Guns and God: A Progressive Christian View

by Tony Minear

I own a hand gun. It is a 22 Ruger revolver single action with a 6-inch barrel. I received it from my dad on my 18th birthday. I even bought a genuine leather western-style holster in Tijuana to go with it. The next two summers I played cowboy while working at a church summer camp. I haven’t shot that gun for over twenty years. I go back and forth between selling it or some day giving it to one of my grandchildren. However, the possibility of one of my grandchildren or any individual doing harm to themselves or someone else, intentional or unintentional, frightens me. Occasionally, I contemplate literally carrying out the Hebrew scripture, “Hammer your swords into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks.” I could have my pistol melted down to a pile of metal. Maybe even molded into a miniature plow. Not sure how the grandchild would like receiving a plow as an heirloom.

With the recent church shooting in Vegas and now Texas, the topic of gun control is once more front and center in our conversations. What can Progressive Christianity bring to the table in this arena? I offer an entrée, food for thought, for your culinary pleasure. What one believes about God can inform one’s stance on gun control.

Would Jesus under any circumstance condone a human being taking the life of another? No. Would one human being inflicting violence upon another ever be present in the realm of God’s will, which Jesus envisioned, either now or in a future “heaven?” No.

My understanding of Jesus’ view of the Kingdom of God, or God’s will for humanity, is centered around God’s love and value of life. Yet some stories in the Bible seem to contradict this. God is said to have ordered the genocide of groups of non-Hebrews. Justification? They are evil. Yet God admits to using a wicked people (The Hebrews), who are slightly less evil, as executioners. This doesn’t compute. Perhaps our willingness, and at times, desire, to use violence influences how we interpret God’s will and imagine God. For me this does compute. If God is inclined to acts of violence, no wonder we are too.

Wasn’t it God who established and decreed that the results of sin are death? Wasn’t it God who desired daily sacrifices for enjoyment and appeasement? Isn’t it God who continues to use the threat of death as a means to shape our beliefs and control our behavior? If God constructed a system of justice based upon death and violence, is it any wonder that some Christians and nations are comfortable turning to violence to resolve their problems or punish evildoers? Is it any wonder that some Christians carry a gun and are willing to use it to protect themselves or their family? Is it any wonder that efforts to legislate laws to limit certain guns in our communities, to decrease the chances of such weapons ending up in the hands of unstable individuals, or to take steps promoting gun safety in homes, are opposed by some Christians?

What if this picture and understanding of God as violent and using violence is incorrect? What if what the historical Jesus taught about God and God’s kingdom being encapsulated in one word, “love,” is right? I choose to believe it is. For this reason, I read all of scripture through the filter of love. It is my bias. It is the presupposition I bring to my study of the Bible. It is the reason why I choose not to have ammunition for my gun in the house. It is the reason I continue to ponder the validity of a pacifist life for myself and what that might look like. It is the reason why I’m googling metal artists who can take a gun and turn it into a plow.

Sacred Courage

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I greeted the morning by taking our beloved pit-bull Lu out for a walk. We encountered a wounded owl in distress, flailing, unable to fly, but still trying.

Lu didn’t really react. I wasn’t sure she noticed as I didn’t approach the owl, just observed, and then brought Lu back inside as I worked with some neighbors to get the owl some help.

When animal rescue workers got there, I went inside and got Lu, intending to take her on a walk again, since we had to cut the first walk short. I was nervous Lu would react so I started walking the other way, trying to distract her as they helped the owl. She definitely noticed this time. She was transfixed, but not making any sound. I kept trying to have her walk with me but she was not having it. We stayed far enough away to not interfere and I just let Lu be. She stared. And then laid down. She was calmly and silently watching. It took about ten minutes and she remained.

When the owl was removed I expected her to want to walk. She continued to just lay there in this restful, peace-filled way. It took my breath away. There was something happening and it really felt sacred to see, but I wasn’t sure why I was having that response.

During my prayer and meditation time I sat with this some.

Why did that matter so much?
Why was I moved by her complete and full presence in that moment?
Why is there a need for bearing witness?
Why do we sit endlessly with loved ones as they die?
Why is this sacred?

Empathy.

Our mirror neurons in our brain make us able to climb into the lived experience we are watching. As we witness the lived experience of others we see ourselves.

That scares the ever living stuffing out of us at times.

If we acknowledge suffering exists, we cannot deny that suffering is a part of all of this living. We cannot deny suffering will happen to us. And we hate that.

It takes courage to admit our fragility, our limitations, and our mortality. It’s hard to live a life that we know will one day end. It feels impossible to live while also accepting that we will one day flail where we used to fly.

What was the invitation for the sacred moment I experienced? Was it in the watching? We have all kinds of motivations to watch all kinds of things. In and of itself I don’t think the sacredness was in the watching.

I think the sacredness was invited the moment we realized we were seeing suffering. The sacredness was that we stayed.

Wisdom to know the difference

 

You may frequently pray, as I do, the Serenity Prayer in which you ask for serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. And of course the wisdom to know the difference makes all the difference!

I see spiritual direction as a wisdom practice.

I go to spiritual direction to get a “perception check” on knowing the difference. For example, I have one support person in my life–a mental health practitioner–who has advised me to stop watching and listening to the news because “politics will always be full of rancor and conflict, and natural disasters will always be horrible.” She wants me to accept how little control I have in matters of national and international importance. Then I have other people in my life, friends and encouragers I call my “dream team,” who tell me we can make a difference if only we do X, Y or Z. Perhaps both are right, but even so, I need the wisdom to know the difference between shutting the news off and just going about my life as if all is well, and staying informed and making my voice heard.

I haven’t figured it all out. I haven’t found my wisdom. And my spiritual director doesn’t tell me what wisdom is, but he’s quite good at noticing when I have located my own wisdom in this question. And I hope I do that for those who come to me for spiritual direction.

What is wisdom? In one sense, it is the female biblical figure, Sophia, described as God’s helper who was present at the origin of the world. Every now and then I like to dig into the Apocryphal book, Wisdom of Solomon, to reflect on the nature of Wisdom.

“Wisdom is a reflection of eternal light.
She is a spotless mirror of the working of God.”
Wisdom 7:26-27

“Wisdom reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.”
Wisdom 8:1

As spiritual directors, we seek to hold this metaphorical Wisdom mirror up to our directees so that they can see the working of God in their lives. So that they can develop “the wisdom to know the difference” in their own lives.

As for my question, wisdom tells me to stay informed without becoming overloaded, to cut through the boarishness of political discourse and keep my eyes instead on the issues that affect people’s daily lives. I’ll use my voice when I can and hope for the best. Most of all, I will work on trusting that Wisdom orders all things well!

Yes, Me, Too

by Abigail Conley

If your pastor is a woman, she can say, “Me, too.”

No, really, if your pastor is a woman, she can say, “Me, too.”

Maybe you’ve been hiding out away from social media and missed the #metoo of the last few weeks, when women have been talking about everyday sexual harassment and sexual assault. Again. Last year it was #yesallwomen. Tarana Burke started talking about me, too ten years ago.

Just so you hear it: if your pastor is a woman, she can say, “Me, too.”

At least one person who she’s referencing in that, “Me, too,” is likely in the pew along with you.

That’s maybe the best kept secret of female clergy. We talk about it among ourselves. If we’re lucky, we talk about it with lay leaders who have our backs. We sit through boundary trainings geared toward men talking about all the things clergy shouldn’t do; no one ever addresses how to handle sexual harassment from one of your sheep. We write about the omission in the review, if one is handed out.

In five years in my current call, I’ve twice said to lay leaders, “I should never be alone with this person.” Both times, they had my back. They went with me on pastoral visits. They magically appeared in key places in the church building. The most challenging response I ever got was, “I don’t get that vibe, but ok.” Be those people. Never, ever respond, “Oh, that’s just Dave.” Even if he’s an old man who walks with a cane, he can still sexually harass your pastor. He’s one of the reasons I say, “Me, too.”

As I reflect on these experiences, I’m trying to remember now if we were ever told we should report other clergy who sexually harass us. The Big Deal time that happened to me, it sucked a day of work away as I reported and followed up; it has meant I thought long and hard about going to places where he would be, even if they’d benefit me professionally. His ministry’s success is in a denominational entity’s promo video; my stomach drops every time I see it.

You can read plenty of articles out there about Me, Too, even talking specifically about the complicity of the church. You should. Google is your friend and if you are shocked, you need to realize how deep and ubiquitous this problem is. If you are not shocked, you still need to be reminded. But I have two other, far more important requests.

First of all, believe your pastor when she says, “Me, too.” Believe that it is true even if she doesn’t say it in front of you. This is one of the longstanding, often accepted sins of the church.

Second, and just as important: don’t stop talking about me, too. Don’t think in another year that it’s a new thing. Amplify the voices of the women talking about sexual violence by reading and sharing their work. This is the beginning to create a generation of women who cannot say, “Me, too.” That work is all of our work. It is surely work that is as holy as feeding hungry people. Do this work with the same persistence and determination. Do it as if your life depends on it, because many lives do.

And in the meantime, yeah, me, too.

Spiritual Formation at the Conference Level or – “What’s up with Lay Academy?”

by Karen Richter  

A small but tenacious group has continued thinking and dreaming and talking about lay theological education in the Southwest Conference. Julie McCurdy from the Prescott congregation and I attended the Regional Theological Education Consortium gathering in Oberlin, Ohio last fall. We had an opportunity to see what other groups are doing regarding lay education, preparation for authorization, alternatives to traditional seminaries, and support for formation in local congregations.

Since November, conversations have continued and lots LOTS of questions have come about…

  • What formation experiences are best kept in the context of the local congregation?
  • What’s the purpose (mission, goals, etc.) of lay formation at the conference level?
  • What are other organizations doing and how can we participate in those efforts in a mutually beneficial way?
  • How can the conference best support “everyday” formation of laity in our congregations?
  • What are the various needs for discernment resources and skills in different settings?
  • What are we hearing about what people need? What do people need that maybe they’re not yet aware of?

As I’ve thought and daydreamed, I have found it helpful to make some little piles – metaphorically tossing ideas and concepts into where-does-this-happen groups.

In the “Local Church” pile, I’ve put

  • Discipleship
  • Navigating culture as a person of faith and conscience
  • Discernment and calling (“what work in the world is mine to do?”)
  • Interpersonal and family support networks
  • Values clarification

In the “Southwest Conference / Middle Judicatory” pile, I’ve put

  • Navigating culture as a congregation/institution/denomination
  • New church forms and ways of being church together, sometimes called Church 3.0
  • Discernment around authorization (“in what way am I called to authorized ministry?”)
  • Boundary training
  • Leadership development for congregation and the conference
  • Available resources for staff and volunteers managing formation at local churches

What’s left that doesn’t have an easily defined pile?

  • Nonviolent direct action training and mentoring
  • Church history
  • Mid-level theology (that broad territory between Sunday School and seminary)
  • Meditation and spiritual practices beyond the basics
  • Interfaith, ecumenical, and multiple religious belonging conversations

What have I left out? Where do you see your own needs reflected in these piles, if anywhere? Where is energy around spiritual formation and lay education bubbling up around the conference (hat tip to Barb Doerrer-Peacock for this evocative language)?

Share your thoughts (karen@shadowrockucc.org or bdoerrerpeacock@uccswc.org) Conversations continue – stay tuned! In the meantime, please hold in prayer those called to work on lay formation in our congregations and throughout the United Church of Christ.

Do You Feel Out of Sorts Lately?

by Amanda Petersen

Ever have one of those days where you just feel out of sorts? There is nothing happening in your life to cause it, yet you feel like that commercial where the little blue cloud is following you everywhere? If that has been happening lately, you are not alone.

One of the side effects of living a Deep Listening life will be days where –for no reason at all– the little blue cloud will show up. It makes sense if one believes we are all connected, and there are tragedies happening in large proportions, that one would feel the pain of others. When there is a lot of sadness in the world, that sadness touches others.

What do you do with these blue cloud days? I could make a list of ways to move through these days, yet I really believe each of you have your own wisdom. I’d love to hear what you do when these days of communal sadness show up.

For myself, the blue cloud days mean reaching out to community, increasing self care and meditation, and balancing the sadness with inspiration. In the midst of all the sad stories there are so many of how people have reached out and loved each other. These seasons are times for me to ask questions like “Is this sadness moving me in a new direction?”

Let’s take a moment and inspire each other with our stories of blue cloud days and how they call us to a deeper and richer life. If that sounds impossible, I encourage you to reach out to one of our community to assist you in finding your way through blue cloud days. In the meantime, may your week be filled grace as we interact with ourselves, others and God/Divine.

Reflection

by MK LeFevour

I never liked poetry. I believed if you had something to say, just say it – don’t couch it in fancy words or with metaphors that nobody understands. Then along came a well-meaning friend who loaned me a book of Mary Oliver poems. It sat on my nightstand filling me with guilt each night that I didn’t open it. After a month, my friend asked how I was enjoying the book and I lied, “Oh, I’m loving it!” But not being a fan of lying and knowing my friend would eventually ask which poem was my favorite, I broke down, opened the book to a random page and read Oliver’s most loved poem, The Summer Day. My life was changed by that one act of opening myself up to this woman’s understanding of loss, sorrow and hope.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver won a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her poetry. But what brought her to winning such prestigious awards was growing up in an abusive house where her only escape was to wander the woods near her home. In nature she found her true home and healing for a broken heart.

What we have in common with Ms. Oliver and each other, is that we live in a remarkable place of nature that others might experience as inhospitable. But what we know is that despite living with the constant danger of getting poked by plant life that doesn’t want to be touched is that we are blessed to live in a desert where we are surrounded by daily wonders – the magic and power of a monsoon storm, the collared lizard doing push-ups on our garden wall, the roadrunner stopping on a dime and changing directions as she spies us coming down the wash, the hummingbird taking on all comers to protect his feeder , the coyote sauntering across the road and then turning to give us a smug look before he bounds away into the brush and javalinas who, if you sing to them, will stop and lay down to listen until you’re done with the song.

Mary Oliver’s poems bring me comfort. But why are they comforting? I believe it’s because she continually reminds me to pay attention to the world around me – from the grasshopper to the stars. And when I bring my attention out from the hamster wheel of dark thoughts in my head to the beauty of our desert, I am brought into awe and wonder and that brings me healing.

Ms. Oliver gave these instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. My wish for you is that you find your Mary Oliver who can speak your pain and bring you words of guidance and comfort.

Let me leave you with words from another poet, Rumi, that I’ve come to love (yes, open your heart to one poet and others will push their way in).

Grief can be the garden of compassion if you keep your heart open through everything. Your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.

 

Photo by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash

A Glimpse of Justice

by Abigail Conley

There is a story in the Bible about a woman who goes to a judge many times, asking for justice. Each time, she is sent away. According to Luke, the judge did not fear God nor respect people. In the end, he gave her justice because he couldn’t get rid of her otherwise.

Preachers tend to skip over preaching this text. Like, “Ask and it shall be given,” this story can crossover into a place pastors like to avoid: annoy God enough and you’ll get what you want.

Not surprisingly, that take on this story is one of privilege. If you don’t know people who have been denied what was rightfully theirs, you tend to miss the point. If you see people as bad when they keep pushing instead of seeing their justified anger, you tend to miss the point. I’m not the most woke person ever; it took a while to see. It’s no surprise that Luke tells this tale, though. His Gospel is one of a world turned upside down, inside out, and every other way imaginable. In Luke’s telling of the Gospel, the unfavorable are by far the most favored by God.

I think of the persistent widow often these days. Almost two years ago, my church had a little extra money and a desire to do justice in our immediate community. We started down the road of offering small dollar, no interest loans as an alternative to title loans. In Arizona, payday loans are banned. Title loans quickly took their place.

Two years later, we’re almost there. Just past the two-year mark, we should be offering the first round of loans. We’re ironing out details. Right now, it looks like we’ll start at $500 and we need to figure out how we handle the minimal interest. Even if we charged the full amount, it’s 6% annual interest. Title loans are capped at 204% annual interest, typically advertised as 17% monthly.

The math is terrifying.1  At 6%, in a year, the total interest on $500 is under $31. That’s without figuring in the regular payments. That number only gets lower with regular payments. Contrastingly, with title loans, fees vary widely by vendor, from minimal to several hundred dollars. Most people who take out one loan take out another immediately to repay what they can’t pay back. This cycle repeats for around 9 months—at least that’s the average. A $500 loan easily ends up costing the borrower over $1,000 on the low end of things.

The predatory lending industry, made up primarily of payday loans and title loans, is a strong market anywhere it is allowed. Some states choose to ban their presence entirely. Nationwide, around 75% of people who use this type of loan are repeat customers. They use the loans to keep up with monthly bills. As we enter into this venture, we know that we’re hoping to offer something else for the other people, the 25% of the customers who had an unexpected expense that they can’t cover.

Solutions for the remaining 75% aren’t yet within our reach. However, this venture could well take us down a road that leads to solutions for some of those people. Jesus knew, “The poor you will always have with you,” but keeping on kicking them surely isn’t the answer.

I could, indeed, talk about all the ins and outs of this program. We’re definitely not doing it on our own. A credit union has agreed to partner with us as well as a social service agency for client referral. Part of the solution has to be credit repair or establishing credit for people. The title loan industry proudly shares that they don’t report to credit bureaus; we know that good credit is key to everything from lower deposits on utilities to landing a job.

There are many interpretations for the parable of the persistent widow, but here is the one I settle on most often: those who have the power to do good are compelled to do good. Here’s hoping that we do good $500 at a time.

Over these two years, we’ve read research from a variety of sources. Three reports inform this article. I highly recommend each of them. They are: Auto Title Loans: Market practices and borrowers’ experiences from The Pew Charitable Trusts, March 2015; Single-Payment Vehicle Title Lending from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, May 2016; Wrong Way: Wrecked by Debt from the Consumer Federation of America and the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity, January 2016.

S-h-h-h

by Karen MacDonald

So much sound and fury….

Harvey,

     Irma,

          Jose,

               Katia,

                    Maria.

Earthquakes.
Nuclear saber-rattling.
Refugee migrations and suffering around the world….and so much more….

How to respond, what to do?
Be quiet, pay attention to spirit.

Fast from the whirlwind of words and images around and within.
     Step away from the demands of schedules and tasks.
          Withdraw from the anxiety of so much to resist and to assist.

Be pilgrims on a journey to purify our hearts, rather than to speak our piece. (1)
Tend the fire of the Spirit in us, so that we have warmth to offer those in need. (2)
Be in solitude
     be still
          be.

Only then, speak
     with the power of “a word that comes out of silence.” (3)

Only then, act
     with the strength of a deed that comes out for serving.
Then will beauty and life shine in and through us.

S-h-h-h….

     not in a great and mighty wind,
     not in an earthquake,
     not in a wildfire—
          rather, in a “soft, murmuring sound” (4)
          did Elijah meet G-d.

“Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way.  Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.” (5)

(1) based on Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
(2) Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
(3) Ibid.
(4) I Kings 19:12, The Jewish Study Bible
(5) Arundhati Roy, “Come September”, in The Impossible Will Take a Little While (Paul Rogat Loeb, editor)

The “Music” of Our Whole Lives ~ some reflections after the OWL All-Levels Training of Trainers

by Karen Richter

I was really excited to be able to attend the Our Whole Lives Training of Trainers last week in Hawaii. While the Southwest Conference has several churches who offer Our Whole Lives programming, we didn’t have an approved local trainer. I’m especially grateful to the OWL staff person at the national setting, Amy Johnson, Commissioned Minister for Sexuality Education and to the Unitarian Universalist Association who made this training happen and provided a wonderful experience for 22 trainers-in-training.

One really wonderful discussion during the training was about the “music” of the OWL curriculum. This is a rich metaphor, acknowledging that a person who participates in an Our Whole Lives program at any level might not remember any specific information they learned. As time passes, the content (anatomy, active listening checklist, contraception failure rates…) may simply slip away. In this metaphor, the participant might forget the “lyrics” they previously knew… but it’s our hope that they remember the tune.

What’s the TUNE of Our Whole Lives? What is the spirit or culture or tone of the program that becomes the music children, teens, adults, and facilitators come away from OWL humming under their breath?

karen richter OWL booksIt’s VALUES. All of Our Whole Lives curricula is grounded in specific values. For elementary programming, these are Respect, Relationships, and Responsibility. For high school and adult programming, the values are Self-Worth, Sexual Health, Responsibility, and Justice & Inclusivity. Every workshop, every resource, every activity reflects and reinforces these values. Being absolutely clear about the centrality of these values makes Our Whole Lives a gift to families and communities. Building a shared language of values makes awkward (or sometimes just plain funny) conversations a little easier.

It’s a CELEBRATION OF LIVED EXPERIENCE.karen richter open door Besides the values, Our Whole Lives is based on some assumptions, including the natural goodness of our sexual feelings, identities, and behaviors… while acknowledging the real damage done to sexuality by violence and exploitation. All persons are sexual, and exploring this everyday commonality is a formative experience at any age.

It’s a recognition of the CONNECTIONS BETWEEN SEXUALITY AND SPIRITUALITY. Can you think of words that describe healthy sexuality? Can those same words also describe healthy spirituality? The Sexuality and Our Faith resources helps facilitators and participants deepen those connections and develop a sense of gratitude for the gift of sexuality from a loving Creator.

There’s a significant weight of responsibility on OWL facilitators – keeping all these pieces of “music” in your head, being engaging and approachable, planning and executing 90 minutes of instruction and activities. If your congregation has Our Whole Lives programming, hug these wonderful people. They are engaged in life giving, life saving ministry.

If your congregation doesn’t currently offer Our Whole Lives, let’s talk!