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Politics, Violence & Blame: is Trump responsible for the violence?

Donald Trump.pngI was recently listening to the radio (yep, I’m that old) and heard about the violence outbreak at the canceled Trump rally in Chicago.  I also then saw news headlines and commentators saying Donald Trump was responsible for the violence.

This got me thinking.  A dangerous thing to do in the midst of our current political climate.  But still, it got me thinking.  And in my thinking I began to wonder to what degree is Trump responsible, or not responsible, for the violence associated with his campaign and at the rallies.

As a teacher I remember some students who had stolen money from a kid who was selling candy bars. “It wasn’t my fault!” they said. “He left the money out where I could see it.”  Huh?

As a leader, I am responsible for my actions.  And my words are a part of my actions.  I am able to use my words to build people up. Encourage others and challenge them to live out the Gospel.  Love, the kind of love Jesus calls us to, compels me to use my words and my actions in a way that creates helpful urgency and still lowers anxiety.

In an election year, all the candidates have a choice to make about how they will use their words.  And Donald Trump has been a master, all along, of using language to his advantage. He is a master at communication. His sentences are simple. They provoke strong emotions. He speaks from an assumption of agreement. And he almost always stays on message.

However, and you knew this was coming, right?  However, one of the roles of differentiated leader is the ability to remain less anxious in the midst of anxiety.  And as a less anxious leader, the system you are part of becomes less anxious through your less anxious presence.  

Through his masterful use of language, Trump has created a compelling case for urgency.  He has also, through his masterful use of language, added to the anxiety that is already present in our culture today.

In fact, I believe Trump has been irresponsible with his language.

But that doesn’t answer the question.  Even as just a candidate at this point, Donal Trump has a responsibility to use language well – in a way that builds, challenges, exhorts and encourages.  But does irresponsibly adding to anxiety make him culpable for the violence?

Unless there is a gun to my head, nobody makes me do anything.  Not even the devil.  I choose to speed when I go over the speed limit.  I choose to gossip when I share juicy news.  I choose to be selfish when I am not generous.  Nobody makes me.

In other words, nobody makes me act violently.  Or, do they…?

When a system (think family, congregation, city or nation) is already highly anxious, and a leader intentionally sabotages that system by intentionally increasing emotional anxiety, that leader is culpable.  There has to be a level of responsibility assigned.

And yet, nobody makes anybody act violently.  Each violent act perpetrated by an individual capable of personal agency, is personally responsible for his/her own actions. When those actions are not rooted in Love – love for God and love for others – in a way in which we will and act for the good of others – those actions are then self seeking and are initiated in order to assert our will over others.

Violence.

So, is Trump responsible for the violence?  Yes.  And no.  Donald Trump is responsible for how he has led in this election year, for the way he has conducted himself and for how he has added to the anxiety in our already highly anxious country.

But.  So are we.  We each make choices.  We each live our lives.  And today we live in an election year where we are making deep lines in the sand.  We are defining ourselves as either for Trump or against Trump. And when we do so, we also add to the anxiety.

I wonder… What if we choose to define ourselves differently?  What if, like the angel who appeared to Joshua, we were neither for nor against Trump.  What if we defined ourselves by something bigger, more important than politics or personalities.

What if we chose to define ourselves by love.  What if we defined ourselves by the Gospel this election year.  What if we defined ourselves as being for the “other” in our midst.

In the Fall we will cast our votes and we will elect a new president.  But more than voting, we have an opportunity to rise above the fray of campaigns and live lives of love.  We don’t need to let the anxiety of the candidates determine our behavior.

We can love. 


Pastor! Do You Love Your City?

kalamazooCityBkgThe above is a picture of my city.  Kalamazoo.  The place we have been called to and have chosen to live.  As a friend of mine would say, it is beautifully flawed.

Our community, the Kalamazoo community, is still reeling from the violence which has recently shaken us.  It has shaken our faith, our ability to trust – not only God but others. It has shaken our sense of security.

In the midst of this aftermath, there is something that has not been shaken in me.  In fact, I believe it has deepened. My love.

I could talk about my call to this community, but I believe you can experience a call to a particular place you do not love – think Jonah.

But love.  Several times I have been asked how the recent shootings in Kalamazoo have personally impacted me.  And at first I wasn’t sure how to answer.  Over the last two weeks, in the midst of a life-giving learning community, I began to realize the deepest impact has been love.

As a pastor my call is to a particular congregation (Haven) within a particular denomination (the RCA); but my call has always been to much more.  It has always been a call to the larger Church and to the broader community.  Always.

The call to pastor in the context of a city, or a community, is a call to love that city with the love of Jesus.  And the events of the past few weeks have clarified and deepened my love for Kalamazoo and the community surrounding it. I love the congregation with whom I serve, I love the larger Church of Kalamazoo and I believe I cannot truly seek the Shalom of God for the Kalamazoo area if I do not love Kalamazoo.

