Sunday, November 26, 2017

Small Fire/Massive Blaze

A couple of months ago, a firework started a blaze that burned more than 30,000 acres here in northern Oregon. Many were displaced from their homes, others were fearful of the same fate. All of us were breathing in smoke for days due to the fire. I went to lunch with somebody and we sat outside (a poor choice). Throughout the meal, there was ash raining down on us.
A tiny smoke bomb became a raging inferno.
In the book of James, chapter 3, the tongue is said to be like a fire. James says that a very small fire sets a forest ablaze.
The tongue is small. The tongue is a fire.
This small fire becomes a massive blaze.

We're just now finding out about a massive blaze that has been burning for years; for decades.

In recent months, many entertainment personalities, news people, and political figures have been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Shortly after dozens of people told their stories about Harvey Weinstein's unwanted comments and advances toward them, there was an outpouring of stories on Twitter and Facebook (and probably Internetland I'm considered an old man because I only use Twitter and Facebook). These stories were tagged with the hashtag #metoo. Almost every one of my brave female friends and a few of my brave male friends shared this hashtag, many telling their stories of harassment and/or abuse. I don't cry much, but scrolling through story after story of harassment, abuse, and unwanted words and advances absolutely wrecked me.

Count me as one of those people who didn't realize the magnitude of the problem.
I hear you.

The fact that people are speaking up about experiencing harassment is a good thing. The fact that people are being held to account for their words and actions is a great thing.

People have set a fire. This fire has become a massive blaze. Many people have been hurt because of the words and actions of others.

Words have enormous effects in a person's life. Harassment of women (and men) appears to have been an ongoing problem for decades now. People have said and done things that have had lasting effects on people young and old.

The state of people's hearts is coming to light. In Matthew chapter 12, Jesus says "Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure."
The things said and done by people show the state of their hearts. People are known by the fruit they produce; the things they do and say.
The state of hearts is coming to light. People are being held to account for their unwanted words and advances.
Jesus talks about how people will be held to account for the fruit they produce when he continues: "I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."

Things said and done in previous years are coming to light.
Why now?

I think this first of all has to do with power. James 3:1 says "Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly."  This is true, and good. It's appropriate that a person with power and authority be judged more strictly, especially when it's a spiritual leader.
It's good and appropriate that people are judging those in power who have used words and actions to hurt, harass, and abuse. It's good that people are being held to account for their actions.

The reason that I think it's taken so long for people to speak up about their experiences of abuse and harassment is that it's easier to speak out when others are doing so as well.

People don't feel like they can speak out when there is a power differential. If there is someone in a position of power over someone else, and the person in power is acting in a lewd manner toward them, the person experiencing harassment is not going to want to go after the harasser. Why? It's dangerous. It can cost them their job, their money (if this becomes a court thing), or their reputation. Also, the person in power may be loved by their community, or may be a charismatic personality that has a lot of followers and supporters.

It's difficult to hold a person accountable for their words and actions if they are in a position of power over you.

But it feels safer to tell your story when others are doing so as well.

A couple of other thoughts:
If your first instinct is to say "That's something that happens elsewhere, but not here," you're probably wrong. I am a guy who has never experienced harassment or abuse, so I know that I'm not really the authority to speak on this topic. But I reached out to some female friends who have experienced harassment and/or abuse, as I knew that their perspective was much more important than my own.
It was pointed out to me that things so small as making unwanted jokes or comments about someone else's appearance, or failing to speak up when these comments are made contributes to the normalizing of harassing talk. If we remember James chapter 3, this makes complete sense. The tongue is a small fire, and a small fire becomes a massive blaze. Throwing out small unwanted comments about other people or making small jokes is just like throwing out a few tiny fires. Tiny fires grow into huge fires.

Words hurt. When we engage in such conversations or allow them to happen, we are contributing to the problem.

