A Few Thoughts on Guns & The Armor of Light

I originally wrote this post in February, 2013, when my friends at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism invited me to join the Faiths Calling initiative to help stop rampant gun violence. In the wake of the tragedy of Sandy Hook, they were seeking laws that could make our nation safer. Sadly, such laws are yet to be passed. 

I’ve revised the blog for a new purpose: to support the important documentary, The Armor of Light, showing tonight on PBS at 8/7c. I’ve met the filmmaker, Abigail Disney, and Rev. Rob Schenck whose story is told in the film. Together, they’re committed to creating a new conversation about guns in America. It’s an important film for all followers of Jesus to watch and consider.

Several years ago, when my then 27-year-old son was preparing to sail a 42-foot sailboat around the world, concerned friends and family members asked the inevitable question: will he keep a gun on board?  It’s not uncommon for ocean-crossing sailors to carry guns as a defense against pirates, but there’s an ongoing debate. 

Some people consider it unthinkable to head for the high seas without a gun; others say the pirates will always have bigger guns, so it’s safest for small-time boaters to just raise their hands in surrender.  My son and his sailing companion intentionally charted a course that bypassed the most pirate-infested waters and chose not to take a gun, as I hoped they would.

Yes, I was very concerned for my son’s safety.  But I hate guns.  Even my grandsons know that when they’re at my house, the pretend guns they fashion from tree branches and broom handles can only shoot hugs and kisses.  Or peace and love.  Yeah, I know, I’m extreme.

But I hate guns.  I didn’t used to.  Once I actually shot skeet off the back of a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan, and I was pretty good.  But during the last two decades I’ve spent a lot of time in war zones: Bosnia, Croatia, Rwanda, Congo, the Middle East.  And now I hate guns.

Maybe I’m irrational; or maybe I’ve just seen too much pain and death. 

There are people I know and love who keep guns in their homes for self-defense.  Some of them are extremely opposed to any form of the gun controls.  They are good people.  Loving people.  God-fearing people.  They will probably wish I weren’t writing this blog.

Undoubtedly, some people from the very diverse congregation at my church will also wish I weren’t writing this.  After all, a survey revealed that 57 percent of white evangelicals live in homes where someone owns a gun. (That number has probably increased in the 2 years since I found that statistic.)

Even after 20 first graders died at the hands of a madman with an assault rifle, 59 percent of white evangelicals continued to oppose tighter restrictions on gun laws.

After each new episode of gun tragedy, those opposing restrictions seem to yell louder.

I know some people are really concerned about Second Amendment rights and about the slippery slope of government control.  I know those same people often remind us that guns don’t kill people; it takes a person to pull that deadly trigger.

I also know Chicago’s tough gun laws haven’t prevented violent people from sneaking guns into Chicago and killing 40 people in the last month alone (and 2016 death stats are worse than ever). I know that, ultimately, only a spiritual transformation, not stricter laws, can root out the evil violence in the human heart.

But still. I think stricter gun control makes sense.  And I think Congress must do something to better protect our children.

But even more than that, I think that we who claim to be Christians need to look at this issue from a uniquely Christian perspective, one of scriptural integrity and ethical reflection.

Where does this issue fall within the framework of Christian discipleship? What is the will of God when it comes to our personal disposition toward our neighbors?

When, how, and against whom may a Christian use lethal force? Are there non-lethal ways to protect ourselves and others; and is it better for Christians to choose non-lethal means over lethal means?

Abigail Disney, who directed this film, and Rev. Rob Schenck, whose story she tells, come from opposite sides of almost every political issue. But as they shaped an honest, authentic conversation around this issue, they discovered something unexpected in each other: a friend.

Together, they hope this film can be used to create thousands of conversations like that, thousands of alternatives to the circular conversations that lead our country to more and more guns and less and less safety. The Armor of Light offers a thoughtful beginning point for a new conversation.

Lucy McBath, also featured in this film, grieves the death of her teenage son in a senseless shooting. But she’s found purpose in tragedy through The Armor of Light. “It is our charge as Christians,” she says, “to love, care for, and serve our fellow man. I truly believe that this film is part of the move of God upon His people.”

Tonight’s showing on PBS at 8/7c will be followed by a Town Hall meeting of Christian leaders.

Find out how to host a screening of the film here.

Or sign on to a statement of pastoral concern here.

