For Christ’s Sake: A Pastor’s Response to the Parkland School Shooting

(Below is a revised manuscript of a message Pastor Mark delivered at First United Methodist Church Cocoa Beach on February 18, 2018.)

 Introduction

I want to begin by apologizing for not mentioning the Parkland school shooting during our Ash Wednesday service. As a parent of four kids, I just didn’t want to admit to myself that this had happened again. But as I read the names and ages of the victims this week, grief and anger washed over me, and I would be derelict in my duties as a pastor if I failed to say something about it.

Honestly, I’m a little anxious. While pastors are called by God to teach people how to apply the values of Jesus Christ to every aspect of life, many of us are reluctant to speak out when shootings happen because the surrounding issues have become intensely politicized. Nevertheless, part of being a leader is a willingness to speak from the heart, letting the chips fall where they may. This is especially true for pastors who follow a Jewish rabbi that was crucified by religious and political leaders for speaking truth to power.

I want to begin by honestly acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers. Although I have extensive training in interpreting the gospel and applying it to Christian life, I’m not infallible. I can only speak the truth as I understand it, humbly acknowledging that my perspective has limits and blind spots, just like yours. Second, I must admit that I sometimes fail to practice what I preach. In the recent past, I’ve encountered people with different opinions and reacted in ways that fall short of the ideals I long to espouse. However, if the precondition for casting moral vision is moral perfection, then we are all in serious trouble!

The Problem: Everything is Politicized and Polarized

From my perspective, the biggest problem we face today is the inability to talk to each other and collaborate to find lasting solutions to our most urgent problems. Everything has been politicized and polarized.

Some of our most influential leaders are professional politicians, and their jobs largely depend on two things: pleasing their financial donors and maintaining the support of their political base. To protect these things, some sacrifice their own personal identity for their tribe. Both political parties develop their platform, which is the framework for thinking, speaking, and problem solving. Staying within this framework is a sign of loyalty, and loyalty to the tribe promises funding and political protection.

The boundaries of this framework are clearly delineated by professional speech writers, who carefully craft talking points on every issue that could potentially alienate the political base or financial donors. When engaged in public discourse, politicians often protect themselves by parroting these talking points over, and over, and over again. This is one reason why they have a difficult time talking to members of the opposing party. It’s rare when a politician finds the courage to deviate from the party line and speak from their heart, and when they do it often results in marginalization and political attack. In this way, heart to heart conversations and collaborative problem solving are actively discouraged.

Unfortunately, our politicians are not the only ones who have this problem. The Bible says that human beings are fallen creatures, and one implication is our penchant for tribalism. Instead of embracing God’s vision of unity, peace, love, cooperation, and community, we try to secure ourselves by forming exclusive associations with people who look, think, believe, and act like us. Instead of crossing dividing lines to unify people around a common vision of compassion (which is what Jesus spent his entire adult life doing), we fearfully double-down on those dividing lines to protect ourselves from people who are different. In this context, we tend to gravitate toward black and white thinking in which the world is divided-up into insiders and outsiders, allies and enemies, which gives us a sense of belonging. Knowing who we are for and who we are against brings a sense of order, clarity, and purpose to life.

Knowing that we all have a penchant toward tribalism, politicians on both sides leverage this to their political advantage. They welcome us into their tribe and, working through their spokespersons on cable news networks, train us how to properly respond to any given issue. Again, being a valued member of the tribe means staying within the boundaries of the party platform and repeating the approved talking points. I know that I’ve struggled with this at times, and after reading through some Facebook posts in the wake of the school shooting, it’s safe to say that others struggle with this too. Arming ourselves with memorized soundbites and treating those who disagree as enemies to be defeated plays right into our sinful nature.

All of this comes together to create a hostile environment in which everything is politicized and polarized. The name of the game is divide and conquer, and winner takes all. Conceding anything to the other side, even the smallest point in an argument, is a cardinal sin punishable by exclusion.

