Sunday, July 22, 2012

To Live by the Sword…?

“Gun control” can be a very divisive topic. Just mention it in a group of 15 or more, and you’re likely to find passionate people of various perspectives. If someone says they favor gun control, some folks jump to the conclusion that one wants to make every kind of firearm illegal…and if someone says they are against gun control, folks imagine that one is fine if you want to park an M-40 tank in your drive and sell AK-47’s out of your trunk on weekends. Yes, the issue is usually one of extremes.

Opinions grow out of how one interprets or applies the second amendment of the US Constitution as found in the Bill of Rights. One problem is that there were at least two versions floated at the time the bill was ratified…Congress ratifying one version and States a slightly different one:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. (Congress)

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. (States)

The difference is in the way the sentence is punctuated and how things are capitalized—small but perhaps significant differences. So, part of the problem grows out of how one interprets this amendment.

However, a deeper problem for those of us who profess the Christian faith lies in our inadvertent tendency to confuse Constitution with Scripture. They are not one and the same (obviously). While the Constitution does and should guide our nation, the Scriptures should guide our personal lives if we claim to be Christians.

So, what does Scripture say about this issue? Well, Jesus speaks to it clearly in Matthew 26:32 where He says to his disciple, “…Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (NRSV). If Peter had had a Glock or an AR-15, I think Jesus would say something similar….

Jesus and His 1st Century followers lived in a violent age. Some historians estimate that the average life-span of a male in the Roman Empire at this time was around 26 years. They weren’t all dying of head-colds and athlete’s foot—this was a dangerous and deadly time to live. When Jesus related the parable of the Good Samaritan, the people didn’t respond, “Oh my!! That’s terrible!! Someone beaten and robbed on the Jericho road?!?” They KNEW that this was a common, occurrence…something that happened all the time. And, of course, Jesus missed his great opportunity here—He could have said, “So, since these things happen, I want all my followers to arm themselves…get knives, swords and all kinds of things to keep you safe.” Nope, He really missed the chance to arm His followers.

In fact, when we look at the story of the early Church, we find that they are constantly abused, arrested, beaten, killed…and they don’t fight back. In the Old Testament, we see wars a plenty, but we are New Testament people and followers of Jesus—not followers of Joshua or David. It’s not until Emperor Constantine marries the church to the state (a ‘shotgun wedding,’ no less) that we find Christians arming and literally fighting for the faith. Nowhere in the NT do we find Paul fighting back, pulling swords and practicing any kind of ‘stand your ground.’

Our US Constitution allows us as Americans to “bear arms” (I prefer to do so at the beach…by wearing a tank-top). Personally, I feel we may have been a little broad as a nation in our interpretation (Do I or my neighbors really need to be able to buy AR-15 assault rifles when there is not state of war in our land? Should anyone be able to purchase 6000 rounds of ammo on-line?) While I have ‘rights’ as a citizen of this land that I was born into by chance, as a conscientious, self-decided Christian I must decide--do I really want to “live by the sword”…and teach my children to do the same?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Gathering and Remembering

My wife and I head to the coast to celebrate her birthday. As always, it doesn’t take long for our conversation to turn to our children. As we drive, we talk of their many experiences in life as part of a parsonage family…as MK’s (missionary kids) in Venezuela and Mexico…and now living along the US/Mexican border. As is the way of children, they are growing up and leaving home….

Jeanne, my wonderful wife of 22 years, remarks, “I hope they don’t forget all their experiences….”

My brothers, Timothy and Jeph, and I are PK’s (pastor’s kids) and MK’s (having grown up in Guyana, South America and Grenada, West Indies). Whenever we get together—even though we now have our own lives, our careers and our families—we always, ALWAYS, remember our lives and talk about our experiences as PKs and MKs.

We remember the Christmas in Guyana when we left all our toys to the side to have crapo (frog) races in the ‘bottom house.’ We remember Dad sneaking up behind Mom in the lobby of the Polynesian Resort Hotel at Disney World with the “old man” mask on…and kissing her…as she screamed! (Dad was like that…ha,ha.) We remember times around the house, in the jungle, in the Rupununi, on the beaches, at the waterfalls, with visiting mission teams, and on special holidays.

So, I doubt very seriously if our children will forget. They will remember. And, as we ride along, it suddenly becomes very clear to me: we gather to remember. Gathering IS remembering. Whether it’s three MKs, a family reunion…or a Sunday morning worship service, gathering is remembering.

