Faith to kill for or die for

The Queen of Hearts “OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!!!”

Disney’s depiction of the Queen of Hearts is accurate to Lewis Carroll’s story.  Wonderland is not a real place though in her dream, Alice is certainly convinced it is.  So the Queen and her army of cards is to be laughed at as a caricature of real power.  Though she may in fact have her capital sentence carried out, it’s make-believe and the reader, along with Alice, will awaken to a more peaceable reality when the story ends.  Or the Queen dies, or something.

Radical Islam in its many apparitions is making similar threats and carrying them out for us all to view on Youtube.  The latest and most savage of the groups with the penchant for separating head from shoulders is ISIS.  Reports are becoming verified that they are in fact doing it against people who don’t share the Muslim faith, showing “what happens” to infidels.  Well, what happens in Mosul to infidels when marauding, ruthless men with guns and knives take the place over.

Beheading, except when done by the guillotine, has never been a particularly efficient way to get the job done.  Even ISIS resorts to mass execution via single-shot-to-head means when time is short.

No, decapitation is to make an example of someone, to humiliate and terrify one’s enemy.  And in the case of radical Islam, it is to keep those in the faith quaking in their boots to stay in the faith.  Such a faith could demand 40-times-a-day prayer instead of the 5 without any resistance.

Except by those who are  pledged to heaven.

I’m going to get quite spiritual here because the whole authority radical Islam claims is purportedly spiritual.  Allah – Arabic for God – is the one whose will they fulfill as they carry out their barbarism.

The God I believe in, in contrast, has exercised authority over death.

1 Corinthians 15:55  “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

And He will exercise that authority for me and all who believe as well.

It is an elementary observation that, as Jim Morrison pointed out “no one gets out of here alive.”

Now, this is no celebration of death like the gory Islamist but a celebration of life.  Eternal life.

Yup, I believe that, as all –  even those presently in ISIS – are invited to believe.

And I’d rather have a faith to die for than one to kill for.

There a lots of beheadings in the Bible.  Goliath, Saul and John the Baptist, to name three.  And songwriter Keith Green wrote a song of dedication when he read of the story of John the Baptist.  Here’s a cover of it (I don’t know the singer, but he does a good job):

Now because people get things wrong, I need to explain this is NOT a death wish – I am not looking for someone to behead me, specifically.  Nor is it in any way a condoning of the butchery going on right now.  Nor am I a pacifist – I think ISIS will be fought on the ground by international forces someday and it will be just.

But should the end come – however it should come – I have it covered.  You should too, really.

This is not an evangelistic meeting.  Nor formulas, ceremonies or magic incantations.  Just pray, okay?  Ask Jesus (Arabic Isa) to show you who He is.  Just you and Him.  Ask Him to save you.  He can and will.



Painful patterns of conflict

How I will start my sermon today:

Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman

In 2009 I served as foreman on a jury in Fitchburg District Court. We found a man guilty of driving under the influence, acting upon the evidence presented by prosecution and defense attorneys. I remember thinking how much better a case was presented by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts than the defense; really, we had almost nothing to consider from the case his lawyer presented. To this day I have no qualms about our verdict.

Last night a jury of his peers found George Zimmerman not guilty of any charges relating to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a young, unarmed African American man. Immediately after that, my friends on Facebook, and black people throughout the nation expressed anger and outrage over the verdict.

Let me say a few things, personal convictions that I believe, about the case and the verdict:

  1. I have no reason to believe that the jury did the same work I did in 2009 – that is, they considered the evidence and all the testimony presented to them to arrive at a verdict. Now, that evidence and testimony was gathered and presented by people with different skill and resources. I have no question that George Zimmerman’s lawyer did a better job than the State of Florida. They had more money – raised at a rate of $77,000/week through online contributions – and they were better lawyers. Trayvon Martin, a dead person, could only afford a state prosecutor.  None of those facts have nothing to do with race; they just express how the system works, and sometimes how it malfunctions.
  2. I wasn’t there. I have no idea if Zimmerman acted out of self-defense which was the defense’s successful claim. I do believe that excessive force was used and that Trayvon Martin did not have to die. What that means in terms of Florida’s laws I can’t say, but I don’t believe George Zimmerman was an innocent man. It takes two to tango and by all accounts he picked a fight and he killed someone in that fight. That’s wrong and there’s a strong case that he should be punished under some law for some crime. All that said, even the prosecution’s case pointed to a verdict of not guilty; there was nothing to support a second degree murder conviction.   Wrongful death lawsuit, maybe.  Again, this has less to do with race than it does with rich vs. poor in a flawed judicial system. That’s a pattern that can be observed across time and across legal precedent.
  3. This case conformed to a very painful historical pattern to black people. It should be painful to whites too, but it is less so. Is that racism? Probably. It’s certainly insensitivity and insensitivity of a type that has gone on for generations. If I don’t take notice of the patterns of conflict represented in the Trayvon Martin case, then I am ignoring a huge dividing wall in our nation erected for years by people with the same color skin as me. I thought of posting sick pictures of lynch mobs and disfigured, beaten and dragged bodies of dead black men here.  Those make me ashamed of my white skin, or ashamed that someone would use skin color or anything to justify brutality like that.  So, you probably guess that I am taking notice of this conflict. Big time.