Tragically, when we can’t talk to each other, we start thinking that there are no solutions to our problems, which tempts us to capitulate to the status quo—even when the status quo involves repetitive and increasing violence. Since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, when Adam Lanza murder 20 first-graders and 6 adults, there have been 239 school shootings in the US, which resulted in 438 wounded and 138 killed. So, the most recent school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which resulted in 17 deaths, is simply one of many school shootings. In fact, studies show that going back to January 2014 there have been an average of five school shootings per month. (Jugal K. Patel, “After Sandy Hook, More Than 400 People Have Been Shot in Over 200 School Shootings,” The New York Times, February 15, 2018)

Working Toward Solutions

As complicated as this issue might be, we cannot accept this as the new normal, and the very suggestion that there is nothing we can do about it should make us all mad as hell. There are things we can do, and to throw our hands in the air as helpless victims is nothing short of sin. We can and must act. As an American, as a Christian, as a parent, as a human being with a conscience, I believe that we should do everything in our power to curtail this madness. And while we cannot place all the responsibility on the shoulders of our elected officials, they do have an important role to play as law makers. Everyone agrees, even Libertarians, that the most important job of government is to protect its citizens, and if our elected officials are not willing or able to set aside tribal politics to better protect our kids from gun violence, then we should throw them out of office and elect principled leaders who will.

Many argue that passing more restrictive gun laws will not eradicate school shootings. Pivoting away from the public policy debate, they say that gun violence is a “heart problem.” Since parents have the primary responsibility of teaching their children good morals, the solution is for parents to raise healthy and responsible kids.

There is some truth in this argument. Christians believe that children are a gift from God, and part of our responsibility as parents is to teach our kids about love, compassion, and respect for all people, including those who are rejected, outcast, or ostracized. We should teach them how to identify and process painful emotions like rejection, loneliness, grief, and disappointment. We should have ongoing conversations with our kids about bullying and conflict resolution and cultivate trust in the family so kids feel safe asking questions and sharing what’s on their mind. We should be attentive to red flags in their mood and behavior, which means limiting their privacy. We to know their friends and the parents of their friends. We need to know what they’re doing on their electronic devices: what apps they are using; what they’re texting, snapchatting, and instant messaging; what they are posting on social media sites; what videos they are watching, songs they are listening to, and video games they are playing. Do any of these things normalize, encourage, or glorify violence and killing? Does anything of these things violate our Christian values? If so, we have a responsibility to restrict their access and talk to them about our values. Parents also need to recognize signs of abuse, mental illness, and emotional trauma, getting their kids professional help when needed. And parents are wise to surround their kids with other spiritually and emotionally healthy adults who can have a positive influence by bringing them to church or getting them involved in sports, scouting programs, or other community activities.

However, simply focusing on better parenting will not solve the problem. We also need to make changes in our education system. The people who spend the most time with kids other than their parents are teachers. Since many school shootings are perpetrated by disturbed students (or former students), part of the solution will involve shifting our priorities in public education and better resourcing our teachers and schools. Many educators will tell us that the state has become so focused on standardized testing that they have little if any time to teach the kids anything other than what’s anticipated on the next test. But teachers need time for other important things.

They need time to share best practices on how to recognize signs of isolation, bullying, grief, anger, and mental illness in their students. They need smaller class-sizes, so they can get to know their students on a more personal level and better spot red flags. All schools need an efficient referral system and enough school psychologists on staff to triage and assess troubled students. Schools need resources and opportunities for effective bullying prevention programs, diversity training, conflict resolution, and character development. I also think that every middle-school and high school should have a resource officer on campus to deal with more serious problems.

But even this is not enough. Whether we like it or not, there are important public policy concerns regarding mass shootings.