Especially when it comes to churches, there is an enormous sexual harassment/abuse problem. A few days ago, there was a similar hashtag to #metoo that was gathering steam. It was #churchtoo.
The stories are horrifying. Absolutely mortifying.
But not necessarily surprising.
There are stories about ministry leaders making unwanted advances and comments to members of the congregation. There are many other stories that are equally terrible--stories of people who were harassed or assaulted by other people in the congregation. In many of these stories, the victim would approach the pastor or a ministry leader who would either defend the harasser, or would require that the victim publicly forgive the harasser and allow him (or her, usually him) to continue attending the church.
Other stories involve church leaders telling victims that their harassment or assault was their fault for dressing immodestly.

Yes, Jesus calls us to love our enemies, and yes, Paul calls for reconciliation, but allowing harassment, assault, and violence to be swept under the rug under the guise of forgiveness and reconciliation is not okay.

The #churchtoo stories coming out over the past week are yet another example of a small fire turning into a massive blaze. Destructive things have been said and done to people, and these victims have carried around this pain, shame, suffering, guilt, and embarrassment for years, sometimes decades.

People have had to leave jobs, gyms, and even churches so they wouldn't have to face their harassers or abusers.

A small fire has become a massive blaze.

One last thing that needs to be said to those who have experienced harassment or abuse: You are beloved. You are created in the image of God. You are loved by God. If there is something that someone has done to you, it was not of God. If you were told that harassment toward you was your fault, that is absolutely untrue. You are beloved.
James says in 3:9, "With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God." James is saying that the people hurt by these small fires are people who are made in the likeness of God; the image of God.
You are valued; you are loved. You are made in the image of God.
You are not defined by what was done to you. You are defined as someone who is made in the image of God.
That is who you are.

So if you have been hurt in the past, know that you have 1. a God who loves you, and 2. a pastor who better understands that there is a big problem, and that a blaze has been spreading for decades now. You have someone who is here and wants to help put it out.

If you have been a part of throwing out small fires in the past, now is the time to listen to those who have been burned by these fires. Now is the time to start putting some of these fires out.
The tongue is a fire, and we've hurt people with the things we've said.
Whether it's been joking around in small groups or something greater, some of us have lit small fires, and these fires have grown.

One final note: If you have harassed or abused someone; if you know you've hurt someone and you want to walk the path of redemption, you're going to have to own what you've done. The choice you made is not the last choice you'll make, but it was a choice that you made. Redemption takes time and effort. Redemption hurts. In recent months, we've seen people lose jobs, friends, and in some cases, there was even jail time because of the things that they've done or said in the past.
There are consequences for actions.
The path of redemption is worth it, though.
Your life has shown bad fruit. You have more to offer your friends, your loved ones, and the world than a bunch of bad fruit. Walk the path of redemption. Your choices have consequences, but they don't have to be your last choices.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-4673 for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Christians, We Need to Talk About This

Written Nov. 5, 2017

A month ago, I pulled out my phone recorder app, and gave some from-the-heart rambling thoughts about the previous days' shooting in Las Vegas. I put it on the website where St. Johns Christian Church's sermons are found. It's still there. That's noteworthy because the hosting site can only hold around a month and a half worth of sermons at a time. I have to cycle out the oldest sermons each week in order to upload the newest ones.

My thoughts on the Vegas shooting are still on the site.

It was just a month ago.

Today, there was another mass shooting.

One month, two major mass shootings.

Probably the hardest thing that I have to do as a pastor is to address tragedies in the world. They seem to happen more and more frequently lately, with devastating hurricanes, fires, and shootings all in the last couple of months. Each week that something terrible happens in the world, before preaching on whatever scripture and topic are planned for that Sunday, I lead the church in prayer for the victims, families, and (since Jesus taught us to love and pray for our enemies) the perpetrators of shootings.

But it gets harder and harder each time it needs to be done.

It seems like it would get easier. With basically anything else, you get better with repetition. I never used to enjoy praying in public, but doing it over and over made it easier. I used to hate calling people up and asking to come over and visit them (it really feels like an imposition), but I have no problem with doing it now.

Leading prayers in the wake of tragedies is different.

I always try to find some words of encouragement. Sometimes I plan them out ahead of time, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I'm working through my own feelings on stage, with everybody staring back at me. The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando happened early on a Sunday morning. It had to be addressed, but there was no time or space to reflect. I was working through my grief alongside everybody else.

In these moments, I'm always looking for the right word to bring to the congregation. Often, there doesn't seem to be a 'right' word. Shortly after the Paris shooting in 2015, I remember stepping up on the stage, shaking, thinking about my planned remarks, and instead hearing myself in a defeated tone say the words, "Another one."

Mass killings are much harder for me to address than natural disasters for a couple of reasons.
First, with mass killings, you're dealing directly with the evils of humanity.
And second, I pastor a church with a lot of veterans, hunters, and people who carry. This is by no means the bulk of the church, but it's a significant group of people. I always want to be honest in the things that I say, but in the wake of mass murder, the question of "Does this need to be said, does it need to be said now, and am I the right person to say it" is constantly on my mind.

I'm about to say some things, knowing full well that it might cause defenses to go up. I understand that the rest of this post could make some enemies. However, we lit 58 candles at church one month ago in memory of and in prayer for the Vegas victims. Today, at least 26 people had their lives taken from them in Texas.

More candles to be lit. Each representing a life taken.

These lives deserve a conversation.

Here's where I'm coming from when I offer my thoughts: I'm not a gun owner. I've never been a gun owner. My parents weren't gun owners. I have many good friends--people whose outlook and opinions I trust dearly--who do own guns and like the current system of gun purchasing and ownership. I have other very good friends--again, people whose outlook and opinions I trust dearly--who would like stronger regulations on gun ownership.

I'm coming at this completely as an outsider. I have some common sense, and I have some understanding of scripture and of what I believe God's doing in the world, but I am not a gun owner, and I haven't been a part of the gun conversation before.

Mass shootings were always horrifying to watch and read about before I became a pastor. But now, I'm leading prayers again and again, and I'm having trouble finding any words of comfort for the people, because I know another shooting is probably a couple of months away.

If there's anything that could slow the likelihood of another two minute rampage that takes children from parents, spouses from one another, and brothers from sisters, then I want to be attentive to that. If some form of action could stop or lessen these killing sprees, then I want to consider it.

A couple of rebuttals come up whenever someone mentions gun control. People often point out that guns are tools. They will also mention that other things kill people too, for instance, the truck that was used to kill eight people earlier this week in NYC. To both of those points I would say this: yes, guns are tools. However, their purpose is to kill. A gun is made to kill. That's what they're for. The truck that was used to kill eight people has another purpose. Trucks are used to get from point A to point B. Trucks are used to haul heavy items.

But a gun, especially an assault rifle, is made to kill. It's a tool to kill. That's its purpose; that's what it's for.

Guns are killing machines. And we've become really good at making killing machines. We make them better and stronger and faster and more accurate. But their purpose is to kill.

Especially when we're talking about assault rifles, I'd counter this argument with a question: When does a person, an ordinary person, need an AR-15? When does a person need an AK-47? I'm actually asking. I don't understand why an ordinary person needs this kind of a gun. It doesn't make sense to me. You don't hunt deer with an AR-15. You don't hunt a prize buck with an AK-47.
The military uses them. I get that. But that's a different conversation. When it comes to assault rifles, I really don't see why an ordinary person needs one.

This thought leads me to another argument that I see on social media whenever there is a mass killing with something other than a gun, like the truck attack from last week: "This was done with something other than a gun. Guns aren't the problem. People will kill with whatever they can get their hands on."

I get the argument that's being made, but rifles seem to be able to kill a lot more people than trucks or knives, and mass shootings seem to happen way more often than knife attacks or truck attacks. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if an assault rifle can kill 50+ people in a manner of minutes at a concert without anyone being able to stop it, then maybe the assault rifle is better at killing than a knife or a truck (It's so hard to write that sentence and to talk so theoretically about the deaths of many people). If something so good at killing is so easy to come by, that seems to me to be a problem.

Also, I again ask, "What's the purpose of a regular civilian having an assault rifle?" When I was in high school, there was a nationwide scare because somebody was sending letters through the mail that were laced with anthrax. It seemed crazy to me, and I think to many Americans, that someone would be in possession of anthrax spores. I would have, and still would, support regulation on people obtaining anthrax spores. I would not support a "truck ban" simply because somebody ran down eight people with a truck. That was absolutely horrifying, but again, there is a positive use for a truck. However, I would support a ban on regular people having anthrax spores, because (correct me if I'm wrong...) no ordinary person needs to have access to anthrax spores.

