor of jokes that depend on double entendre. This week, this passage has been prompting my oratio to ask God to stand guard over my mouth (Psalm 141) and heart (Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45), so that I have such integrated integrity that no guile or deceit will dwell in or proceed from me.

I know I am only half way through the week and will be meditating on these passages for a few more days. I think they are connected, integrated into what it means to trust and follow Jesus. I am expecting the Holy Spirit to use them in these days to continue to shape me to be more and more congruent with Jesus. Much as Abba Poeman wrote in the 4th century. “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the [one] who hears the word of God often, opens [the] heart to the fear of God.” The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, Kalamazoo, MI, Cistercian Publications, 1975, pp. 192-193


I am not much fond of labels


I am not much fond of labels whether they be political (conservative-liberal), theological (evangelical-progressive), liturgical (traditional-contemporary), or social (values-rights, rugged individualism-common good). I think even labels to identify positions on issues are not helpful (pro-life-pro-choice, religious freedom-individual freedom, pro-Second Amendment-Sensible Gun Control). Understandably, movements also adopt slogans as shorthand to rally around (Black Lives Matter-Blue Lives Matter). Instead of promoting understanding, these divide and polarize. On the one hand, they obscure nuanced thinking, and on the other hand, they associate people with drastically different views together under one label, all too often as a way of discrediting something without understanding or addressing it. As convenient as labels are as shorthand for making particular points, they truncate true dialog and thought.

I am not comfortable identifying with any of these labels. I am happy to have real conversation with people who disagree with me on just about anything. I believe we can all learn from each other but don’t have to convince each other. But I don’t want to be labeled so as to be tossed in a bin of those who are like me or not like me.


As I pastor I have served congregations who struggled mightily with theological, ethical, liturgical, and social differences of opinion. I can’t claim to have been particularly successful at this, but I have aspired to encourage people to try to learn from each other rather than convince each other, to love each other rather than shun each other, as they find deeper unity in following Jesus than in their disagreements. I know all too well the argument, “As I read the Bible, I must take this position and cannot accept a different position as legitimate.” I have found it exceedingly challenging to help those who take that approach to listen to why those who disagree with them are as confident they are following the Bible or Jesus as they are. I have felt the pressure from partisans of these social movements to publically take sides and use my pastoral influence (if not authority) to promote one side or the other in these conflicts. I have repeatedly said thing like, “I don’t want to be known for what I say about (sex, guns, politics, etc.) but for pointing people to Jesus and inviting them to trust and follow him. It’s not that I don’t think our opinions about these issues don’t matter in how we follow Jesus, but when we keep Christ at the center (thank you Dietrich Bonhoeffer) we begin to get some perspective on our propensity to build our allegiances to temporary human thought instead of the eternal reign of God.  

Friday, January 5, 2018

Twelfth Day of Christmas Reflection January 5



Angels are ubiquitous in Christmas imagery. The artistic representations are often feminine, though where gender is ascribed to angels in the Bible it is male, but the teaching material specifies they are without gender in the sense we think of it. Angels do appear in both Matthew and Luke’s nativity accounts. As we have been doing all through these twelve days, I suggest paying attention to just what the text says and try to avoid cliché and stereotype imagery. To start you on your exploration, I will observe that the angels in Matthew appear in dreams, and those in Luke seem to appear in person. Joseph gets a visit in Matthew and Mary in Luke. But they are not the only ones. You’ll have to go back into Luke 1 to get all of the angels there.


So on this final day of the Twelve Days of Christmas, read both Matthew and Luke to see only and exactly what they both say about the angels and their roles in the story of Jesus’ birth. As you reflect on that, consider all you have encountered since Christmas began on December 25. How has your appreciation of the Christmas story been enriched? How has God encountered you? How have you been changed?

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Eleventh Day of Christmas Reflection January 4



The accounts of Jesus’ birth in both Matthew and Luke glow with mysterious light and wonder. But the Slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew 2:13-23 is one of the darkest passages in the New Testament, rivaling Jesus’ crucifixion. We often want to avoid it, which means it has not accumulated as much extraneous material as the other parts of the Christmas story. It is observed on December 28 in the Western Church, and December 29 in the Eastern Church as the Feast of Holy Innocents who are considered in some sense to be the first Christian martyrs.


I have no way of softening the terror of this event. But I do believe its contrast with the rest of the nativity narrative can help us appreciate the hope Jesus brings even as he was born in humble obscurity. So I suggest, reading all of both Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth to marvel at this amazement.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Tenth Day of Christmas Reflection January 3



I have already observed that what Matthew recorded about the visit of the Magi belongs to the liturgical season of Epiphany, which comes after the Twelve Days of Christmas. While there certainly is a chronological rationale for that, liturgical sequences are independent of the Gospel texts, and my purpose for these twelve days is to strip back the accretions that have gotten attached to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and marvel at exactly and only with what Matthew and Luke have written. So I think considering Matthew 2:1-18 these days is completely appropriate, and I encourage you to continue to read Luke as the focus shifts over to Matthew.

We’ve already gotten past most of the traditions that have gotten associated with the story of the Magi beyond Matthew’s text: star, number, names, ethnicity, camels. One of the problems with mushing the Luke and Matthew accounts together is that it can make them seem contradictory. However, the chronology is obvious. Though we don’t know how long, clearly they arrived after Jesus’ presentation in the Temple. Though Matthew says nothing about Mary and Joseph coming to Bethlehem from Nazareth, Matthew is clear they were staying in a house in Bethlehem for a while and went to Nazareth upon returning from Egypt. So as you read Luke and Matthew today, focus on the visit of the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12. Don’t get distracted by the Slaughter of the Innocents so you can soak in the wonder of these visitors from afar who came to see the child Jesus.