Take for example mental health. Everyone agrees that when we see something we should say something. When someone notices a child exhibiting strange behavior or signs of abuse, trauma, or mental illness, they should try to get that child help. But counseling and therapy are not free. So, if we are going to talk about treating mentally ill or troubled children, then we must also talk about healthcare. It makes no sense to say, “Mental illness is a big part of the problem,” if mentally ill people don’t have access to treatment. It makes no sense for parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults to look for red flags, unless the family of the child can afford to get them help. So part of the solution is to make sure that every child in our country has access to behavioral health services (which will involve health insurance). No child in this country who is struggling mentally or emotionally should be excluded from treatment because of money.

Finally, we must find ways to put aside our tribal politics so we can have rational discussions about improving our gun laws to curtail gun violence. I hesitate to even say “gun control” because most people assume they know exactly what the phrase means and compulsively start parroting the prescribed talking points of their political party. But when we resist this knee jerk reaction and create space for genuine dialogue, we see a broad range of agreement in our country about some specific policy changes that would help reduce mass shootings. Recent studies show that almost 90% of both Republicans and Democrats agree that mentally ill people should not be able to buy guns. Over 80% of both parties agree that people who are on no-fly lists or terrorist watchlists should not be able to buy guns. Almost 80% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats agree on universal background checks (which would include closing the loopholes in personal and gun show sales), and a large majority of Americans agree on banning assault rifles, outlawing bump stocks, and limiting the size of magazines and clips. (Ryan Struyk, “Here Are the Gun Control Policies That Majorities in Both Parties Support,” CNN, Updated November 6, 2017.) With these broad agreements between a clear majority of Americans, we should be able to revise our gun laws to make it more difficult for bad people to get guns and commit mass murder.

Are gun laws a panacea? No. Will stricter gun control prevent all gun violence? No. But this is no reason to throw our hands in the air and say, “Well, then, there’s nothing law makers can do about it!” That’s like saying, “If I can’t lose 50 pounds on my diet by tomorrow then what’s the point in trying to lose weight?” There are things our law makers can do to help to help reduce the death toll and they have a moral responsibility to do so.

As you can see, people on both sides have part of the solution, but these parts are not adequate for lasting change by themselves. We need people on both sides of the political aisle to bring their part of the solution, so we can put all the pieces together for comprehensive reform. However, this will not be possible if money and tribalism render us morally bankrupt and destroy the possibility of collaboration.

 What About God?

While all the things mentioned above are important for addressing gun violence in America, there will be no lasting solutions with God. Human beings are not only physical and mental creatures, we are also spiritual beings. We are created in the image of God, and God desires an intimate relationship with each of us. It’s through this personal relationship with the divine that we find forgiveness and the overcoming of guilt; reconciliation and the overcoming of estrangement; joy and the overcoming of despair; peace and the overcoming of anxiety; unity and the overcoming of tribalism. It’s where we find healing and gain our true purpose in life beyond politics. It is where we learn how to love ourselves and others the way that God loves us. It is where we learn the true meaning of community, how to talk to each other and resolve conflict in healthy ways. It’s where the sacraments of baptism and communion erase all dividing lines and unite us under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

The church has an important role to play by creating communities of belonging, love, compassion, justice, and peace. Many people who perpetrate acts of violence feel misunderstood, isolated, and outcast. They don’t believe that anyone cares about them or that their voice really matters. If the church will create communities of love where people feel genuinely accepted and heard, a place where they can honestly share what’s on the hearts and minds, without judgment or ridicule, then it can play a unique role in healing some of the pain that drives people to kill. When considering school shootings, this is particularly true for our children and youth programs.

Going even further in this regard, the church could help by refocusing on the teachings of Jesus regarding compassion for the lonely, outcast, and rejected. Jesus calls his disciples to reach out in love to these people and offer good news of forgiveness, healing, love, and friendship.

Finally, as United Methodist Bishop, Ken Carter, suggests, we can repent from our participation in a culture of death, grieve with those who are suffering, and pray for the families of the victims. But as important as it is to repent, grieve, and pray, we must not neglect to act. For Christ’s sake, for the sake of the gospel, we must act.

