A Pastoral Response to the Shooting in Las Vegas

Dear family,

Like many of you, I have been horrified and frightened at the scenes coming out of Las Vegas this week. I’ve struggled to find the words to say to you, to my children and to my neighbors. The senseless act of violence that terrorized Las Vegas and continues to terrorize us is a brutal reminder of the illness of violence afflicting too many places in the American landscape. With all of you, I mourn with those who have lost family members, friends and colleagues. I pray for healing for the injured both physically and mentally. I give thanks to God for the first responders: the medics, the police, the security guards and the all those that risked their own lives to help save lives on Sunday night. Disasters like this often show us our true humanity and draw the better angels of our nature to the surface and that was no less true in Las Vegas.

I want you to know that If you need to talk about what you are seeing and hearing in the news, I am available and only a phone call away. If you need a quiet place to pray, please stop by the church and ask Ron to buzz you in. This is a time for contemplation, repentance and much prayer but it’s also a time to exercise self care. Take time to go for a walk. Turn off your tv or your radio when it gets to be too much. Connect with your loved ones and don’t underestimate the healing power of hugs. We are all in this together.

On Sunday we will be observing 59 seconds of silence, to honor the slain – but I personally feel like that is not enough. I will also be contacting my congressmen and women to ask for common sense gun control laws – including universal background checks, a national gun registry and ban on high capacity magazines and bump stocks. I hope you will join me in taking action to match our prayers.

Now, you may vehemently disagree with me on these measures AND THAT’S OK. We can disagree and even argue. We owe it to those murdered in this attack – and in so many other similar shootings – to at least have this debate. If we can’t come together, and work together, all of our prayers are empty words. God doesn’t want our burnt offerings and lavish words – God wants us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. I hope you will join me in praying for the victims of this shooting and I hope this begins some kind of dialogue in this country and even in this church about the role of guns in America.

I’ll leave you with a beautiful prayer written by Dr. Laurie Kraus, the Director of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Program specifically for this day.

God bless you all,

Gregory

 

God of our life, whose presence sustains us in every circumstance,
As the sound of gunfire again echoes over another American city,
we seek the grounding power of your love and compassion.
As death rained down from above in the dark of night,
We pray this day for the Sun of Righteousness to arise with healing in its wings,
and rain mercy, grace and peace upon our broken people.

So many have been lost: brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends
gathered in the unity of music, scattered by evil and hatred.
We pray for solace for all who loved them.
We pray for those who have been spared and those whose lives are changed forever
that they may find healing, sustenance, and strength in the hard days to come.

We give thanks for first responders:
who ran toward gunfire, rather than away
who dropped everything to save the wounded and comfort survivors
We pray for doctors and nurses and mental health providers
who repair what has been broken
who to try to  bring healing and hope
in the face of the unchecked principalities and powers of violence .
We ask for sustaining courage for those who are suffering and traumatized.

We cry, how long, O Lord?
But the same words echo back, again and again
as if the question comes to us from You— how long, how long, how long…
In the wake of an event that should be impossible to contemplate
but which has become all too common in our experience,
open our eyes, break our hearts,
and turn our hands to the movements of your Spirit,
that our anger and sorrow may unite in service to build a reign of peace,
where the lion and the lamb may dwell together,
and terror no longer holds sway over our common life.
In the name of Christ, our healer and our Light, we pray, Amen.

Prayer by the Rev. Dr. Laurie Ann Kraus
                    Director, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

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Reflections of Revelation and Charlottesville

This is the Sermon I preached on August 13, 2017 – the day after the Unite the Right rally terrorized Charlottesville, VA, resulting in 3 deaths. I preach extemporaneously much of the time, so this is the draft script without all of my improvs!

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The book of Revelation begins by locating John of Patmos, our narrator, “in the realm of time and space.” Although many people assume that Revelation is all about the end of the world, the first three chapters are very much rooted in the here and now and the very first vision John shares is one of Christ present among the churches. And while most people have long assumed that revelations is a response to a mass persecution from the Romans, most historians these days agree that there was no organized persecution of Christians during the time of this book. Rather, there were lots of episodes of local persecution and violent conflict among Christians and their Jewish and Pagan neighbors across the empire. These eruptions of prejudice, bigotry and sectarian conflict were an existential threat to the church in John’s time and form the backdrop of this book.

