Posts Tagged ‘Death’

<This went out today.  I’ve made no secret that I have no love for guns. That conviction is ever-growing.  Christians need to consider that perhaps, *perhaps,* faith in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, might call our desire to own hand guns and assault rifles into question…>

Beloved,

imagesAnother act of domestic terrorism has filled the news, filled our heads, and at this writing, hundreds of people who were enjoying life just hours ago are now filling the hospitals and, tragically, over 50 are already confirmed dead.

Our addiction to violence is a disease, and it is a sin.

I refused to tune into the news channels this morning, fearing that the children that live in my house might see the world they’re inheriting.  They’re too young not to know how to be brave in the face of such madness.  Sometimes I wonder if I’m too young.

St. Peter, in one of the moments when he spoke out of love and not fear, responded to Jesus in a time of perplexity, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of abundant life.” (John 6:68)

We don’t go to guns.  We don’t go to violence.  We don’t go to partisan bickering which all just becomes a distraction.  The war of words rages while people die.  Trite moralisms and vapid optimism will not do any of us any good today.  And, when we go to Jesus, he doesn’t offer that.  He offers true solace, he offers us the chance to confess, to forgive, to breathe, to mourn, and to re-center ourselves in peace rather than fear.

But, we must remember that, if we go to Jesus, if we seek refuge under those wings, Jesus will send us back out, too.  It is not enough to pray for the victims of mass shootings, we must pray with our shoes on, prepared to work for justice and an end to this kind of violence, as Jesus calls us to in our baptism.

Walter Brueggemann, a prophet in our own time, has a book of prayers (Prayers for a Privileged People [Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2008]) that I find myself thumbing through when these mass shootings happen.

And, let me be honest: I have looked at it too much in my almost 10 years of ministry.

His prayer/poem “God’s Gift in the Midst of Violence” is one I offer to you here today.  But pray it with your shoes on.

Peace today.

P.S. One immediate thing that you can do is donate blood at your local Red Cross.  Click that link to find where your nearest donation center is. Blood donations will be needed!

 

God’s Gift in the Midst of Violence

The world trembles out of control.

The violence builds,

                Some by terrorism,

                Some by state greed,

                                Dressed up as policy,

                                Violence on every side.

You, in the midst of the out-of-control violence.

                We confess you as steadfast, loyal, reliable,

                But we wonder if you yourself are engaged

                                In brutality

                We confess you to be governor and ruler,

                But we wonder if you manage.

We in the midst of out-of-control violence,

                We in great faith

                We in deep vocational call

                We in our several anxieties.

We—alongside you—in the trembling.

This day we pray for freedom to move

                Beyond fear to caring,

                Beyond self to neighbor,

                Beyond protection to growth.

That we may be a sign of steadfastness,

                That anxiety may not win the day.

You are the one who said, “Do not be anxious.”

And now we submit to you.

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It seems like after every national tragedy–and let’s be honest, tragedy on any scale–people have this “ah-ha” realization about the fragility of life.

I think that’s a pretty natural reaction.  A wake-up of sorts.

And that “ah-ha,” that realization, often gets filtered into a phrase that comes out something like this: “we’re not promised tomorrow.”  It’s a carpe diem phrase of sorts. A call to mindfulness.  A call to smell the roses.  A call to, as Qoheleth and Dave Matthews chirp, “Eat, drink, and be merry” for tomorrow we die.

Or, at least, we might die.

On the one hand, I get that sentiment.  In a cosmic sense it is absolutely true, and shouldn’t be ignored.

But the tragedy in Orlando was not some cosmically caused killing.  A meteor didn’t fall from the sky and destroy Pulse. It wasn’t some freak shark attack.

If it had been a meteor or a freak accident, then I could get behind the phrase “we’re not promised tomorrow” as a response to this terrorist attack.

