School shootings

Actions Speak Louder Than Doctrine

By J.C. Mitchell  

I hear Christians of all types say how you treat one another is more important than doctrine.   I can think of two men that remind me of this reality.  The first is John Meis, a student who subdued the shooter at Seattle Pacific University. In Meis’ statement  he writes, “When I came face to face with the attacker, God gave me the eyes to see that he was not a faceless monster, but a very sad and troubled young man.”  He held him for the authorities, and yet still saw the murderer as a person.  This is a powerful statement and it truly comes from a deep faith, which I imagine has been shaken.  I must admit it gives me hope for the world and Christianity that this college student would compose such wonderful response to a horrific experience and share what he saw: another man, not a monster.  I do not need to know John Meis’ doctrine to know that even in restraining another, and specifically a murderer, he still saw and thus treated Aaron Ybarra as a person, and certainly at one of the most trying times of seeing the Creator’s hand in every person.  Meis remarks it was the Divine that empowered him.

The other man that reminds me that how we treat one another is more important than our doctrine is Frank Schaeffer who wrote Why I am an Atheist, Who Still Believes in God: How to give Love, Create Beauty and Find Peace.  Schaeffer recounts his life thus far, with wonderful and powerful prose.  Now I would not peg Schaeffer as an atheist, for he prays daily and is an active member of a Christian congregation, but he embraces his doubt.  I find this refreshing, and this should not be confused with being agnostic: “I don’t view my embrace of opposites as a kind of agnosticism. I view it as the way things actually are. An agnostic neither believes nor disbelieves in God. I’m not that person. I believe and don’t believe at the same time.” (14)  While this may not seem possible to some Christians or atheists, it is Schaeffer’s experience of the Divine, of the world, and thus we should explore this with him, for it has led him to a place where it is easier to give love, create beauty and find peace.

I would love for everyone to share their faith journey, but what makes Schaeffer’s particular interesting is that his parents were famous evangelicals, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, and he was involved in promoting the religious right. He rejected religion altogether, but now is able to fully embrace the mystery of the wonderfully mysterious love many of us call “God.”  Schaeffer shares his epiphanies and doubts in an engaging way weaving his life experiences, Biblical knowledge, scholarship, and art, that I imagine atheists and Christians (or for that matter all people of faith) would agree with his conclusion, which I started with: how you treat people is more important than what you believe.

Schaeffer shares moving stories about his very conservative parents who would have told you that homosexuality is a sin, yet they saw each person as a child of God and saved any judgment for the divine, even renting a home to a lesbian couple.  This proved to be the same non-judgmental love he felt when as a teen he and his now wife found themselves as unmarried and pregnant.  His parents embraced him and Genie, for doctrine about marriage is not as important as love.

One of the most interesting points Schaeffer makes is comparing Denmark and the USA.  In Denmark,  the culture lives the mission of Jesus, by taking care of everyone and providing education to everyone, but very few go to church.  While in the USA we consider ourselves to be a religious nation, and we know children go to bed hungry, have inadequate health care available, and education is influenced by your property taxes.  This juxtaposition of cultures has to rattle all Christians to consider what is more important: your dogma or how you treat the social other?

“How we treat others is the only proof of truth we have. That proof is not found in any book. It is only found in the expression of unconditional trust we may sometimes see in the eyes of the people who know us best.” (91) It is in our families and those we are close to where we, like Schaeffer, find the unconditional trust and love many of us call the Divine (God), and when we can look at those that have hurt us and others and see them as a human, we are on the way of truth. 

How we treat one another is according to Frank Schaeffer the key, and I believe Jon Meis lived that out in that instance he saw a “a very sad and troubled young man” even if do not agree with Meis’ belief that “God gave [him] the eyes…”  Meis did. 


A Good Word—sermons, prayers, and liturgies in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary

Landon Whitsett has done the church a service by collecting sermons, prayers, and liturgies from last Sunday, December 16, 2012 in response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

He's turned this collection into a downloadable eBook.  Two of [D]mergent's editors, Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell and Derek Penwell, have sermons included in the collection.

Check out the eBook, and drop Landon a line, letting him know how much you appreciate his work on all of our behalf!

A Prayer upon the Death of Children

By Derek Penwell

I’m angry. And maybe now isn’t the best time to write—especially since I don’t have adequate words to express the potent mixture of grief, sadness, and fury.

Children. Little kids in Kindergarten, for God’s sake.

I’m bracing myself for the tired response from gun rights advocates. It’s inevitable. Guns don’t kill people, people kill … blah, blah, blah. I’ve never found this a terribly persuasive argument—even on my best days. But today isn’t my best day. Today—looking into the eyes of my four year-old, trying desperately not to imagine holding his little body in my arms after a gun shot has taken all that is beautiful and kind and good in this world—I can’t even believe those arguments are persuasive to people who think we’d all be better off if everyone had a gun.

I don’t have any coherent argument at this moment. All I have are the images of tiny sheet-draped bodies … and anger. I have lots of anger.

Anger that we live in a world in which people (Sick? Mean? Struggling? Evil? What kind of people are they?) walk into schools, stare into the face of innocence, and proceed to try to blot it out.
Anger that some folks will continue to maintain in the face of the carnage that society has no overriding interest in regulating weapons designed to kill and maim from a distance, simply by contracting the muscles in a single finger.
Anger that God watches over this fiasco in silence. (I’m not defending God on this one. God’s going to have to defend God’s own self, since, at present, I don’t even know where to begin figuring out where God is in the midst of all this. But about the only thing I have right now is the threadbare hope that somehow God is there in the midst of it all.)