Jeremiah 29:7 tells us to seek the welfare of the city we are in, to pray for it to prosper.

In the last two weeks I have had several interactions which have caused me to ask this question:

Pastor, do you love the city you are in?

I’m not asking if you love what you do.  I’m not asking if you love your congregation or denomination.  I am asking if you love the city you have been placed by God in to partner with Him in reconciling and restoring all things.

Do you love your city?

Your city knows.  It experiences you.  The city you are in has a heart beat and knows.  Would you wonder with me if your city experiences you as a Jonah who didn’t want to be in Ninevah or if your city experiences you weeping along with Jesus over it?

Pastor, do you love your city?


When Violence Happens, Our Questions Are Hard

welovekalamazoo

Saturday evening, just a few hundred yards from where I pastor, the sister of one of students in our youth ministry was shot as part of a shooting spree where eight people were shot. Two continue to fight for their lives and six were killed in the shootings.

What do I write about all that is in my heart about this? How do I take what doesn’t really have words and give it voice?

It would be easy to turn this into an opportunity to talk about guns; or to talk about our violence culture; or to make this into some sort of political stump to stand on. But this post won’t be about that. And so if you have an urging within you to say something political, I want to ask you to hold it in. At least for just a little bit?

Political agendas around gun control and a violence culture cheapen, and even belittle, the grief of families and the questions a tragedy such as this bring to the surface.

As a community we are asking the deeper questions – and doubt. Questions that begin with “why.” Why did this have to happen? Where is God in the midst of this? How does a good and loving God allow such things to happen? Why did a father and son have to die? Why were four women, friend, killed for apparently no reason?

These are the questions that need to be asked by the community at this time. These are good, hard questions that get at the core of faith and if it is even worth having faith. Yes, you read that right. I think it is a good thing to even wrestle with if it is worth having faith. (I think I just felt some of your anxiety go up didn’t I?). Unless we get to the root of that question, and if we go to quickly to platitudes, I am not sure we really have faith or if it is a deep faith…?

It’s a question even as much as it is a statement.

I wonder if we can consider for a moment that even Jesus had questions. Deep and difficult questions. Addressed to God the Father.

In Matthew (one of my 4 favorite Gospel accounts) Jesus begins to ask his Father if he has to suffer in the way he knows is coming. Twice in chapter 26 Jesus asks if the “cup” of his suffering might be taken away. The first time is recorded like this, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” Troubled and sorrowful, Jesus asks to not have to go through suffering. In Luke 22 it is recorded that Jesus’ anguish is so deep that his sweat was like drops of blood.

If Jesus is able to question God in such a troubling way, why don’t we? I think it is because doubt and questions make most of us uncomfortable most of the time. We want things tidy. We want simple answers to make sense of our world.

But simple answers elude. Especially now. Especially here.

Let’s go even further. Jesus’ last words on the cross are also a question. Directed at God. Full of suffering, pain and anguish, in Matthew 27 Jesus cries out loudly, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The last words of the pre-Easter Jesus is the question “why” cried out to God. And there is no resolution for Jesus before his death. He dies on the cross with those words still hanging in the air. And unlike at Jesus’ baptism, we are left without a response from Heaven…

I want to invite you to let the question hang there. Why God? Why did six people have to die from a random act of violence on Saturday? Why did it have to happen here, now? Why?

Jesus’ question hung in the air.

And it was in the emptiness of the question that the resurrection took place. It was in the midst of the fear and doubt and hiding of the disciples that God the Father then stepped in.

The resurrection didn’t take place at the Triumphal entry, when it was cool to hang with cat who healed people and stood against the religious leaders of the day.

The resurrection didn’t happen when life was good.

The resurrection took place.

It took place in the midst of deep questions, fear and sadness…

Kalamazoo, let your questions sit out in the open. Ask them. Keep asking them. Jesus loves you.

 


Sometimes Being Stuck Is Good

stuck in mudMany years ago.  Many.  Six of us took a guys trip to the national forest in Colorado camping.  It was a father-son trip.  Two dads a little older than me each brought their sons and I brought my dad.  We drove to Colorado in an old van that didn’t have all its seats.

In Colorado we rented a Jeep Wrangler to play with in the wilderness.  We were set. 1 big expedition style tent, cots, bags, food, fishing poles, the jeep and more food.  The weather was amazing, the sky so clear at night.  I had a pile of books I read sitting in the mountains.  It was an amazing trip.

On the trip we took the jeep everywhere.  There were six of us and the jeep held 4.  We didn’t care, we doubled up and put all of us in the jeep.  

One evening we went out on some 2 track trails through the forested mountainside.  Several times we had to gun it to get through some deep, slushy mud.  It was muddy and it was fun!

Cruising down a hill and a quick turn to the left brought us to a stop, however.  Before us was a good 40 – 50 yards of deep, wet, fun looking mud!

John is driving and my dad is in the front seat next to him.  “Do we go?” John asks looking at me with a grin on his face.  His son Daniel is on my lap and Mike, sitting next to me, has his son on his, “I’m not sure we can make it” he says.  My dad is quiet.

“Yes, let’s do it!” I exclaim.  My dad turns and looks at me, “I thought I raised you smarter than that,” he says with a smile.  “I’m just like you, dad!  Let’s go!”

We make it half way.  Not even close before we spin to a stop.  Mud is up to the floor boards and the wheels have nothing to grip.

Climbing out we are all over our knees in mud.  It’s glorious.  Driven by our anxiety, immediately a flurry of talking erupts about how we are going to get unstuck – Nobody is excited about walking miles back through the wilderness to a real road to find help.  Prospects of getting unstuck on our own looks slim.

Pushing forward and backward and forward and backward. Back and forth and back and forth with mud flying everywhere. No progress except to be covered in mud!  “Let’s stop trying,” I say.  “When else can we just enjoy being stuck in the mud in the middle of something so beautiful, look around us!”

And it was beautiful.  Gorgeous.  But we were so hopelessly focused on getting unstuck we couldn’t see it.  The beauty in the mud.

We caught our breath.  We breathed.  We laughed at our mess.

Whenever we get stuck – spiritually, in life, in doubt, in messes – we tend to work really hard to get unstuck.  Being stuck can be scary.  Its uncertain how things might turn out.  We have doubts and our doubts scare us.

Does God care?  What if I don’t survive?  I don’t think even God can fix this.  I don’t think God even loves me enough to care!

Our stuckness and doubts can be really uncomfortable and we want to get out as soon as we can.  We want to feel safe, be secure and know everything is always going to be ok.

But sometimes our doubts – our places of stuckness – are exactly where God wants us to be.  More often than not, those are the most beautiful places.  And the mud isn’t dirty, it glorious. Messy and glorious go together. 

Putting the jeep in 1st gear, we slowly drove ourselves out of the mud.  We were unstuck but the adventure was over.

It isn’t until we stop striving against our circumstances that Jesus shows up and lifts us out.  The same Jesus who cried out, “My God! My God! Why have your forsaken me!” is the one who loves you enough.

Do you have doubts?  That’s ok – so do I.  Are you stuck?  Me too.  Let’s be stuck together.


LOVE doesn’t WIN when we bash each other

Path Broken Between People

Even God’s people don’t always get along…

If you want a post with some sizzle, post something about Chick-fil-A.  If you want it to generate a lot of conversation, make it controversial.  If you really want to make it provocative, recast a story of something that took place in Chick-fil-A with the words “Spiritual Molestation” as the title. (we’ll see, cuz I’m doing it right here!)

Recently there was this experience in a Chick-fil-A that went a bit viral on Facebook.  You can read what happened here.  A blogger from Love Wins Ministries didn’t see what happened as good, but called it spiritual molestation, and later in his blog called it a “story about power and control.”  You can read his blog here.

I think I get what Hugh Hollowell is trying to say.  As Christians we offer love and that Gospel of Jesus without strings and  without obligation.  We give a cup of water, feed the hungry and clothe the naked without obligating them to something.  But I think he goes too far; and I think he forgets…

I think he forgets Jesus and how God has often operated in the world as we see in Scripture.

If what happened in a Chick-Fil-A, then what about: God causing Jonah’s only shade to shrivel up? Isaac’s trauma at being placed on the altar? Hosea being told to marry a prostitute?

While I understand that Hugh is concerned that the man in the story is being “used,” I think it would be helpful to look at the ministry of Jesus for a moment.

In Mark 12:41-44 Jesus a very poor widow give all she has (making her maybe poorer than the man in Chick-fil-A).  Instead of letting her giving pass by in secret, Jesus uses her as an object lesson.

In the beginning of Matthew 9 some people bring a paralyzed man before Jesus, and out of love he forgives the man’s sins.  But the man is still paralyzed and lying on his matt.  The teachers of the law were mumbling to themselves about Jesus.  Knowing the evil in their hearts, Jesus uses the man and his paralysis to demonstrate his power to forgive. Healing the man Jesus says this to those around him, “I will prove to you the Son of Man has authority on Earth…” It could have been anybody with any ailment.  The paralyzed man isn’t central in the story – it is about power and control between Jesus and religious leaders.

Even Paul, in prison, when he is told others are boldly proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus only so Paul suffers more, says as long as Jesus is proclaimed he is good with it.

But all of this is an example, a microscopic example, of the fracturing taking place in the Church in North America.  Rather than being busy about the work of the Gospel, we fight, nitpick and shoot our own.  And we justify ourselves by saying the truth must be known – about those other people – who love Jesus – the same Jesus we love – and maybe love him more than we do.