But this was a terrorist with a gun living under the laws and regulations of the United States of America.  We can’t just shrug our shoulders, hold our babies closer, and hope it doesn’t happen to us.  That’s ridiculous.  On some level, uttering that phrase in response to this particular act is just plain stupid sentimentalism; a vapid romanticism.

At its core, the laws and regulations that we live under are a social contract of sorts, a promise if you will, that your tomorrow cannot be purposefully infringed upon by my actions in a way that inhibits your “life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.”

I’m saying that those people at Pulse were promised a tomorrow.  At least in the sense that no one could infringe upon their tomorrow in a forceful way by law.  We had a social contract that someone decided to break, and here we are shrugging our shoulders and saying, “No guarantees.”  Sure…no guarantees.  But we do have promises which, while not guarantees, are the social contract version that is pretty darn close.

And when we say something like, “We’re not promised a tomorrow” as a response to a situation that is a breach of social contract we abstract the incident to arms length, when what we actually need to do is draw the incident as close as possible.

Because things at arms length…we have little control over that. It’s a psychological crutch. But this type of mass shooting is actually something that we, through our social contracts, can take action on.

When Moses went up to Sinai and descended with those two tablets (three, if you believe Mel Brooks’ account), it was to establish a social contract both between humanity and between Divinity and humanity.  It is basically a response to, “how shall we then live?”  And it was, in essence, a promise of tomorrow for those people.  This is how we order ourselves, by promising one another a tomorrow because God has intended tomorrows for humanity.

And for the Christian, the promise of tomorrow goes even past death.  So Christians must take quite seriously this part of our social contract.

And we cannot, of course, ever guarantee something like this shooting won’t happen.  Our laws are no preventative guarantee; they are a promissory note, though.  A promissory note that we all sign onto.

And, look, the promise was broken.  Let’s not pretend it was an act of God.  Let’s not pretend this was written in the stars or some similar platitude that will help us swallow this pill.

Do not swallow this tragedy.  Choke on it.  Choke on it and let action to save lives be our response.  If you throw it out at arms length we’ll just do this all again.

Let’s not pretend we have no way of figuring this out. We know how this happened; we know how it happens.

Let our “ah-ha” moment not be a realization about the fragility of life, but a renewed commitment to tomorrow and to keeping promises and to doing the things that help us all to keep our promises.

Because, actually, we are promised tomorrow.  Not guaranteed…but at least promised.

And if you say otherwise, you are delusional or lying or just unwilling to face the reality that we are not powerless here, we’re just choosing to be powerless here…

The Day We Buried Richard

Posted: December 28, 2014 in Church Life
Tags: , ,

thThe day we buried Richard I had a bit of a headache.  Maybe I hadn’t eaten enough that day, or maybe a cross word or two had fallen on my ears and had crossed into my heart leaving me colder than even the 22 degrees outside would have me be.

The day we buried Richard I had just done a baptism.  A beautiful baby boy.  He was asleep when the water touched his head, and didn’t make a sound even as I smudged oil on his brow and lifted him high for everyone to see with claps and cheers and tears.

Had I been at Richard’s last moments a similar thing would have happened: oil, tears, lifting his spirit high.  No clapping, of course, just reverent silence.  But still, transformation.  Something new.

The day we buried Richard I went quickly from morning services and put myself in my office.  Sometimes we can fake it, and sometimes we can’t.  Today I couldn’t fake it.  I didn’t want to be around people too much.  It wasn’t in me.

Richard and I met at the local coffee house, The Grind.  A place of legend in Lincoln Square, and in my own story, as it was the first place I went when I started working at the big cathedral on Wilson and Campbell.  I got to know the baristas and the owner and the regulars.  When my son was born they made a card for us, hand signed by all the baristas and the owner.  I knew every name.

Now as we wait again for another birth, they always ask about it.  I inspect the mugs on the shelf because I know Levi makes them, and he is dating one of the baristas.  Liam was gone, but now is back.  Happy to see him again.  And Claire made the Christmas decorations lining the walls.  This is a place I know like the playgrounds of my youth.