Call to Action

Bishop Carter is inviting all United Methodists to write letters to our government officials, state and national, to insist that they prioritize the safety of our children amidst repetitive and escalating violence. You can find their names and contact information online by doing a Google search for “Florida Elected Officials.” If members will write letters and place them in addressed envelopes, our churches will cover the cost of postage and put them in the mail. The Bishop’s vision is for United Methodist Churches across the state of Florida to collect and send 5000 letters.

 

Further Reading:

Bishop Ken Carter’s statement on Florida school shootings.

United Methodist Book of Resolutions, “Our Call the End Gun Violence.”

Pastor Mark Reynolds, “Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”

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The Burden of Light

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

I recently heard these familiar words of Jesus at a clergy retreat, but in a radically new way that continues to gnaw at me.

In the past, when considering this passage, I understood Jesus to be saying, “If you stick with me, I’ll help you with your problems and make life more bearable.” Commentators explain that Jesus may have been referring to a double yoke in which two animals walk side by side, pulling the same load. The analogy seems clear: Jesus walks beside you, helping bear your burdens. This is a comforting message for people feeling burned out and worn down. Most of us need rest, and not just rest for our bodies, but also for our souls.

So, I thought I knew what this passage meant. But God has a way of breaking through familiarity and turning what we think we know upside down. Hear the words again:

“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“In the beginning was the Word . . . . in him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1, 4-5)

“You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

With a flash of insight, I heard a still small voice, “My burden is being light in a dark world.”

Followers of Jesus bear the burden of light. In a world where people can no longer distinguish the truth from a lie, we are called to honesty. In a world that venerates the arrogant, we are called to humility. In a world that worships the wealthy, we are called to love the poor. In a world where people sell their souls for power, we are called to take up a cross.

And this is exactly why Jesus was killed. Evil empires operate in darkness and Jesus is light. As the powers of this world nailed him to a cross, what they were really saying is, “Turn off that light!”

Not much has changed in this present darkness, and for those trying to follow Jesus as light in a dark world, it can feel like a heavy burden:

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves . . . . they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me . . . . you will be hated by all because of my name.” (Matthew 10:16-18, 22)

If we embrace the alternative lifestyle of radical love, we will experience ridicule, rejection, and even abuse.

However, in the presence of Jesus we are promised that this burden will become light.

The burden is light because it’s a way of life characterized by surrender. Instead of constant grasping, striving, and achieving, Jesus says, “Let go.” Let go of control. Let go of expectations. Let go of trying to be good enough. Find ways to relax into the presence of God, to just be—be who you are and where you are, knowing that you are accepted by unconditional love.

This is where we find rest for our souls. This is where the burden is made light. This is where we become light.

But, paradoxically, surrender may be the hardest thing we ever have to do.

Learning to let go, to relax into the presence of God and just be, seems to run contrary to our very nature. The shift from a willful to a willing spirit is the very heart of conversion, and it cannot be accomplished by what often passes for prayer today—words carefully crafted to convince ourselves or others of what we already believe to be true. (Or, even worse, long, syrupy, cliché monologues intended to solicit approval from other churchy people.) No, a true renovation of the heart requires the kind of prayer that goes beyond words, the kind of prayer that helps us awaken to the presence of God, so we can relax into that presence and just be—be ourselves and be with God. A kind of prayer that puts us in touch with our soul, so we can listen in stillness, solitude, and quiet. Indeed, a difficult kind of prayer for frenetic hearts navigating a frenetic world.

So, while Jesus’ yoke might be easy, insofar as he helps us carry our burdens, the burden itself—being light in a dark world—is, paradoxically, heavy and light, hard and easy. And I’m not sure exactly what to do with that right now, except let it continue to gnaw at me.

Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or hating gay people. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

Helpful Resources: