children

Living by the Sword

by Rev. Mindi

American children are nine times more likely to die in gun accidents than children anywhere else in the developed world.

Firearms were the third leading cause of injury related deaths nationwide in 2010.

The CDC reports that 21,175 suicide deaths are by firearms, just over half of all suicide deaths every year.

This year alone, over 62 shootings have taken place at schools, over twelve thousand killed in gun incidents, and almost 25,000 have been injured in gun incidents in the US.

And the list goes on and on and on. These statistics alone, and report after report after report, ought to make us question the plethora of guns in the United States, the attitudes about gun ownership rights and responsibilities, and the overall risk of life when it comes to gun ownership. I know—some of these are criminals with guns. Yes. However, look at the rates of accidental death and injury, especially to children—and we ought to at least question our attitudes about availability of guns.

On Monday, Jerry Falwell, Jr. made the statement that Christians should be arming themselves to shoot Muslims. He later clarified he meant Muslim extremists, but still. “Christians should arm themselves.”

What?

Why in the world should Christians arm themselves? Isn’t this antithetical to the message of the Gospel? To Jesus, the one who saves? Jesus, the one who gave up his own life?

Carol Howard Merritt writes about the reality of domestic violence and murder when guns are present in the home. We all know the church has a history of hiding abuse and covering up domestic violence, persuading women to stay in abusive situations where they are more likely to end up killed by their partner.

Rebecca Sumner writes about a time when she stopped someone with a gun by using her words. And she isn’t the only one—remember this story? It was in 2013 that Antoinette Tuff talked down a shooter in a Georgia school, in an incident where no one lost their life.

Both Carol and Rebecca mention the phrase, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” in their stories. Here’s my story. I know more than one person—who are generally good people, who have been law-abiding citizens for the most part—have, at times, been so angry they pulled a gun on someone who wasn’t armed. Or threatened to pull a gun on someone who angered them. Or talked about going and shooting up someone who had hurt them. Or even pulled out a gun on someone they loved.

Good guys, all with guns, who, if they had their gun with them in that moment, would have become the bad guy. Because it is so much easier to lash out in a fit of rage with an accessible gun. It is so much easier to do something you could never imagine yourself doing if you have a gun. It is so much easier to kill someone, or yourself, if you have access to a gun. And it is nine times more likely that your child will die in this country than anywhere else. So we need to stop saying “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” because more often than not, the good guy will become a bad guy.

Jesus, when met with violence in his arrest, argued against violence. Jesus’ disciples did not carry weapons, even when their lives were at stake.

 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

Matthew 25:51-52

 

How Long Must We Sing This Song?

By Rev. Mindi

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?[1]

O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?[2]

How long, O Lord? How long will we allow another mass shooting to ravage people’s lives and send loved ones into the grave?

How long, O Lord? How long will we say prayers for the victim’s families? How long will we pray for an end to violence? How long will we fold our hands and bow our heads, and do nothing more to change the world we live in?

How long, O Lord? How long will we sacrifice our children for gun ownership?

How long, O Lord, will we blame the mentally ill, among the most vulnerable, without offering health care, support, and the removal of stigma in our society?

How long, O Lord, will we go on allowing this to happen, pointing fingers, without actually making any changes at all?

How long, O Lord, will we allow this to become normal, regular, and acceptable in our society?

How long,

How long must we sing this song?

How long, how long…

‘Cause tonight, we can be as one, tonight…[3]

How long until we are ready to compromise to make change? Or to give up our need to have deadly power over others? What will it take? What more will it cost?

Seriously, how long will we sing this song, and how long will our prayers be empty?

We used to light candles in my church when there was a shooting, for the victims, so we would not forget. I still remember the twenty-eight candles I lit the Friday of the Newtown shooting. But now, there are just too many candles to light, and they have become meaningless.

We’ve all heard the saying, “pray while moving your feet.” I believe it is time to say, “pray while calling your elected official.” Because our prayer without action is meaningless, as faith without works is also dead.[4]

Pray, and register to vote.