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Kilimanjaro #3: Remembering the Mountain, Remembering My Mom

A year ago I took my Mom to the garden center to get flowers we could plant on Mother’s Day. Over the previous two years, as her aging mind had increasingly lost track of much it had once known, this remained: her passion for flowers.

In the early morning hours she was still “the Queen surveying her Kingdom” as she walked between her tiny flower beds.

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Mom never met a flower she didn’t love, but she was especially partial to ferns. I’m sure she knew every variety of fern known to man. She also had a spectacularly green thumb when it came to ferns, and was always trying to give away cuttings from her over-abundance of ferns.

Several months before that Mother’s Day I had told my parents I was considering climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in March 2016 with One Million Thumbprints to raise awareness and money for women in warzones.

True to form, Mom said, “Oh honey, that sounds scary. I know you could do it, and I can understand why you want to help women who are suffering, but are you sure about this?”

My Dad, also true to form said, “That sounds like a great idea. Of course you’re going to do it!”

As it turned out, watching the rapid decline of my mother’s memory made the decision for me. I realized that within a year she would likely not even know who I was. I wanted to make the most of the coming year with her.

The Year of Mom, I called it, and I scheduled no major trips from spring ’15 to spring ’16. Together with my dad and brother, we would make it a good year for Mom, a year as filled with joyful moments as we could make it. I would not climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Planting the Mother’s Day flowers proved to be a wonderful idea. For weeks we tended the plants together, deadheading the petunias and rearranging plants that we’d planted too close together or too far apart. Mom was forever “re-adjusting” her little flower gardens.

Then on a Sunday evening in July, Mom suffered a sudden and massive stroke. Family and friends gathered around her but she never regained consciousness. Within 24 hours she had slipped away from us.

Had Mom not had the stroke, the coming year would likely have been extremely painful for her. Dementia would have undoubtedly continued its daily theft of memories, words and skills.

Realizing she would not have to suffer through a year like that was, and continues to be, a gift of grace and comfort for everyone who loved her.

In the months after Mom’s death, I grieved deeply, but also reconsidered potential commitments, including Kilimanjaro.

“Do it,” my Dad said. “Mom would be so proud of you!”

Training for Kilimanjaro included miles of solitary walks on quiet, snowy trails. Often while I walked I thought of Mom–how much she enjoyed wintery days, and how often in recent years we’d walked slowly, arm-in-arm through her neighborhood.

After her death I began wearing Mom’s gold wedding band which her mother before her had worn. Inside my mitten, I twisted the smooth band around my finger, remembering how often she’d said to me, “You know this ring was Grandma’s, don’t you? I want you to have it.”

I know, Mom, I know.

“Will you wear that ring to the top of the mountain?” my brother asked.

“Of course,” I said. “If I make it to the top, that ring is going to make it too!”

One thing that intrigued me about Kilimanjaro was its spectacular beauty. I looked forward to climbing through several distinct ecosystems, from a rain forest at one extreme to a glacier at the other.

Knowing how Mom had loved nature’s beauty, I knew she would be cheering me on.

As we began our first day of climbing, our excitement and energy pushed us into quick steps and noisy chatter. But our Tanzanian guide, Lucy, would have none of it. Pole, pole, she said. Slowly. Slowly.

As we settled into a slower pace and quieted our nervous chatter, I suddenly realized where we were.

In the rushed inattentiveness of excitement I’d almost missed it!

We were walking through a forest of ferns. The biggest and lushest and most glorious ferns I’d ever seen!

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As the tears streamed down my face, I was glad I was wearing sunglasses and that we were walking quietly in single file. Nobody needed to know I was in my own small world of grief.

Sometimes grief is almost unbearably painful, but sometimes it’s profoundly beautiful. That day’s grief was a very precious and healing gift.

I thought of how much Mom would have loved walking in that forest of ferns. I thought of how very pole, pole we would have walked, as she stopped to exclaim over each new variety of fern.

I thought of what a good woman she was. What a truly good woman she was.

It was almost like we were walking that path together. It was truly a lovely experience.

If she were here today, we’d probably be at the garden store right now making incredibly hard decisions. A pink theme this year? Purple? A blend?

Or maybe we wouldn’t be there. Perhaps she would be too weak or too confused for that. Such a hard thought.