We see the cross at the front of the sanctuary, and we remember what God did for us in Christ Jesus. We see the baptismal font or pool, and we remember that important step of faithfulness. The bread and the cup remind us that God loves us so, so much and has given us life through Jesus (“Do this in remembrance of me…”). A song carries us back to a VBS, a SS class, a revival or a youth-meeting campfire…or just to a difficult time of life that God brought us through. If we have lived well within the community, if we’ve invested our lives in the lives of others, just seeing the faces of others reminds us….

I only have to see Samuel’s face, I am transported back to mission teams and meals shared. Just a glance over at Andres and I’m back at that silly but passionate debate we had three years ago. We laugh about it now. I hear a baby cry, look over, and there is Carolina with little Felipe, and I’m back to the struggles that she and Jose suffered early on in their marriage…and the joy of their coming through it all.

With great wisdom, the author of the book of Hebrews calls and cautions us, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to [gather] together…” (Heb.10:24,25 NRSV). To gather is to remember…and those memories are the glue that holds us together. In fact, no one person holds all the memories. At home and at church, one person starts to tell the story, and everyone jumps in with a detail, something overlooked or forgotten by another. The whole family, the whole community, carries the memories…and the memories carry the community. The only way we forget who we are, how we got here, Whose we are, what we have, and what we have to look forward to is if we don’t gather. If we gather, we remember….

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Lost and Found

We are more than what we do,” and “We are not our jobs.” I have taught, preached and passed on these words of wisdom to those who are “trying to find themselves.” Too often, we Americans do wrap ourselves up in what we do, in our vocations. When we do that, we have a crisis of identity if we are forced to change jobs, if we’re laid off or fired…or if we retire. Suddenly, we are no long who we were. In fact, if one or all of those things befalls us, we feel very lost. I know that because I’ve been there….

In the Bible, Luke 15 is a chapter all about ‘lostness’—a lost sheep, a lost coin…and a lost son. For many years, I would read or hear these parables and think, “Yeah, I guess that happens to some folks.” Then, I figured that the lost sheep was forevermore found; the lost coin now securely hidden away, never to be lost again; and, surely, that prodigal son would stay right there at home for the rest of his days. But, I think differently now….

Last year (2011), we moved from Monterrey, Mexico, to the US after having been out of the country for six years. My identity changed. I went from being “missionary” to “college teacher.” That was not too drastic a change because I had been an “educational missionary,” teaching and training church leaders in Venezuela and Mexico. In fact, in Mexico, my main task was teaching at the seminary and teachers’ college. So, the shift was not huge…but it did leave me floundering as I struggled to understand my new identity as “former missionary.”

Then, last month, after having made perfect peace with my identity as a teacher, it happened all over again. I was encouraged to apply for a staff position on the administrative side of things at our college…so I did. And, I was hired! (Now, the whys and wherefores don’t bear pursuing here, so you can e-mail me about it if you’re curious!) I went from being an English teacher to being—are you ready?—to being an “analyst” in the office of institutional effectiveness and assessment. Talk about a change of pace!

Suddenly, I was ‘lost’ again, trying to figure out who I was—Teacher? Analyst? I had wrapped up my identity in my work—doing the very thing I had cautioned so many against! When my work changed very suddenly, I didn’t know who I was. I was lost.

It was in the midst of all these changes that I came to realize that Jesus was not giving us cautionary tales by way of these parables in Luke. These parables simply tell us about how life is…IS. We sheep are often finding ourselves lost. We often misplace our values. We find ourselves far from ‘home’ time and time again. And, the good Shepherd comes to us; like the woman, we go to scouring our lives to find what we’ve lost; like the prodigal, we wander far away while the Father waits for us to come to our senses and come home…where He welcomes us again and again. These parables are not one-time events; these parables are all about how we are, how life IS.

So, if we don’t find our identity in our work, where do we find it? Finding who we are is important, because if we don’t, we’ll just get ‘lost’ all over again when we face those big certain-to-come changes of life.

I believe we begin to find ourselves when we peel back all the roles we play, take off all the hats we wear. There, underneath it all, we find the unchanging aspects of who we really are. For those of us who are Christians, our identities are built on this foundation—we are followers of Jesus, children of God, conduits of God’s Spirit.

Jobs may come and go, families may grow and shrink, friends my leave or stay, money and things are fickle and frail…but who I am—as opposed to what I do—does not change with the prevailing winds of life. When we grasp this, we will truly know that amazing feeling of having our feet “set…upon a rock” (Psalm 40).