In Chapter 1, John saw the way in which Christ was intimately concerned for the life of the churches and then in chapters 2-3 Revelation takes a look at what is going on in the churches through Christ’s eyes. We get a Christ eye view of where the churches are succeeding and failing and a call to action for each of them. The idea is that Revelation wants us first to take a look at who Christ is and then take a look at who we are in relation to Christ. And then we get to chapter 4, where John is allowed to see the reality of God’s sovereignty. This is the place that ties it all together. God is the creator of the universe and everything in it, seen and unseen. Even if it appears that another lord rules the world at present, such a rule can be only temporary because the God who appeared at the Exodus, who covenanted with the people at Sinai, and who sent his only son to defeat the power of death, is firmly on the throne and cannot be denied in the full course of history.

Given what is happening in the church here in America, that is good news indeed.

I’ve watched the news in horror all weekend wondering what kind of word I could bring to you today and I’ve despaired a little. Concepts like white supremacy are just too big for a 15 minute sermon and politics are tricky when its me doing all the talking and none of the listening…and yet, if John included the church in America in his Revelation, surely today it would read something like this – to the church in America, you have a rot among you. Racism is in the very DNA of your country – a 400 year old problem that you’ve never addressed or resolved, a 400 year old problem that was at the very root of the violence in Charlottesville this weekend as members of the KKK, White Nationalist and White Supremists gathered to vocalize their hate and flaunt their lack of grace. Dear America, you literally have Nazis marching openly in the streets 72 years after 400,000 Americans laid down their lives to end this odious and evil ideology and at least some in the media and in the Administration are encouraging them. Not because they are uniquely evil and singularly misguided but because America as a whole still has not come to grips with White Surpremacy in all of its insidious forms.

And in this way, his letter would not be all that different than it was to the churches in the other cities. All of them had their unique struggles and all of them struggled mightily to accept the truth that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free…and those prejudices kept flaring up into violence in those communities as well.

And so isn’t it good news that ultimately God is sovereign over everything? Thank God! Because watching the news all weekend, I despair that I can do anything – that we can do anything – that this country can do anything to resolve these deep, deep divides.

And yet God is in control. God has defeated the power of sin and death in Christ…and John, who came face to face with that awesome might, testifies to us that be they Nazis or Empires or persecutions or poverty…that the lords that rule over us today are temporary at best. That God has a better plan and God’s power cannot be resisted.

As we wait, I suggest we take my friend Mark Hong’s advice – And assume that God calls us to a certain holy dissatisfaction.

  • We should not be satisfied with a world in which anyone dies of hunger.
  • We should not be satisfied with a world that seems to mock God’s justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed.
  • We should not be satisfied with a world in which people live in fear and that fear causes war and pain and suffering.
  • With the psalmist, we should call out, “Hear a just cause, O God, attend to our cry…from you let our vindication come….Wondrously show your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge.”
  • With the people in the gospel of Matthew, we should seek after God until all the sick are healed and everyone is fed.
  • Like Jesus, we should not be satisfied with solutions that say, “it’s someone else’s problem.”
  • And, perhaps, like Jacob, the one whose name was changed to Israel, which means, “struggles with God,” we should not be satisfied until we can look through the struggles in our lives and wring from those struggles any blessing that we can. Not because the struggles themselves are good, but because we believe that God is powerful enough to bring good even into the worst situation.

And, as we talked about at the end of Ephesians, we should resist at every step the rulers of this time and place until God’s plan comes to fruition. We must strap on the armor of God and wield the sword of the Spirit in opposition to these false rulers and principalities.

This means that we must resist Nazis and the Klan and white supremists, yes, of course. Anywhere they pop up, we should be there to answer their hate with the call that God is love and lord of all. However, we must do so much more than that. We must also resist lazy false equivalencies, we must face the racism inherent in our system, resist the ways in which we benefit from White supremacy and learn to talk with one another across the lines that divide us.