And so I sit here with tears. Grieving, yes. But even more, grateful.

Grateful for last year’s Mother’s Day.

Grateful for the weeks Mom and I busied ourselves with “re-adjusting” her garden.

Grateful for the gold band on my finger.

Grateful for a tearful, healing walk through a forest of ferns.

Grateful for the good, good woman who was my mother.

Grateful for you, Mom.

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Christians, Muslims and the Golden Rule

“Do you think it’s safe to meet with the Christians? I’m afraid they will hurt you. Please text me as soon as the meeting is done, so I’ll know you’re okay.”

These were the words of a junior high-aged Muslim boy when he learned that his Muslim American mother was going to meet with a small group of Christians. He was sure she was entering a very dangerous situation.

The mother shared her son’s words when I asked her what it was like to be a Muslim in America in 2016.

On a wintery Saturday morning several friends and I were gathered with about fifteen Muslim men and women in a small meeting room in a mosque not far from our church. Continue reading

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About Refugees: A Preacher, A Professor, A Rock Star & Me

Each spring for three weeks my church, Willow Creek Community Church, focuses on the work that our church partners are doing in under-resourced communities throughout the world.

Everything in our weekend services, midweek services, and children’s ministries focuses on how followers of Jesus around the world are being the hands and feet of Christ as they address issues like food security, healthcare, clean water, economic stability, education, leadership development, and others.

This annual emphasis is called Celebration of Hope (COH) and it’s my favorite time of year at Willow.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro #2: Why We Did It

5 days. 21 miles. 19,341 feet. 38,680 steps.

That’s a lot of uphill walking!

As you might expect, a fair amount of words accompanied those steps. Fourteen passionate women facing a common challenge for a shared cause do not lack subjects for conversation. And trust me, the Kilimanjaro climbers of One Million Thumbprints are nothing if not passionate!

Still, you can only talk so much. As one of the more introverted climbers, I had perhaps a lower threshold for conversation than some. But even the most talkative among us slid into long stretches of quiet reflection—moments when the rhythmic repetition of slow steps freed our minds to meander.

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Climbing Kilimanjaro #1: We Actually Did It!

Really! All fourteen women climbers with One Million Thumbprints reached our goal: we made it to the top of the highest freestanding mountain in the world, Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, at approximately 8am on March 8, International Women’s Day.

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The Day One Million Thumbprints Was Born

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On my first visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009, I met a woman named Charlene in a massive camp for displaced people. Like hundreds of thousands of others, Charlene and her family had been forced by the violence of Congo’s civil war to flee for their lives, leaving their homes, their fields, everything they owned. Ending up in camp shacks made of sticks and tarps, these displaced women had to forage in the forest for firewood to trade for food. While they searched for wood, many of these women—including Charlene—were brutally raped by rebel soldiers. Charlene’s story broke my heart and bound me to the Congo.

Three years later, I returned to Congo with a group of friends. Continue reading

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Evening Prayers

Sleep does not come easily to me; it never has and I suspect it never will. This year, as a Lenten practice, I am reading nightly from Yours Is The Day, Lord, Yours Is the Night, a prayer book edited by Jeanie and David Gushee. Here are a few of the selections I’ve appreciated recently. I’m finding in these words prayed by others a calming focus for my thoughts.
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Pondering: A Mountain, A Kayak, An Act of Solidarity

I’m training to climb a mountain. On March 3 I’ll begin the ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro—the famous Mountain of Light. Climbing Kili wasn’t on my bucket list. I wasn’t bored and looking for something to do. And I definitely was not in physical readiness to climb anything. Thanks to interruptions and injuries, I’m still not ready.

But I’m committed to giving it my best, accepting that I may well be one of the 15 percent of Kili climbers who doesn’t make it to the top. Oh well.

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Goodness and Light

Said the king to the people everywhere,
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace, people everywhere!
Listen to what I say
The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light

(From “Do You Hear What I Hear”)

What I’m longing for most this Christmas is just that: goodness and light. In the midst of the darkness—the violence, hatred, and fear—that seems to have a stranglehold on parts of our world, my heart is crying out for goodness and light. When news of more darkness, more conflict or racism surfaces, I find myself praying for light—for responses of peace, courage, and love.

And this Christmas we again have the opportunity to be the light for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. To be the light for people surrounded by darkness. Continue reading

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