Richard sat next to me at a table one day five years ago.  He was 80 years old that first day he talked to me.  He was not shy, and no topic was off the table. Politics, religion, literature, art, music; all were fair game.  And not in the competitive way people talk nowadays.  Richard longed to know and to teach, and brought out those two qualities in the willing conversation partners.

So many of us only long to learn what we already know.  “Please, tell us the things we already think so that we’ll know we’re correct!”

Not Richard.

When he stopped coming to the coffee shop I became worried.  Tara, the owner, clued me in.  She was visiting him, as were many of us, at the new sterile room he called “home.”  He had some of his books, and though Parkinsons had taken some of his stability, he still held his mind.

The day we buried Richard I saw some tears.  He had no family to speak of, save for those of us he brought under his maven wings from The Grind.  Bradley, the lawyer from Minnesota.  Tara, the shop owner and lovingly unwitting community builder (did she know that this would be her world when she started to serve coffee?).  Rose, the sweet woman who lived above him who loved fiction and fairies.  Michael, his roommate of 30 years.  Nathan, one of the first baristas at The Grind who remembers Richard from the “old days” of 2004.  John, whom none of us knew but who had performed in a play with Richard, in Gaelic mind you, back in ’78.  Liam, who served him coffee with good cheer.

Richard had a knack for languages that would make most professional translators reach for their tools of the trade.  He was that good, recently embarking on learning Arabic in these last years.  German, French, Gaelic, Greek, Latin; his mouth was a globe.

The day we buried Richard we had no body.  We had no ashes; they weren’t yet prepared.  We had some pictures and we had some tulips and we had some coffee and eats.  We buried him much in the same fashion as we lived with him: over conversation, beauty, reflection, some good back-and-forth, coffee, sweets, and fresh flowers which are almost always found at the front bar of The Grind.

Churches would kill for community like this.  And some churches kill this type of community.

And as we all left one another there were hugs and plans to get back together and “let us know when the baby comes!” and a deep sense that we had done something right by someone we all collectively loved and knew from sitting around little wooden tables and little wooden chairs as coffee from ceramic mugs steamed up into our faces.

“So, Richard, what’s new?”  This is how I’d usually start talking to him after my glasses stopped fogging.  And after everyone left I said it out loud in the little chapel.  To myself, to God, to Richard, and to no one in particular.

And in the moment I thought to myself that the little headache and the cross word that still lingered in my ear needs to go ahead and fade away, because life is not meant to be spent around those sorts of things.  There is coffee and conversation and eats to be had, and prayers to be said.

The day we buried Richard was today.

I’m on vacation.  The beach.

I woke up on vacation to the sound of the surf and seagulls and the smell of salt water.  vacation-planning

I woke up on vacation to the sound of laughter being silenced as a brilliant comedic force lost a battle to depression.

These two things don’t mix easily.

I woke up on vacation to the sight of children running and playing in the surf.  Children of all ethnicities chasing crabs and picking up shells.

I woke up on vacation to the news of an unarmed black man being shot in cold blood. To rioting, angry voices justified in their anger, but not in the violence that followed. Death begets death.

…and yet in some ways I understand it…

These two things don’t mix easily.

What’s funny, of course, is that most of us are on “vacation” from this sort of death.  From pretending depression isn’t an illness but just a phase.  From pretending that racial inequality isn’t real because, well, if it is real then we might have to change the way we behave…

And, let’s be honest: we don’t really want to do that. (We have a black president, for Christ’s sake!  Doesn’t that mean racial inequality is a thing of the past?!)

Most of this country is on vacation most of the time.

And that vacation mindset can find a shock of reality in the church community, if we’ll allow it.

Most, though…I think most go to church to have their views reinforced, not challenged.