I guess that’s my prayer:

God of all children, please be there in the midst of it all. In the midst of the tears, and adrenaline, and stark horror … please be there. And more than that, help us to find you there … with tears on your cheeks and the blood of your children still on your face. We need to know that you’re there with us, in the thick of it … where the vomit and the gore ruin our khakis, and the smell settles into our pores, threatening to become a permanent part of the way the world smells to us.
Please be there, O God. For those parents and friends who feel abandoned by you, please be there in ways that offer if not comfort, then at least the strength to make it through the next few minutes until the next wave hits. For the teachers and the police and the people who have to clean up this mess, who also feel afraid, and sad, and like they’ve failed, please bear them up to be able to face the horror that lies in front of them, and to be able to transform the memories of what lies behind them into something more than just raw terror and disgust.
And for us. Please be there for the rest of us who struggle to figure out how we’ve come to a point where Kindergartners must fear armed strangers in the womb of our educational system. Help us to find the words to put to our rage and despair, to find the words to comfort those who need be comforted, to find the words to speak justice and peace to a world bent on filling graves with the bodies of children, to find the words necessary not to meet this violence with more violence.
Please be there, O God. Please.

I’m a pastor, and part of my job is to help people find words for the experiences for which there are no words. But I don’t have it in me today. I can’t find them.

All I’ve got is a stupid prayer. I wish it were more. I wish we were better.

Something about Lawyers and Theologians...

It has been a surreal two weeks. I serve an amazing church in an amazing community.

It is a community that was recently ravaged by violence as one teenager consumed by anger and fear chose to shoot five classmates. Three of these children passed away. Two are still hurt. And the boy who pulled the trigger... I can't imagine.

There is still - two weeks later - a sense of shock and disbelief, as you could expect.

Things like this don't happen in quaint, sleepy, picturesque towns. They may happen in big cities, impoverished communities, and in developing nations, but not here.

That's what we were told.

Yet, throughout this fog that we've all be in since that morning, this community has responded with dignity and Grace.

Instead of condemnation and division, there is unity and Hope. There is compassion for the victims and the perpetrator. There is a deep-rooted understanding that we do care for our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, and even our enemies. It is a beautiful response by an amazing community.

And the response has been so beautiful because they have not, in large part, tried to understand why this has happened; they have only understood that it has happened, and the need now is Grace. After all, Compassion is not contingent upon our understanding of all things, simply our understanding of one's need for it.

Still, there have been some folks who have sought to offer an explanation of not only why but why God "let" this happen.

Because this horrific event occurred in a public school, the tired bumper-sticker suggestion that the reason God lets this stuff happen is because "We don't let God in" has emerged.

Immediately, I say "B.S."

You mean to tell me that the God that the Psalmist says we cannot escape - that whether we ascend to Heaven or descend to Sheol, we are met by the presence of God; you mean to tell me that this doesn't include public school buildings because of a simple policy that teachers shouldn't be leading students in a time of prayer? You mean to tell me that the Love of God in Christ that the apostle Paul proclaims is always with us, that nothing in all of creation can separate us from; that this Love can actually leave us once we enter a brick and mortar building that is owned by the government?

I'm sorry. The bumper-sticker isn't so.

I've also heard an interpretation on Romans 8:28 that goes something like "hopefully, folks will turn to God in all of this."

Well, yes, I also hope so. But, geez. Can we just distance ourselves a bit from this all? God surely isn't "allowing" violence to get our attention or to convert somebody else somewhere.

God doesn't see people as disposable.

Any of them.

Tragedies suck. They cause us to Lament. They cause us to cry out and seek understanding and seek meaning.

But unlike the ease at which we read the Lamentations and Psalms and observe the transition from overwhelming grief to a rock-solid understanding of God's faithfulness and Love for us in a few short lines of prose, life isn't as seamless and quick. If we thought about it, I bet that the authors of these laments and poems didn't find solace that quickly either; they just wrote down months or years of their emotional response in a paragraph.

In all of this, after the difficulty of losing these good kids and struggling with the realities that violence wrecks in your life; the second most difficult piece is to




To not try and understand why.

To not try and understand why God would allow such a thing.

To not try and understand the implications of free will, brokenness, and injustice/violence upon our image of God.

To simply be still. To let Grace come to you. To let God dwell with you in all of your pain.

It's difficult.

And it's not benefited from the people try to explain why and where.

It's benefited from the people who simply offer their presence, Grace, and Love without any conditions or contingencies. It's benefitted from the people who simply allow us to be in all of the pain, anger, frustration, guilt, powerlessness, sadness, and brokenness, and remind us that they are present with us, praying for us, in solidarity with us.

At my most frustrated, angered, and cynical point, I want to offer an amendment to the that tired image and suggest that it isn't only lawyers that chase ambulances, but it's also desperate theologians.

Desperate theologians that interpret each and every tragedy first as a crisis of faith that requires some theological answer, and second, as a crisis filled with pain, grief, and mourning of our brothers and sisters that requires our presence, Grace, and Compassion.

At my more sympathetic points, I want to understand that we are all trying to make sense of a senseless act.

Currently, I'm feeling more sympathetic.

In the face of injustice, oppression, and violence, let us remember that the weight and worth of compassion, presence, and Grace is greater than an explanation. An explanation will be necessary at a time in the future, but for the moments following, we need stillness that can be filled by the Holy and accompanied by the presence of our brothers and sisters who simply desire to be present with us amidst everything.

Compassion first.

Understanding will follow.

Peace be with you.