Pray, and vote for change.

Pray, and call your elected officials.

Demand that children’s lives matter more than access to unlimited guns and ammunition and military style firearms.

How long? How many more children will die, before we finally say too many have died by gun violence?

 

[1] Psalm 13:1-2, NRSV

[2] Psalm 80:4, NRSV

[3] “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” U2, 1983

[4] James 2:26

 

Inclusion and Acceptance--of those already among us

By Rev. Mindi

Recently, my son AJ was invited to a birthday party. This is a rare occurrence for us, as AJ has special needs and is not included in a classroom with typically developing peers. Though he goes on field trips and is on the playground at recess and in the cafeteria for lunch, most of the time he is in a classroom with other special needs students.  We know families with typically developing children, but AJ is often not invited to birthday parties. I’m sure it is not on purpose; I’m almost certain that he wasn’t thought of, or it was assumed that we would find it too much trouble to go, or that AJ would not be able to participate. Even when he is invited, often the other children do not interact with him. They don’t know him and don’t know how to. He doesn’t go up and talk to them like typically developing children; they have to take the initiative to go up to him, say hi and try to communicate with him.

This birthday party was great because he was not only invited, he was included and some of the kids knew him from other parties and occasions, and some of the older children did communicate with him. And when he didn’t respond at first and I told the older girl who was asking him a question that he had autism, she replied “One of my friends has autism” and went on to tell me about their friend.

This experience led me to reflect on the church, as all too often we say “no one is coming” or “there isn’t anyone to ask.” How many people do we not think of because of their age, or perceived ability, or perceived allowance of time? How often do we ask the same people over and over again, and not realize the people who are missing out on being involved in ministry?

And though I know we are all tired of the generational divide discussions, how many of our churches do not ask folks in younger generations to participate in the leadership and ministry of the church because of the assumptions we make? “They’re too busy,” or “They only come once in a while so I’m not sure how committed they are,” or even “They don’t know how to do it yet.”  I have heard all of those assumptions made about Gen Xers and Millenial church members that really wanted to be involved, but were never asked. And I wonder if the problem might be that we don’t know how to communicate past our assumptions.

Often the reality is that we act like parents planning a party, and we don’t even realize who we are not inviting. And when we do, we come up with quick excuses to dismiss them, and we’re not even conscious of what we are doing. We don’t want to be overbearing on the new family. We don’t want to burden the individual who started coming six weeks ago. We don’t want to ask the college graduate because they might get a job and be too busy or move away. We don’t invite the person who said no last time we asked because we assume they will say no again. And so on and so forth.

We need to be open to all of God’s people for all of the ministries of the church. And while I am thinking of my son AJ, I am reminded that folks with disabilities in our church are able to participate. There are a variety of ministries and a variety of gifts.

Inclusion is something we are constantly working on as a church. We want to extend the welcome to participate in the community of faith to all—but we often still have to work on including and accepting the people who are already part of us.

Save Camp!

By Rev. Mindi

Of all my experiences in church life growing up, church camp was one of the most important experiences of my life. While I experienced a call to ministry in a worship service on a Sunday morning, and was nurtured in a congregation in that call, the memories that I carry with me over the years that were incredibly important in my faith journey are from church camp. Friendships were forged, fellowship and fun were had, and for many of my friends, church camp was the one place where church really and truly was fun—and camp was just for us, for that age group, for that week. Everything was about us in that place and time.

Since high school, I have been a camp counselor a few times and a camp pastor (and currently am getting ready for another stint soon). What has struck me recently are the many adults of all ages, but especially adults under fifty, for whom church camp has been one of the most formative experiences of their faith lives. In my current ministry setting I have a high number of young adults involved in my small congregation—all of them went to church camp. I have started meeting other young adults in our area who grew up going to church camp. Some of them are no longer attending church, but all of them had a positive experience of camp that has influenced them in their faith journey.