Another case, much closer to home:

On the night of August 11, 2012, four women were sitting and talking in a parked car in Dorchester, Massachusetts. One of them was the daughter of a friend of mine, Pastor Agabus Lartey. Someone came to the front of the vehicle, pulled a gun and sprayed it with bullets. Three of the women were killed, including Kristen.

Like most people, I read the newspaper “at a distance” .. seeing things historically but not too personally. This time I couldn’t do that. I knew the people involved.

As the time came near for Kristen’s funeral, I knew I had to go. So I prayed about what God would have me do. And I heard Him say that I was not to go as a pastor, dressed up and sitting among clergy, though I could do that and there would be nothing wrong with doing so.

No .. I was to serve the people after the service.

So I did. I hauled ice, served food, cleaned up, offered second helpings to everyone, and just served.

Please don’t think anything special about me for doing that; I was only being obedient and though I want to obey more, if I do that for just one day a year I am blessed.

I will never forget what I saw.

I mean on people’s faces. It was a despair, a resignation to disaster and injustice that destroys lives and kills dreams.  “Here we go again” their faces said.  They were tired, beaten down.  The older people hugged the younger ones a little more closely and eyed the teenagers with a distinct fear for their immediate future.  You could see it.

This violence was black-on-black, but worse, it snuffed out the life of a rising star. The highest hope in human form in that community was senselessly murdered.

I’d like to think that serving up potatoes and chicken and and ribs and bringing around ice water would do something to help. And people thanked me, they were very gracious and touched.

But nothing like that way I was touched.

See, I want to take away the patterns of dysfunction, of violence, fear and murder from the minds and hearts of my dear African American friends.

There may be riots now; it happened in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. White people at large don’t understand that. It’s not that they don’t want to; they just can’t. But I want understand to help other people understand, because in just a small way, I “get it”.

I’ll say that I would die for that cause if I thought it would matter.

But I’ll say that Someone already HAS died to take all that away, and HE will bring peace out of the midst of the conflict.

He will resolve it and remake new patterns of life and hope and restoration.

It wasn’t easy and it won’t be easy, but that’s what Jesus does.

And I want to be part because it’s in my heart to serve.

So framed by such real human drama and events, we need to learn about God’s peace this morning.

The ogre God and the genie God – the problem of evil allowed

There are some common, not-so-new thoughts about God that have had a renaissance in recent days.  Perhaps they are more codified than ever given the nature of the atrocity at Sandy Hook.  The arguments that the victims had it coming are just not viable there.  I never thought they were viable concerning 9/11, but there were some loud voices who thought otherwise.

As I’ve read commentary and a bit of the blogosphere, the conclusions of the atheist/agnostic reasoners fall into two camps – a) those who say that God exists and that God is indescribably evil and b) those who say God does not exist.  And the argument is summed up in this “If God exists, how could s/he allow this kind of evil?” (allow the gender bender please, I’m trying to describe the arguments of unbelief in all their confusion).  For someone without a faith system, without any developed theology, this question begs, no, it screams to be answered.  It is of note that these people only want to hear from God when s/he could intervene in such tragedies, but such are their lives.

But, believer, how would you answer the question?

Here’s how I would answer it:

Human beings are given free will.  There are arguments for predestination; I’ll push them aside for a different day.

Given choice, what do people choose?  The answer is: all manner of thought, speech and activity – they choose to do stuff.  And that stuff runs the gamut from lofty altruism through rank selfishness through unmistakable evil.  If God were to intervene somewhere along that gamut, where would it be?  I’m sure most reasoners would say somewhere that includes stopping Adam Lanza from shooting his mom, then spraying first graders with bullets.  But if you say that God must stop evil, then you must define the evil that will be stopped.  And you can’t without becoming God.

See, to unmask the argument is to realize that people who won’t believe in a God who allows evil (their definition) want be God or at least to control God.  They want to prescript God’s actions.  They don’t want a God, they want a genie, an omnipotent vassal who answers (only) to them.  They can only accept an ogre or a genie.  A God who watches and weeps is either impotent or uncaring.

Or Almighty.

Evil festering and growing and destroying does not disprove the existence of God, it proves the existence of another being.  Yeah .. the devil.  That guy.  The twisted progression of emotional turmoil, sick thought and the action produced is constantly happening all around us, and if we’re honest, within us.  While we would cringe at doing anything like Mr. Lanza did, we’d slowly allow the destruction of our families through infidelity and divorce.  This is not to condemn anyone, just to show that the problem is not out there – it’s in us.