Until and unless we can do that, the church in America will never live up to its potential. We will never live up to our potential. We will never be free.

August Chimes – No Need to Fear the Dark

Dear Friends,

As many of you know, I recently returned from 2 weeks of vacation in the west. The center piece of our vacation was a stay in a retired forest service fire lookout tower in western Montana. It was an experience that has given me so much to think about and unpack in this next year.

The ride up the side of the mountain takes 2 hours to travel 13 miles of looping switchbacks and hair-pin turns. Once at the top, you still have 1200 meters of steep climbing to do with all of your gear, food and water. But the pay off – ah, the pay off! Standing on the catwalk of that lookout tower, your gaze commands the horizons as you peer down on three different neighboring mountain ranges, on deep valleys and craggy peeks. The view is hauntingly beautiful and lonely. Standing in that place more than 7000 feet above sea level, you are aware of how alone, how precarious and tiny your presence is in the grand scheme of things. Particularly at night when the Milky Way rolls out across the sky and the nearest lights are 25 miles west – and 4000 feet down – in the town of Hamilton.

As one might imagine, it gets pretty dark up on the mountain.

The dark can be scary.

After the sun set and the kids drifted off to sleep, I would lay awake listening to the sound of our wood stove and in the distance I would begin to hear noises. Was that the wind or an animal? Did I lock the hatch over the stairs? Was that the tower settling or something outside the door? With no electric lights, our ears invited our imaginations to run wild and some nights they did.

On one night in particular, the distant sounds of something large moving about began to get closer and closer to the tower where we slept. Swept up in the sounds of the wind, we could hear clanging noises and guttural cries and the sounds of large bodies moving from here to there. The noise bothered me and made my heart move a little faster as I imagined all the things it could be. Was there a bear looking for a way up, drawn by our food? Were there wolves or coyotes surrounding our tower? Was there a hunter looking for shelter for the night coming up the stairs and about to bust in on us? The noises themselves weren’t all that terrifying – it was the not knowing that really got to me.

Isn’t that true of so many things? As Congress debates healthcare, insurance companies, stock brokers and doctors alike have complained that, Obamacare or no Obamacare, they just want to know what the rules and regulations and parameters will be. It’s the uncertainty that makes the market so volatile and scary. The same could be said for students preparing for the new year and new grade level. Its not that school is scary, its that uncertainty is scary. The same could be said for those trapped in bad relationships or dissatisfied with their jobs or standing in any number of places of transition. And the same could certainly be said for the church as we experience this period of rapid and massive social transformation. We who believe in the resurrection and know that death is not the final word, we really shouldn’t fear whether our churches live and thrive or die – both are in the hands of God. And yet, we fear uncertainty for sure. We fear a tomorrow in which we don’t know what to expect or how to act or what to be…we fear the end of our predictable and known lives, even when what we know isn’t working or making us happy. And this is what makes change so hard in the church. Change is necessarily an embracing of the unknown.

Back up on the tower, the night of all that noise – I finally got out of bed and grabbed my headlamp. I walked out into the moonless night and onto the cat walk and I peered into the darkness. I looked for the sounds that scared me. And there, in the dark, was a herd of Big Horn Sheep gathered in the grass below the tower! It was amazing. There were more than a dozen of them and some babies and they were scattered all around the tower. The sounds I heard were from their horns striking rocks and each other as they ate and played. I walked into the dark looking for something scary and what I found was not only harmless – they were magnificent. I spent an hour watching them and even after returning to bed I listened to the sounds of these animals for some time.

Change can be the same for churches. The uncertainty and unknown of what comes next can leave us feeling like our way of life and worship is falling apart. And yet – If we can steel up our courage and stare out into the darkness, what we fear out there often turns out to be harmless or even to be a potential blessing. The unknown is something to embrace, not fear.

As our demographics change and we say goodbye to so many things we have loved, we need to remain open to the diversity and the wonder of what we might discover in those dark spaces. This was an important learning for me up on the mountain and I think it is an important practice for our church. May we stare out into the darkness together and embrace what comes next!

Blessings on all of you and a happy August!

Gregory

 

 

Time Heals All Wounds…?

They say that time heals all wounds. I call bullshit. Some wounds will never ache any less when you die than they did that day you received them. Time cannot and does not heal all wounds.

What time can do – does do –  is make it easier to be distracted; make it easier to ignore the pain; fill your life with more joys than losses to concentrate on.  Theoretically. Hopefully, if you are lucky. Until that anniversary rolls around; until that one night when it’s late and you’re tired and hungry and just so damn raw; until the losses outweigh the joys for just a minute and you let your guard down…and then the pain is right there, rolling back to the surface.

The loss of a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or child are all the types of losses that never completely heal.

Or, at least, that has been my experience.

No, not just my experience. I find this with people I minister to all the time. I remember this incredibly sweet woman from my first church – call her Mary. Mary was in her 90s and her husband, Fred, had died thirty five years ago. She had lived an entire second life as a single, independent and quite successful woman whose life was filled with joys and family. She always seemed so happy. Until you asked her about Fred. And then those deep, milky eyes would well up and the tears would come. All these years and thousands of miles later, that grief waited in the depths to swallow her whole. She was not unique.

What time did for Mary was give her an anchor for her soul and a line with which to find her way home. The grief would swallow her but the years of experiences and joys and memories would show her the steps back up from the depths and pull her back into the light and life.

It’s been five years since my dad passed. Five years since I’ve had anyone to answer my car questions; five years without anyone to truly appreciate when I vanquish an enemy the way my dad appreciated that; five years of my kids growing up to be starlight – a light that my dad didn’t get to see…and about which I’ll never get to brag. It’s been five years since I could ask my dad about being a man and a father…questions I never really got around to, in fact. I should be better, now. The pain shouldn’t still be there in the shadows, lurching and ready to pounce. Late, hungry nights shouldn’t still be a dangerous territory for my soul five years later. At least, I tell myself that.

Except I call bullshit on that, too. We heal when we heal. Except when we don’t. We all do it on our own schedule, at our own pace and sometimes the better part of healing is recognizing that some things can’t be healed. I tell this to my flock all the time. The wounded places become part of the tapestry of our life: the dark that provides contrast to the gold and silver and light. If we are lucky. Time knots a thicker and thicker line with each passing year with which I can draw myself back up from the depths. So it’s ok that sometimes I do find myself in those depths. Truthfully, if the options are the occasional darkness or forgetting how special my Dad was to me, I’ll take the darkness every time.

 

Five years, Dad. I can barely believe it and it breaks my heart at how fast those five years flew by. I still remember your voice but sometimes I have to concentrate to remember how you talked and how you smiled and tonight that also breaks my heart. I love you and I miss you beyond words. You were so so special and I hope you are resting and at peace now. You deserved it, even though we left behind have this person sized whole left in our hearts. Someday I hope I won’t feel the need to mark this date…

…this is not the year though.

Life – And Faith – Happens on the Road

I don’t want to bore anyone with a whole sermon but this is how I began my sermon on the Road to Emmaus story from Luke. It’s deeply personal but accessible and I thought I would share. I know a lot of people who have shared this experience and thought it might resonate.  -GB

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Interstate 71 runs from Cincinnati in the southwest of Ohio all the way to Cleveland in the far northeast. It’s a stretch of road I know well because it was the stretch of highway that I took back and forth to college for 4 years…and then for 2 more years while waiting for Amelia to graduate. I-71 is a deep scar cutting a straight line through farms and small towns for 90 miles before hitting Columbus, the capital and a raucous college town, and then for another 120 miles of nowhere more before hitting the exurbs for Cleveland. It’s a lot of nothing and I did a lot of deep thinking on that road over the years.