The pastor has become the conscience massager instead of the conscientious objector to the vacation tendencies that power and privilege provide.

People leave churches because their pastor mentions these things.  All congregations.  My congregation, too.  And in a time of church-attendance limbo we may feel like we can’t say anything because, well, what if people take a vacation from the congregation because of what is said?

So we massage it.

But there is another reality that can’t be massaged into something different, that can’t be escaped: a black man lay dead in the street.  A comedian became the victim of joylessness.

And we have to admit that God has something to say about that, something to say about a culture that considers you “OK” as long as you’re laughing; a culture that considers you “OK” as long as your skin color doesn’t automatically make you suspect.

Blood has only one color, though.

And for as much as we lift the blood of Christ up at the Communion table and say “for you,” you’d think we’d see the connection there.

So what to do?  Raise our voice in indignation?  Console one another? Tell the truth about depression?  Speak to racial inequality and violence and unchecked power?

Yes.  Of course, yes.

But also: let’s stop being on vacation.

Stop pretending these things aren’t reality.

The church can be a place where we help people live with the tensions of life, not trying to alleviate them, but helping us all live well with them.

Jesus helps us live here and now, in reality.  Jesus doesn’t let us take a vacation from reality.  “If you see me, you see God,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John.  If you see Jesus you see ultimate reality.

Do you see Jesus in the person battling depression?  In the black man dead in the street?

Or are we just all on vacation?

I wasn’t going to post about the recenscreen shot 2014-06-10 at 7.30.47 amt school shootings that we’ve endured as a nation these past few weeks, but here I am.

I wasn’t going to post about them because I just don’t think I can anymore.

When I look down at my son, when I drop him off at school, I don’t think of him as in danger, or as a target.

But I guess we’re starting to these days, right?  I mean we’re talking about more armed guards in schools, we’re talking about lock-down procedures and evacuation routes not just for fire, but also for “live-fire” scenarios.

And I guess now we’re talking about bulletproof blankets to cover my baby should someone come shooting up his school.

In Isaiah 11:6-9 we find a vision for a new Earth, and it doesn’t look like like my son huddled under a bulletproof blanket.

And it doesn’t look like my son cowering behind an armed guard with a gun, a teacher with a gun, or even he himself holding a gun.

In that day, “The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  In verse 8 it gets even better, “the infant will play near the cobra’s den, and a young child will put it’s hand in the viper’s nest.”

The problem with that day is that we don’t think it’s today.  The problem with that day is that we think the prophet is talking about animals.  And, I guess, in a way he is because he’s talking about the created order, the whole created order, being turned on it’s head.

But primarily, though, the prophet is talking about people.  Humans.  You and me.

And the prophet is talking about creation not living in fear, even in natural fear.  It would be natural for the goat to fear the leopard, the child the viper.  But in the world that has “knowledge of God,” even that kind of fear isn’t needed.

Because God is doing a new thing.

See, here’s the problem I have with armed guards, with armed teachers, with armed citizens, and with something as ridiculous as bulletproof blankets: it buys into the fear.

If the day of the Lord is to eradicate fear, then why do we belabor under the wrong assumption that we must continue to purchase it?  This youth at Reynolds High School was obviously hurting and sick.  I do not believe he was a monster.  You don’t have to be a monster to do monstrous things.

But his parents were law-abiding citizens with a closet full of guns.  Why?  Recreation?  Collection? Sport?

It doesn’t really matter now, because in the end they were saved for a mass shooting.

And the remedy to that, I think and believe, is not to buy more guns, is not to buy more kevlar, is not to arm more people.

The remedy for that is, I think and believe, to take the prophet seriously and believe that today is the day when the world is filled with the knowledge of the Lord.  And I don’t take that to mean that everyone is Christian.  I don’t take that to mean that everyone thinks the same things.

The “knowledge of the Lord” is not the ability to recognize God, it is the ability to trust as God trusts.

And how does God trust?  In the Jesus story, God trusts the power of life and resurrection enough not to repay hurt with hurt, but to bathe in love and forgiveness.  I mean, what would it look like if we raised our children not with a closet full of semi-automatic guns and hand guns, even if we teach them to respect guns, but rather with a closet full of the belief that semi-automatic guns aren’t necessary in this world.

They aren’t necessary to have a good time, they aren’t necessary to obliterate targets, they aren’t necessary for common citizens.

They just aren’t necessary.

We need to excavate fear, dig it up like Indiana Jones, and reveal it for what it is: an idol we’re being forced to worship these days.

It’s obvious these people need mental help.  But they also don’t need easy access to weapons.  And I don’t think that’s an either/or situation.  It’s a both/and.

But I really expect the carillon cry on this issue to come from the church, to come from Christians.  I really expect it to come from people who look at Jesus and see someone who didn’t repay evil with evil. I really expect it to come from people who hear stories every damn week about the Jesus who healed the sick, even the mentally sick.  We need to provide that care.  And I really expect it from people who every year hear the story of how Jesus told Peter to put his sword away. “The one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword…”

I really expect it to come from those who would wonder what it means to hold a weapon with no other purpose in the world than for the killing of another human being, a being created out of love by the God who creates all things for joy and good. Licensed police officers, military officers, they all consider that question…at least, I hope they do if they take their work seriously.  We, as a society, have called them to that office, and it’s not one to be taken lightly.

Certainly not one to be taken “recreationally.”  We have licensed law enforcement, and give them licenses, for a reason.  Part of that reason is, I think, because they take it seriously enough to honor the responsibility.  I don’t think the average citizen does, and we’ve shown that by having these “open carry” situations throughout the country now…that, in and of itself, is a sign of mental health issues, I think.

And look, with all this talk, I’m not even talking primarily about gun control.  Gun control has not worked well in Chicago.  I’m all for it, but do I think it will save my baby?  No.  This is a complex issue.  But the church doesn’t just need to condemn the shooting, they need to condemn the situations that led up to the shooting: mental health, easy access to semi-automatic weapons…

And we need to condemn the fact that too many of the “faithful” in this world don’t trust that the Earth can be full of the knowledge of the Lord if they would just live into it.

I’m talking about changing the hearts and minds of this world to realize that the day of the Lord is today.

And tomorrow.

And it was yesterday…we just didn’t trust it enough to live into it.

I know this post might not be popular with many of my colleagues, but it is timely…so I’m going to put it out there.  ashes

I get why pastors and church people stand by the bus stop and the train stop and on busy thoroughfares for Ash Wednesday.  We “get out of the church and into the world” by doing this, right?  We “take the ministry to the streets.”

I get the rationale; I get it.  And I get that it probably can be pretty powerful for the ashers, and possibly the ashees, too.

But here’s my concern, specifically with Ash Wednesday: I fear it is cheap.

Yes, cheap.

Ash Wednesday is a day of solemnity when we hear the prophet Joel encourage people to “return to the Lord.”  The liturgy involves a movement from the Kryie (Lord, have mercy) to hearing Joel’s encouragement to Matthew’s prayerful penitent beat his chest, and then we take last year’s Hosanna’s, burn them as a sign that we’ve burned so much of our praise in pursuit of the dust of this world, and mark ourselves again as dust.

It is a movement of stark realism.  It is a movement, like a carefully put together album, that leads you from the realization of mortality to a hopeful life despite the fact that you are dust.

Beautiful stardust…but dust nonetheless.

But more than anything, it is a movement.  And it takes a bit of time.  Not much time, but some time.  Mortality does not sink in so quickly (without sudden tragedy, of course).  And we should allow the time.  Not much time, but time nonetheless.  As the beginning of Lent, a season of intentionality, it seems odd to me that we would start out with such slack intentionality…

It is much more than a simple smudge at the bus stop.  Sure, there are many who will also offer prayer in that time.  Sure, there are many who will also offer information about how the individual seeking to be “ashed” (or get the “ash kicking” as I like to say) can hook up with a faith community.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it.

I’m just saying why I’m not going to…and I want to ask the question publicly.

Because despite the prayer and the information on faith communities, I don’t think Ash Wednesday is the day to do it.

We don’t see people out on Easter passing out lilies.  Actually, that makes a ton more sense to me…

I don’t want Ash Wednesday…I don’t want my mortality…to be a gimmick.  And I worry that the church can turn it into that.

And there’s something important about having Ash Wednesday with other people of faith, all together, in one place.  There’s something important about me, the individual hearing “Memento, homo, quod pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris” but then also having all of us, communally, hear it.

It’s not just about me; it’s about us.  All of us.  We are all stardust…and our systems of power and “isms” and phobias have reinforced it.

And there is something powerful about having a train full of cross-smudged commuters.  I won’t deny that.  But what does it mean that they got it running for the 8:05am?

Have an early morning Ash Wednesday service.  Or a noon one, where people can do it at lunch hour.  Or, have a full one at the bus stop, 20 minutes long.  Or point people toward a service that happens right as work gets out downtown.  I think these are good options.  But not as they’re running by…

Because I want to know: what do we think we’re saying when we’re offering a reminder of mortality on the fly?

There are only two community worship experiences that we do where we name a list of all of the recently departed in a row: All Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-Saints (in November) and the Easter Vigil (the night before Easter).

And slowly and surely I’ve started to include not just the saints of the church who have passed on in recent years, but also celebrities, activists, politicians, and local heroes.

And I’ve started naming them on Sundays, too, when we give thanks for the saints who have gone before us. Like today I read out Pete Seeger’s name as a faithful witness in this world to the life of God shown in the Christ.

Was Seeger a Christian?  I don’t know.  I know he had a godchild.  I heard an interview with her on NPR. But there are plenty of people who have godchildren and don’t identify as “Christian.” I don’t think it matters in this case.  If there’s anyone who lived into the Beatitudes as a peacemaker, I feel Seeger is it.

We named him.  And we’ll name Philip Seymour Hoffman next week, too. Because it is less about how they identified themselves, and more about how God has identified them: child of God.

And, to be honest, Philip Seymour Hoffman touched me, and so many people, in his work that I think we’d do collective harm in not publicly grieving for him in some way; in some faithful way.  And I’m a firm believer that one of the ways that the Holy Spirit works in this world is through the arts, and I believe that God moved through him and his gifts.

Lord, he had gifts…

We name the saints not because of what they did  in life (though that is certainly part of it), but more because of who God claims them to be.

And there were demons there, now come to light, which we all have.  And if people knew the full truth of any of us, I think they’d balk at having our names read in any list of so-called “saints.”

And yet, my name is there.  And so is yours.  And so is any of ours.

So, if you worship in a community and there is a time to call out the dead, name him.  Do it.  Or when the Vigil comes around to your community and your pastor knocks on the parish door to invite the dead to worship in the resurrection, make sure his name is there along with Pete’s (we don’t ever do last names, so technically I’ll just say “Philip Seymour”).

Or if you’re making a list for All Saints, include him there.

Him, along with everyone else you know personally who has died this year.  Him, along with every other faceless, nameless person suffering from addiction who will die this week that we won’t ever hear about.

Because, and here’s the main point, in naming Phillip Seymour, I hope and pray I’m also naming about 100 other people who will die this week in Chicago of an OD that we’ll never hear about, and no one will care about.

And if we can’t care, in some small way, who will?  If we can’t point to this and all other deaths, especially tragedies, and say, unequivocally, “there lies a child of God, loved and redeemed even now,” of what use is the church in truth-telling?

May light perpetual shine upon Pete and Philip and all the other nameless ones we’ve lost this week. Amen.