Church camps are places where friendships are made fast. Trust is built up. Faith is taken seriously but there is a good balance of irreverence and silliness. Camp is also the one place where we actually worship our Creator out in creation on a daily basis. The experience of God in nature, in creation, especially for youth who may come from urban areas and not have those experiences with any regularity is an opportunity hard to find elsewhere.

Having now lived and participated in camping ministry across the country—from Alaska to New England, to Oklahoma and now Washington—what I have found, in both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the American Baptist Churches, USA, is the same trend you probably already know: funding for camps is running short. Scholarships aren’t as readily available as they once were. Sending kids to camp is not a priority for most churches. Property and buildings are becoming run-down from age and use and are not being repaired. The camp experience I grew up with may not be available for the next generation.

So, besides the obvious—giving money to our church camps—here’s what else we need to do: Send kids to camp. Make it a priority. I grew up in a small startup church—we maybe had twenty people at most on a good Sunday—but they made the commitment that every child associated with the church got to go to camp for free. The church paid our way, and one year there were nine of us—grandchildren, friends of friends—it didn’t matter—we got to go to camp for free. If a small startup church that could barely afford to pay rent with a very part-time pastor could send their kids to camp, imagine what you can do. Have a bake sale. Invite others in the church to sponsor a scholarship. Partner with another congregation to help send kids to camp.

Support your camps. They raise up our disciples. I know that few of my friends who went to camp with me as a youth go to church now, but camp was a vital part of their lives, something they have never forgotten. I know among the young adults I minister with and to, camp was where their faith emerged and grew. Our camps are an important part of who we are, and who we can be as the church, in making and nurturing new disciples.

 

*For another personal perspective on the importance of camp, please see Dr. Mark Poindexter's recent post on "Grandparent and Me" Church Camp.

Practicing Inclusion

By Rev. Mindi

“Inclusive” has become a buzzword descriptor among churches these days. Perhaps you mean it to include LGBTQ individuals and families in your congregation. Perhaps you mean it to include people of different ethnic backgrounds. Maybe it means including people of different economic statuses.

Inclusion means including everyone. It doesn’t mean creating a special program for or a specific mission outreach to a certain group of people.  Inclusion means you actually include someone: you value, encourage participation, listen to and incorporate all people into your congregational life.

Inclusion is actually very difficult to accomplish. Most of us have the best of intentions but don’t actually follow through. Most of the time, our inclusion is actually under another buzzword, “Welcoming.” We throw together a welcoming statement and say we welcome all people. We might even go to the next level and say we welcome all persons regardless of age, gender expression, sexual orientation, racial or ethnic identity, economic status, ability, etc. etc. etc.  However, there are places where we specifically do not include people and we need to not only be aware but acknowledge this.

We often do not include children, whether it be in worship (though many churches do include children to a degree, but we still often send them out after the Children’s Message) or in church business. Sure, we might ask them their opinions or talk with them in children’s sermons about things happening in the life of the church, but rarely are they included in business meetings or given the right to vote (my current church is in the process of revamping its constitution and it still states that members have to be age 16 in order to vote).  We have our reasons—they are not old enough to understand, or they would just vote the way their parents did giving them twice the vote, or other reasons we pass off. We also don’t include homebound members (often still called “shut-ins” in the life of the church) because they are no longer able to attend.  Sure, we visit them now and then, but we don’t include them in the business of the church, or the worship, for that matter.

And we do not include people with differing abilities, usually. We assume persons who use a wheelchair or walker, or those who have long-term illness, mental or physical, cannot participate in the life of the church. Sure, we welcome them to worship and we may build ramps and make our restrooms accessible, but we often do not ask them about participating, assuming they cannot.

Can a person who uses a wheelchair still hand out bulletins and greet people? Can a child carry the offering plate? Can a person who is ill still help make decisions in the life of the church? Can a young teen have a mind-blowing idea that could change the church? Of course!

