Responding to Evil: Striving for the Loving Realm

Twenty-twelve was a bad year in the world by many accounts. Israel and the Gaza. Syria. Afghanistan. Each of these hotspots come to mind. In this country alone we had a theater shooting, we had a contentious — to put it mildly — election season, a near dysfunctional government, Hurricane Sandy wrought destruction in densely populated areas of the Northeast, and the shocking shooting of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.

It is easy to feel discouraged and beleaguered.

This image of Jesus arm wrestling Satan is not only inconsistent with much of the biblical witness, it elevates evil as an equal to God. Image borrowed from http://www.youwall.com/index.php?ver=MzI5Nw==
This image of Jesus arm wrestling Satan is not only inconsistent with much of the biblical witness, it elevates evil as an equal to God. Image borrowed from http://www.youwall.com/index.php?ver=MzI5Nw==

Though I do not believe in a personified devil, I understand those who do so. Describing what we are all witnessing as a battle between God and the devil is tempting. The world has much evil. One way to interpret it is to describe it as a battle between God and the devil. This dualistic image, however, elevates Satan to the level of the Divine One and is inconsistent with much of the biblical witness.

But evil exists.

As troubling as it is, I perceive evil as a by-product of free will. I perceive it as the result of cumulative bad choices. Cumulative choices by individuals and cumulative in the sense of multiple people making multiple bad choices. These bad choices are contrary to what God desires us to do. The result is where God desires us to respond lovingly, we create evil.

My view of evil is too troubling for many and so they turn to a personified other, a personified devil. My perception is troubling because to see evil as the result of our own choices means that we are each capable of horrendous acts. As a former early childhood education professor, I recall the shock on student’s faces when I told them that I understood child abuse. They were shocked because they could not imagine being driven to physically harm a child.

As a parent who was blessed with support systems galore, I still had to talk myself down occasionally when the combination of fatigue, stress, and frustration converged. So, yes, I understand good people, good parents who can be driven to abuse a child. Those without adequate support systems are particularly vulnerable to becoming abusive.

The reaction of many good people to the loathsome actions of others, child abuse or the Newtown shootings, is to spew their own venom toward the perpetrators. I have seen more than one person wish for a special place in hell for child abusers or the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary. This solves nothing. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. 

Hating evildoers, only magnifies evil in the world. Jesus did not hate evildoers. Jesus loved those who chose the wrong path. He loved them despite their bad choices because, I believe, he saw the image of God within them. He saw the good that they were capable of doing despite the bad, the evil they chose.

To listen to God’s call on our own lives, we must be “on guard so that [our] hearts are not weighed down with . . . the worries of this life.” (Luke 21:34b NRSV. Read in context.) When we allow the worries of this life to control us or when we live by the rules of a culture that value those with financial wealth over those without, we fail to see the unfolding realm of God that began with Jesus.

We are called to focus on being part of God’s unfolding, in-breaking realm of extravagant love in the world. When we focus on responding in love even to those who do evil, we are a part of the light.

And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. (Luke 12: 29-31 NRSV Read in context.)

A Pastor’s Response to Sandy Hook

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Friends,

I’m sitting at the kitchen table in the parsonage having just finished my lunch. The tears stream from my face as I listen to the reports from Connecticut. The faces of our own children, fresh in my mind from the Winter Concert last night, flash through my mind. What if? What if it were my child or your child or my yet to be conceived grandchild? I wonder. Then I attempt to shove that awful thought deep inside but it just comes out in tears.

This is an unspeakable tragedy. We are biologically hard-wired to protect and care for our young. The reality, however, is that we cannot always do so. When something like this happens we feel shock at the event and we feel empathy and compassion for all those involved. Sometimes we feel anger at the perpetrator.

Now is the time for each of us to pause and to pray. When you feel the gift of tears and shock at such a heinous act, pause and pray. Ask for God’s peace for those involved. Ask for God’s peace for yourself. Rail against God that it happened if that is how you feel. God loves you and knows your feelings.

I am convinced that God is weeping and sobbing with us over this tragedy. We serve the One who loves extravagantly, the One who came as a baby, and the One who overcomes even death. Though this shooting is NOT the will of God, our love for one another is a sign that even evil cannot destroy good. The God we know has those teachers and those babies wrapped in God’s loving arms even now. The love of God in Jesus Christ will always win.

And because the realm of God on earth is not yet complete, because it still unfolds in this broken, fragmented world, hug your child a little closer today. Smile at the stranger. Forgive that which we may not have forgiven yesterday. For when we do these small kindnesses — and bigger kindnesses — we are participating in God’s unfolding realm. Be Christ’s love. With God’s help love will overcome even death in an elementary school.

God of Life,

We ache. We are outraged and angry. Who shoots school children?!!?? We know that those killed are in your arms now. We know that you sob with those who are mourning. We know that you never will this kind of thing to happen. Heal all those directly and indirectly effected by the tragedy today. We pray for the souls lost including the perpetrator. In your wisdom and grace touch us and help us to do your will in each and every moment. Help us to be your love. Amen.

Words that Inspire

Actions speak louder than words. True enough. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. Not so true. Words are powerful. Words cut or soothe. Words matter especially to children and others who are vulnerable. And, yes, actions must follow words but words do matter.

Rev. Sara Staton listens intently to a child. Photo by Tim Graves

I spent last week at Junior Camp. Junior Camp is what the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Oregon calls its camp for third, fourth, and fifth graders. I was blessed in many ways. One of the ways that I was blessed was by good leadership.

The Reverend Sara Staton of First Christian Church in Albany, Oregon, served as the camp director. She exuded love and respect. When a child had a question, she stopped and focused completely on the child. She listened. She responded respectfully even when the answer was no. Because her actions were consistent with the best of what it means to follow Jesus, the children trusted her. And, so, the words she spoke to the children on Monday morning had soothing, loving power. They were rightfully believed and set a tone for the week.

In a brief presentation to the children about Philippians 4:4-5, in which Paul implies that Jesus could return at any moment, Sara said,

“The counselors thought and prayed about that and then you all showed up. I think God is already here. We see God in each of you.”

Ever Present One,

Thank you for inspirational and ethical leadership from young women like Sara.

Thank you for those who strive to live as Jesus taught,

   and who welcome the youngest of your people: the children.

Amen

Is God a Child Abuser?

This post originally appeared in May 2009 as What Does the Story of Abraham and Isaac Tell Us About Protecting Children?  If you are not familiar with the allegorical narrative from Genesis you can read it here. 

We would be appalled at anyone who suggested that a loving father should kill his own child. Photo by Tim Graves

When we read this story we typically emphasize Abraham’s faith. We gloss over God’s seeming command to abuse Isaac, to kill his own child. We do this because it is difficult to accept a God who would ask Abraham to commit child abuse. However, to remove from the story the nature of what God is asking of Abraham is to remove the power of the story.

This sequence of events within the broader context of God’s relationship with God’s children, the Israelites, tells us about the nature of God. Despite their repeated misbehavior, despite God’s frustration with their actions, God continually cares for and protects them. Within the multi-generations of the Israelites we find the nature of a protective and loving God who desires obedience. Made in the image of God, our relationship with children reflects the relationship of God with the Israelites.

He said “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22: 2 NRSV

When God tells Abraham to commit child abuse in Genesis 22:2 our literal nature squirms. Our God-created biological nature struggles against the words that ask our brother Abraham to kill his only child. Here the level of obedience God expects of us is revealed. Obedience to God is required above all else, even above our very God-created natures.

As Isaac and Abraham journey up the mountain and as Abraham prepares the altar for sacrifice, he does not abdicate his parental responsibilities. In the exchange between Isaac and Abraham we see a father’s love that avoids frightening his beloved son. Isaac places his trust in his loving, protecting Daddy. Abraham places his trust in our loving, protecting God. We are shocked by Abraham’s obedience as he binds his son, lays him on the altar on top of the wood and reaches “out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” (Genesis 22: 9a-10 NRSV) But our God will not allow child abuse even if it means a literal contradiction of Godself:

He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Genesis 22: 12 NRSV

In this story we not only learn about Abraham’s faithfulness to God but when viewed through the teachings of Jesus, we learn about the nature of God’s expectations of our relationships with children. In our emotional response to the heinousness of potentially burning a child alive we learn about our own God-reflected nature. We learn about our relationship with our children, the children of humanity. The only thing that trumps our God-created nature to protect, care for, and love our children is our faith and trust in God.

I Couldn’t Have Picked Anyone Better!

One of amazing things about fatherhood is that my adult children have increased the size of my family. I’m not talking about grandchildren; that joy may come in its time. I’m talking about my children’s significant others.

As my daughter and son have found life-partners, I’ve been blessed by a doubling of my children. It wasn’t until Frances and, now, Breetel joined our family that I felt the depth of my father’s words the first time I brought my beloved home. He said, “We couldn’t have picked anyone better for you.” 


My amazing children…all four of them!

My daughter and son are remarkable, phenomenal individuals.  (This is a fact not a father’s pride.) Still, the love of another, somehow reveals a depth, a wholeness that I never saw in Isaac or Jessica before. Their love is more than a skin-deep affectation. Their love has added a vibrancy to who they were before.


Love is powerful in all its forms. Love transforms, makes us each more than we were. It defies the laws of physics. There is always an abundance and extravagance about love. Love reveals the Divine within us and in our relationship with others.

“…and the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13: 13b NRSV (Read this passage in context.)

Overcoming Our Expectations

This originally appeared as part of the GLAD Easter Writing Project. GLAD is the Gay, Lesbian, & Affirming Disciples Alliance within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).


I walked into the two-year-old room to find the new substitute monitoring a Mothers’ Day card-making project. As I took my seat to watch what was going on, Elsie finished up a card, and reached for another.

“Elsie,” said the substitute, “we’re only making cards for our moms today. You can get some of the drawing paper if you still want to draw.” Hmm, I wondered how this would play out. I doubted that Elsie would succumb to the sub’s suggestion.

“I have two moms,” announced Elsie.

“No, you don’t,” replied the teacher. Uh oh, I thought, she’s going to argue with a two-year-old. It’s never a good idea to get in a power struggle with a two-year-old. You will lose.

“Yes, I do!”

“No, Elsie, people only have one mom…” continued the substitute.

“YES,” the articulate two-year-old raised her voice. “I have my mom Sylvie an’ my mom Tonya.”

The substitute teacher looked confused and became silent. Though I didn’t always get involved while observing my teachers, I offered up information she didn’t have. I told her Elsie has two moms. She looked disturbed but immediately gave Elsie another card and muttered, “I didn’t know.”

Much of bigotry, whether it is in classes, pop culture, or our churches is the result of inaccurate expectations. In our humanity, we create images of others. These expectations of those around us serve as the template for what we consider normal. The substitute teacher who argued with the two-year-old had a template in her head for families. A family with two moms was outside that image.

When we talked about this event afterwards, the substitute teacher apologized. “I just didn’t know,” she explained. She expected that all children are raised in homes by a man and a woman, by a single mother, by grandparents, or even by a single father. Her expectations were inaccurate and limited.

We do the same thing in our churches. We expect that with the right mixture of worship experience, children’s ministry, and mission to the community we will attract families from the church of our memories. We wrongly expect not only stone buildings filled to the brim with people, we expect those people to look like a collection of television show families from the middle of the last century.

Our image of the church is filtered through memories that are not wholly accurate. We expect that we can create that which never existed. We strive to create alone what can only be co-created with God. When we prayerfully listen and follow God, we can co-create that which God continues to transform and create. However, we too often cling stubbornly to our deformed expectations of the church and one another. We perversely draw lines within humanity of who is worthy to be included and who is not quite human enough to receive God’s love.

But God doesn’t give up on us. The Holy Spirit, despite our flawed expectations, sometimes lures someone through our doors. Too often, if they don’t look like our expectations, we use the lines we’ve drawn within humanity, to collectively chase them away. This is particularly true if the people don’t meet our expectations of gender or sexual orientation.

Despite the unfolding of God’s Realm of love, in which the Imago Dei (image of God) of GLBTQAI peoples is fully accepted, we see a threat. We hide behind a misinterpretation of the scriptures because others do not fit our image of humanity. We use our Holy Book to chase people away from the church. We put a stumbling block before others to keep them away from Jesus!

Instead of seeing the love that the two-year-old experiences from her two mothers, we cling desperately to our image of where parental love can emanate. Instead of seeing the truth in our scriptures, that of an ever-widening circle of God’s extravagant love, we desperately cling to our expectations.

Splash, Splish, Ka-SPLOSH!

Blue puddle,

   green puddle,

    brown puddle, too.


Clear puddle,

   murky puddle,

      puddle of grit or goo.


Tiny puddle,

   big puddle,

      gargantuan puddle, woo hoo!


Round, wide, narrow,

   oblong, 

      expansive rivers, 

         or mere trickles of damp,

            I like them all.


Puddles deep,

   and puddles that seep.


Puddles filled with life,

   crawling & oozing,

      like worms between my toes.


Puddles that coat my Wellies,

as I splash, splish, Ka-SPLOSH!


Gurgling puddle,

   static puddle,

      gently growing puddle, too.


Stay awhile and I will, too.

Knowing Better than God: No Pink Bowling Balls for Boys!

“You’re not gonna use the pink ball. We’re not gonna let you do that. Not on camera.” –Rick Santorum to a boy reaching for a bowling ball


I was never a particularly macho kid. Yeah, my brother and I played with cars and trucks. We even played the occasional vacant lot baseball game. Despite that, I never played organized sports. I was the last picked for teams in gym class. I chose the Drama electives instead of more manly subjects. Crying was not outside of my repertoire. Coming of age when I did, it was not easy to be the sensitive boy.  


“When are you going to get a real job?” –Cindy, about my work educaring infants and toddlers 

With babies mid-1980s

Spending my days nurturing and caring for infants and toddlers was not the traditional path for a man in the early 1980s. I knew it might be a lonely path when I became the first man to graduate from the early childhood degree program at Illinois State University. While blessed by a fully supportive fiance and now wife, I had also hoped – perhaps in vain – that my friends would understand. Some did. Cindy did not.

There were jobs I did not receive because of a cultural bias that any man who wanted to work with babies must be a molester. It was not easy blazing a trail. The joys and contentment I have always felt with humanity’s youngest is a clear sign that this was the Divinely-led path for me. 

As a bi-vocational minister, I still spend time working with babies and young children part-time. Things have gotten better or, perhaps, I’ve just gotten better at finding people who see my gifts. Nonetheless there are far too few men who work with young children. Our culture still has stratified roles for women and men. 

With preschoolers, 2011.

I felt anger rise within me. My eyes watered as I read of a presidential candidate discouraging a boy from using a pink bowling ball. I know how it feels to have who you are created to be dismissed by others. I am not alone in these feelings. Certainly women in traditionally men’s professions have a more difficult journey than I’ve had as a white man.

When we force boys or girls into rigidly culturally-constructed roles based upon their sexual organs, we deny their humanity. We deny their Divinely created gifts. In effect, we idolize – treat as a god – our own socially-constructed gender roles.


Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 1 Corinthians 12: 4-11 NRSV (View this passage in context.)


When we discourage girls from studying the sciences or boys from nurturing babies, we teach our children to ignore the Spirit. We tell our children to pretend to be someone they are not. We tell God that we know better.