One of the attributes of the God of the Bible is that He is long-suffering.  He puts up with all kinds of evil for the eventuality of people coming to their senses and seeking good instead.  And He is good’s source; it’s His invention.

This does nothing to diminish the horror of what happened on 14 December 2012, but it is an offer of a view of the divine that is mature and complete, not what many reasoning-only people want.

And the related question of  “Where was God?” is answered simply: God was right there.  It is another aspect of the reasoning tribe’s world-view that death is the end of all things.  Of God is eternal and our lives are also eternal and they carry on after these bodies die, then the children of Sandy Hook went right into the arms of heaven.  It was worse for the bereaved, but comfort and peace will be theirs over time, just the way grief works.

We will all die.  Some will be murdered.  Some will die in combat.  Some, only after losing their minds to dementia or their bodies to wasting diseases.  Our aversion to death is the proclamation of eternity, we should learn to listen to it; it might help us clean up our act.

Bottom line: God allows evil so that evil might be redeemed and turned to good.  I’m enjoying that process and invite others along.

Gunning for a solution …

People are dying in my country.

As someone who occasionally presides over funerals and memorial services, yeah I know that death is part of life.  There are numerous quotes that sum up my faith concerning death and probably the most succinct and positive is

Philippians 1:21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

so this is .. I hope .. not written out of fear of death personally.

It is written about a desire to live in a safe place and have my children and their children also live in a safe place.

Let me say that I don’t and probably will never own a gun.  But that doesn’t mean I hate gun owners or find them repugnant people.  Like everyone else, they run the gamut of professions, backgrounds, physical and emotional health and all other demographic and soft data points regarding people.

Now it is of interest that, given a gun, I could probably shoot it with a notable degree of accuracy and lethality.  This is not to brag; it is just from watching TV shows and movies.  And playing a few arcade computer games (we’re talking Space Invaders, ok?), I know I could get much, much better if I practiced.

But I don’t want to practice.  Guns aren’t my thing.  I’d rather play the piano, given a little extra time during the day.

On the flip side I understand that people do like to shoot guns as a hobby.  Target practice is cool, especially when you get good at it.  I also watch my kids play games where their characters shoot monsters and other people’s characters for fun and strategy.  I appreciate games and their entertainment value.

I wrote on top that people are dying my country.

Specifically, they are dying because there those with guns who have taken them out of practice, out of the range or gaming venues and used them on real people.  In a malicious way, not in self-defense and not in war.

The recent slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary is destined to be the poster event for the issue because little kids died and the shooter, which we will learn about in great detail in the coming months, had legal guns and was a trained hobbyist.

He was also crazy.  By the way, as a parent of an Asperger’s child, THAT is not the issue.  But is part of the puzzle called Adam Lanza.

For now, there is a very animated debate about gun ownership.  After Sandy Hook, we should have known it was coming.

Gun owners are up in arms, literally, that their guns will be confiscated.  Suspicion of the government, which turns on like a switch whenever this comes up, is running high.

On the other side are those who do not and would never own a gun.  Their positions range from very strict banning of all guns to only checking the sanity of those purchasing assault rifles.

And of course the debate has all the political civility of 21st century America – that is, nearly none.  At least people aren’t shooting each other over it.  Well, not yet.  Or maybe they are, indirectly.  There have been two other rampages since Sandy Hook, since it is apparently the season to snap.

I support efforts to prevent events like Adam Lanza’s planned attack.  And I support efforts to minimize their impact.  One dead is better than 26 dead.  But zero dead is better than one dead.  I hope you see the math, as grim as it is.

I think it’s clear that the mix of personality, weaponry, mental illness, social maladjustment, bullying, planning and a host of other factors play into the committing of these acts.  The data is already in and it is complicated.

But its complications should not stop us from going after a solution or set of solutions.  Unpublished by the media (because no one wants to read about thwarted things) is any list of prevented attacks like this one:

I think it’s clear that every one of a set of factors is present when these events happen and if we catch ANY of them, we stop the attack and the attackers.

The question is whether we have the national will to do so.  Guns are easy to point to .. easier than, say, mental illness.  But diligence to any of the factors pays off.

In America we also don’t want to be held under suspicion, we say it threatens our freedom.  But suspicion saves lives and lack of allows these events to continue.

An angry person with access to weapons who has told someone even in veiled terms of a plan to kill is someone to call the cops about.  And if there’s a history of maltreatment or mental illness, the urgency of such a call increases.  Etc.

I don’t advocate much gun control.  I don’t know the need for assault rifles; perhaps ownership of such weapons should receive extra scrutiny such that the presence of an Adam Lanza in the house would keep them out of his mother’s collection.

And as sad a commentary as it is, our schools and other soft targets cannot remain as soft.  After the populace has been gathered in for the day, all means of making entry difficult can and should be instituted.

So I’m not interested in taking guns away but I am gunning for a solution to this epidemic we are suffering from.  And I believe we can solve it if we’re calm and thoughtful about it.