On this particular trip, though, deep thinking was the last thing I wanted to do. This was April 22, 2012 and I was driving and my dad was in the back seat, draped in a blanket, teeth chattering despite the heater broiling the rest of us in the car. My brother and mom were in the car along with my son, Isaac. We were on the road from Cleveland, heading back to my childhood home in Cincinnati, with hearts that were heavy laden and grief stricken. We had come to Cleveland to visit the world famous Cleveland clinic seeking a miracle for my dad’s cancer and we returned home the next day with little comfort. This was the first time and place and doctor to tell my dad that this was it…there was no fighting this: that we all must die and his time was rapidly approaching. The plan was to treat his symptoms and buy him a little time.

I left Cleveland a changed person – we all did. My dad got sick on the ride home and developed sepsis. He died on May 10th but that’s not the point of the story today. The point is that I-71 that day served as a both a literal place and a metaphorical space. The journey up and down that stretch, a road I had been on so many times before, was one of tears and laughter and deep questions and hard answers and, ultimately, death – but it was also a journey towards understanding and the beginning of a process of finding peace with what is.

Roads can be truly holy and sacred spaces.

My life has been criss-crossed by significant travel like that. I have been blessed to be able to travel far and wide – but that isn’t the point, either. Some of my most significant road trips have been close to home for the most mundane purposes. There is just something holy about the kinetic potential of being on the road…where anything can happen and you can meet anyone at any time.

The author of Luke knew this about roads and about travel – that’s why Luke’s narratives take us on the road frequently. In Luke’s Gospel, life takes place on the road.

Wednesday Lenten Devotion – (DAY LATE AND DOLLAR SHORT EDITION)

A mid-week devotion based on Luke 19: 9-19

As I was reading our text today, I found myself drawn to consider not the parable itself…that seems fairly straight forward. I found myself considering the reaction of the audience to the parable.

If you think of Luke in geographical terms, each day Jesus gets closer and closer to Jerusalem. Each day brings him closer and closer to the climax of the story and the final show down with the authorities. Tensions are running high for Jesus and his followers and getting worse with every passing day. He has constantly stuck his thumb in their eye, calling out their collaboration with the Romans and their disregard for the welfare of the poorest of their people. His conflict with the temple authorities has so angered the religious leaders that they have openly contemplated killing him on several occasions. In our text today they once again consider it only to conclude that they are too afraid of the wrath of the people that love and follow Jesus. And so, they are stuck. They see very few options. Their being trapped makes them afraid. Being afraid amplifies the feelings of being trapped. The fear and the lack of good options makes them dangerous, like an animal backed into a corner.

Ultimately, it is this fear that will lead them to crucify Jesus.

As an aside – it is ironic that the very thing they feared most – the reign of Jesus – they helped bring about by participating in his suffering and murder and, ultimately his resurrection. But that’s usually what happens when we act out of fear. The religious leaders of Christ’s day acted out of fear and gave life to the very thing they feared.

I think Christ was speaking to this very reality and to the temple authorities in his parable. The tenants that seized the vineyard would have been poor subsistence farmers, working the land at the whim of the rich, absentee land owner. A perfect metaphor for what had happened to the agricultural fortunes and economic life of Israel. Afraid of having so little control and security in their lives, the tenants acted out of fear to seize the vineyard. How did that work for them? SO Christ warned the religious leaders, to no avail.

How often do we do this very thing in our own lives? I see it all the time: insecurity in relationships leads to insecurity which leads to controlling behavior which ends up killing the relationship. I see fear of rejection lead people to isolate themselves and prevent any kind of connection with anyone. I see people afraid of injury or illness allow their bodies to remain motionless until they grow weak and sickly, inviting their own worst fears. And I see this kind of reaction in my own life. Often I have let fear rule my actions or my inaction – in my relationships, my career and in my parenting. Rarely has it led to anything good. There have been times when I reacted out of fear instead of compassion or love and the outcome has been grim.

On the other hand, when I have faced my fears, and ran straight at them, acting out of love despite my fear, I have always come out the other side better than I went in. Even if my actions resulted in failure, I learned from them. Win or lose, when I respond with courage and choose the path of love and compassion, I – at the very least – have the knowledge and satisfaction that I conquered a fear: which makes me more prepared to act the next time.