Look at your congregation’s practice of inclusion. First look at what you say about yourself. Then look to see what you are really doing. Who is in leadership? Who is involved in worship? Who is involved in outreach or other ministries? What is the diversity represented? Even if there is little ethnic diversity in your congregation, look for other diversities. Are people with differing abilities represented? Are people of different ages represented? Economic status? How do you include home-bound members and those who deal with long-term illness?

How are you practicing inclusion in the life of your church? Is it a matter of lip-service, or are you doing your best to include people from all areas of life?  If not, how could you improve?

Here are some recent examples from churches I have known that have made a change to practice inclusion better:

 

-Including a ramp for the choir loft so that singers of all abilities could participate.

-Moving the choir down to the sanctuary floor for the anthem so that others could participate who could not get to the choir loft.

-Inviting a young man using a wheelchair to collect the offering

-Including a teen with Asperger’s on the youth outreach committee

-Making all restrooms accessible and changing the signs to “Restroom” with no gender indication

 

What can you do to practice inclusion better as a church community?

God, Tree Climbing and Infinite Surprise

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"It pleased him to imagine God as someone like his mother, someone beleaguered by too many responsibilities, too dog-tired to monitor an energetic boy every minute of the day, but who, out of love and fear for his safety, checked in on him whenever she could. Was this so crazy? Surely God must have other projects besides Man [sic], just as his parents had responsibilities other than raising their children? Miles liked the idea of a God who, when He at last had the opportunity to return His attention to His children, might shake His head with wonder and mutter, "Jesus. Look what they're up to now." A distractible God, perhaps, one who'd be startled to discover so many of His children way up in trees since the last time He looked. A God whose hand would go rushing to His mouth in fear in that instant of recognition that—good God!—that kid's going to hurt himself. A God who could be surprised by unanticipated pride—glory be, that boy is a climber!" (Richard Russo, Empire Falls).

I love this quote from Richard Russo. God as a distracted mother, responsible for so much, but ferociously attached to her children. I like that. Being married to a mother ferociously attached to her children, but responsible for much else, I'm partial to this image of God. Notwithstanding the questions of orthodoxy (the impassibility and omnicompetence of God), I still like to think of God as much less overbearing than we're traditionally given to believe.

I know of and agree with Karl Barth's rather imperious sounding dictum that "God is not human being said in a loud voice!" Still, a surprised and delighted God is a comforting notion in a world filled with pinch-faced people certain that God's highest vocation revolves around abstemiously policing human indiscretion and rooting out joy from among possible human achievement. Surely God must find some joy in human achievement, even (perhaps especially) at its most outrageously indiscreet.

If God had a hand in creating us, God must take some delight in us—and not just when we're wearing our Sunday best either. Human life, as messy and venal as it sometime seems, offers up moments of true grace and rapture—often squarely deposited in the midst of the messiness and venality, rather than despite it.

My delight in my children, when I can subdue my own pinch-faced abstemiousness long enough, often comes in realizing the amazing extent to which they are infinitely capable and amazingly clever at goofing up. How, for example, sophisticated electronic gadgets when in my children's hands acquire the properties of divining rods, sniffing out water (toilets, the dog's water bowl, etc.) with alarming precision, is an object of true wonderment to me. Why should God be any less amazed at my own stunning penchant for dropping delicate stuff in the toilet?

The clear temptation that accompanies an image of God as slightly harried parent is that it lets me off the hook with respect to my messes—as if to say, I can do whatever I want because God's busy minding gravity. This would, of course, constitute a singularly self-serving picture of God as undiscerning and ceaselessly approving.

But the positive thing this image of God offers, I think, is an opportunity to hold on a little less tightly to myself and to my own need to get everything exactly right—to view my own children, not so much as a project to be perfected but a gift to be enjoyed, to be wondered over, and shared with the rest of the world.

A God surprised by and unanticipatedly proud of tree climbers (and their parents)—that sounds like grace to me.