Another thing people will often say is that guns don't kill people; people kill people. I get that argument. I also understand the "It's not a gun problem, it's a heart/sin problem" argument.  However, I wonder if the ease of buying an AR-15 is a good thing in a society that has such a heart/sin problem, or a mental health problem. Again, I've never been part of this conversation before, but common sense tells me that maybe it should be more difficult than it currently is to obtain one of these killing machines. If there is a rampant heart/sin/mental health problem in our society, then I really don't think easy access to an assault rifle is a positive thing.

I have a wife who I love. I have a son and a daughter who I love. I have roughly 50-60 people at my church who I love. It is destroying me to think about the horrors that occurred at a church service earlier this morning, and imagining the people I love in that unbearable situation.

My imagining is many people's reality today.

So here's where I currently am in regards to mass shootings, guns, and how to move forward:

Some gun legislation seems to me to be a good idea. There was talk about regulating bump stocks immediately after Vegas, but there hasn't been much more talk since then. Some kind of change seems appropriate. The "A killer is going to get a gun regardless of how hard it is to get it" argument doesn't really gel with me. That to me just sounds like giving up. When I hear that argument, I hear "There's nothing we can do. Just let the killers get their guns and kill." If there's even a possibility that advancing gun regulations on assault rifles could stop even one mass murder, it seems extremely appropriate to move in that direction.

That leads me back to my previous point: I don't understand why an ordinary person needs an assault rifle. Does anybody have a reason why someone needs an assault rifle? I'm all ears.

For this non-gun-carrying pastor of a church that has a number of proud gun-owners, I say this all in humility and with the understanding that I may not entirely know what I'm talking about. But what I say in confidence is that God values life. Let's get beyond the divisive talking points for a moment and recognize this truth: God loves his people. God loves his people so much that he taught his people to love other people. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors and even our enemies. We see God's Spirit moving in Acts to reach out to the whole world. God loves his people. God values the lives of his people.

If gun legislation--even just some legislation--would help in moving us away from the regularity of these horrors, then as a follower of a God who loves and values people, I think we should do it.

This isn't the end of this conversation. It's the beginning.

It's a conversation we need to have.

People are dying. Lives are being taken.

If you are a Christian who considers yourself "pro-life" (as many of my gun-owning friends do), then this should matter deeply to you.

I remember attending a Christian concert years ago, and a speaker came out midway through the show. This speaker began his talk by asking the crowd, "Who here considers themselves to be pro-life?" I remember thinking, "Here we go..." (I assumed he was there to give a pandering stump speech about abortion to get a bunch of Christian pro-lifers to buy his book in the lobby Am I cynical? Yes. Yes I am. Super cynical). He was actually there to convince people to support impoverished kids in other countries.
His point was well taken. Considering yourself to be pro-life should mean that you are concerned about life in all forms. This includes poor children who have needs (food, clothing, money) and have no ability to see these needs met.
It also includes the people who lost their lives in America's many recent mass shootings.

I'm concerned because we are one month out from 58 people having their lives taken away from them, and this morning, 26 more lost their lives.

Lives are sacred, and when someone takes a life, it is a tragedy. When someone is able to take many lives, it is unbearable. And when someone takes many lives just one month after someone else took many lives, well, we need to step up and do something about it. As followers of Christ, this should matter to us. God created them. God loves them. They're important. They're important to God, and they should be important to us.

They should be more important to us than our desire to have the right to own any kind of weapon that we want to own.

People's lives are more important than our right to own a weapon.

Here's where I ultimately land: if doing something like banning or regulating assault weapons will at least raise the likelihood that less people will lose their lives in a madman's rampage, then I think we should do it. God cares about people more than assault rifles, and we should care more about people's lives than about our right to have an assault rifle.

Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians that love is patient and kind. Let's work through this conversation with patience and kindness. But let's actually talk about changes that could be made. People matter. If we can keep some people from losing their lives, and keep individuals from committing atrocities, then we really should do it.