Fear is undoubtedly uncomfortable. Modern culture does its best to eliminate the sources of fear in our day to day life as things become increasingly comfortable and safe. Yet, fear is not harmful. In fact, fear can be a very healthy thing. Its an affirmation that you are alive, taking risks and growing. If we could commit today to stop acting on our fear, just imagine what the church could accomplish in this world today?

This is the lesson of the scribes and chief priests plotting Christ’s demise. Stop acting out of fear. Stop reacting to the what-ifs. Run towards our fear, not away from it. Truly living requires us to constantly choose the path of greatest courage, the path of greatest compassion.

As we approach Jerusalem with the Christ in these next 10 days, that is more true than ever. As we look around at our world, where fear governs unchecked, that is more necessary than ever. This is our common calling.

Wednesday Lenten Devotion

A reflection on Luke 14:1-6, prepared for Wednesday night service at First Presbyterian Church of Chicago Heights.

I have been a pastor long enough to know that no one knows what a pastor actually does for a living. People have a hard time believing we work a full day much less a 40, 50 (60!) hour week. People tend to think of the pastor working only on Sunday mornings or maybe the night they have a board meeting.

But we do work those hours. We do fill our days: For better or worse, we often over-fill them.

I have phone calls and emails that trickle in all day, usually asking me to problem-solve some area of our life together. I have committee meetings, Session Meetings, Presbytery meetings. I have Wednesday night worship and Sunday morning worship. I make hospital and home visits (I schedule hospital and home visits, which is the much harder task) and I write many cards and letters to our members. I have two book groups to stay on top of and I’m already planning the next. I’m also working a season ahead on sermon series and worship plans. My sermons take time to blossom and my blog posts don’t write themselves. Plus, this church would like to grow and evolve and become something more. I can’t quite cram that work into a random Thursday morning from 9-10.

The fact is, I hustle all day. I often spend most of the day feeling the tension of being behind schedule. I try to plan my entire day the night before so I can just move from task to task and seamlessly; this helps me feel in control and on schedule. So, when I get that first unplanned phone call in the morning…from that person that I know really needs to talk…I KNOW that that phone call is about to become an hour long wrecking ball, wreaking havoc to my carefully planned day. What do I do? Do I ask my secretary to take a message and plan them in later? Do I push on with my schedule until I can find a crack in which to try to wedge this person’s needs? Or do I take the call and damn the plans, anyway?

Before you judge….much like the Sabbath itself, my plans ensure that I am a benefit and shepherd to the maximum number of people every day. My schedule ensures that I keep on track and get the work the church has set before me, done. My schedule ensures that I actually get to those hospital visits and home visits; that I actually tackle the hard things and the strategic, long term work. If I always deal with what is immediately in front of me, that strategic work never gets done. So what do I do?

What do you do? Change some of the names and locations and my day probably isn’t all that different than yours. So how do you choose?

It is a myth that our hardest choices are between right and wrong or good and evil. Most of us rarely have to make those choices and when we do, the answer is generally pretty obvious and compelling. The hardest, most difficult choices we have to make (and we have to make them all the time) are the choices between two good things or between two bad things.

In our text today from Luke, this is exactly the sort of choice that Jesus is asked to make. As he eats and enjoys the sabbath day, he is asked to choose between keeping the sabbath day holy and pure -or- helping a person in dire need. The sabbath is both a gift and commandment given by God: It serves the whole people, it knits them together, it benefits all and honoring it is a way of worshiping God. The sabbath is important. But so is the man standing in front of Jesus in obvious need. And Jesus chooses the man.

When the choice in front of Jesus is between two good things, he consistently chooses the most compassionate option. Stuck between an ideal and a person, he chooses the person. Stuck between commandments, he chooses the path of love. On his way to Jerusalem and the work of all ages, he stops to deal with the immediate work of compassion. He chooses the person standing in front of him.

I try to remember this at all times but especially during Lent when my schedule gets truly manic. Choose compassion. Take the call. Sit down and have that cup of coffee and listen. The schedule will still be there when I’m done.