Church, hear this! The world is not impressed with our inbred divisive bickering.

Hugh is right.  The Gospel of John is clear.  God so loved the world. Period.  The Gospel is Love.  God is Love.  Jesus is God and all Jesus did, and does, was done in love. Even when he heals a man only to make a point to someone else, it is Love.

Dear Church, let us love one another, for love comes from God.

 


The Pain of Church Shopping

shoppingcart

Not long ago a new family showed up at Haven.  I was really excited to meet them.  They were at Haven because they didn’t like the direction of their former church.  I sent them packing.  I asked them to clean up any messes at their former church before settling on a new church home.  I haven’t seen them since.

Recently a family left our church. One of their members was hurt by another in the congregation. It wasn’t a superficial bumping against one another, but a deep hurt. The kind of wound that creates shame and the distance that accompanies it.

After several weeks I noticed their absence and reached out to them. I was told, “We’re church shopping. It isn’t you, we love Haven. But we believe we need to find another church home.” And quietly they slipped away.

I would be lying if I said the conversation didn’t hurt. It did. In some ways, it still does. Sometimes church people can be really mean to each other and that hurts my heart. More so, however, it hurts because I miss people I love.

I pastor a congregation that often sees many people come and go. There are valid reasons for leaving a congregation; and there are some pretty superficial ones. But we’ve all done it. Even pastors do it.

It’s called Church Shopping.

Fast forward. Several months. Almost a year. I am approached by a dedicated servant in the congregation, “Hey, have you seen so-and-so? I haven’t seen them recently and we were supposed to lead this ministry together.”

Feeling a little defensive, but not wanting to gossip, I am left with, “they have been looking for another church” as my response. The person I am talking to experiences some shock which transitions into sadness as well.

And here is where leaving where you are planted and shopping for a new church hurts so many.

We tend to do life from a perspective that puts us in the middle of the universe. Our comfort and/or desires become the end goal. So when we leave one church for another, we are usually only thinking about ourselves and not the people who will be hurt. Usually. There are always the exceptions.

Most of us think about our relationships with a congregation as a one-on-one relationship: me-to-church (the staff and attenders are all put into the church category) and the church-to-me. And when we leave, we typically think only about what we experience – which is valid to be sure! But, it isn’t the whole.

Our relationships within a congregation are not merely one-on-one, but they are multiplicative (a new word I learned from our children’s pastor).

Let’s say a family of 4 (and a dog) leaves a congregation. It isn’t just four people leaving a church. It is four people leaving a number of relationships. Let’s say the family knows another 40 families of 4. But that’s too big a number for me to work with – I don’t do math!

Let’s say each member of the family is close with 20 different individuals. According to my old math, that represents 80 direct relationships. That’s a lot! But let’s keep going. Let’s assume that each of those relationships takes place within a sub-system of other relationships.

To keep our math simple, let’s say there are 6 people in each subsystem and that there is an overlap of 50% in each subsystem. That means each individual relationship with one other person is actually a relationship with 4 people. In simple math that means each relationship is like this (1 + 1) x 3 = 6. Six relationships are changed or broken when one person leaves. So if each member of a family of 4 is close to 20 other individuals and that family leaves a congregation, the math looks like this (1 + 20) x 3 x 4 = 252.

252 significant relationships severed, broken or damaged when one family of 4 leaves a congregation.

Last year a woman came to me in tears following an exchange from another woman in the congregation who is in a leadership role. She wanted to let me know she would be leaving Haven. I encouraged her to stay. To work through it.

Both of them took on the difficult work of reconciliation and repaired the relationship. Both of them shared with me they grew more spiritually in that time than they can ever remember. The whole church, without knowing it, has been blessed by their growing love.

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you?


All Dress Up & Someplace To Go

RuthChrisShe was embarrassed, the hostess, that after 10 minutes of waiting past our reservation time she had to seat us here.  Red bench and the 3rd chair from the left.  Each little table was occupied and there was about six inches between them. “I am really sorry!” she said again as she spread rose petals on the table between us.

It was our 27th anniversary and I had made arrangements to splurge on my bride.  While we were in Grand Rapids, MI for Art Hop, Cathy had made an off hand comment that it would be fun to stay at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel sometime.

I listened.  I don’t always, but this time I did.

I arranged for a corner room over looking the Grand River and we had reservations at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse for 7:30 on December 17th ~ our 27th anniversary.  All I told Cathy was that she needed to bring her fancy clothes. We were going someplace nice!

As we squeezed into our table, for our romantic dinner for two, we found ourselves firmly lodged between 2 couples.  After the initial flurry of water, ordering wine and being handed menus from our waitress, it all began.

“Get the lamb Chops!” he says. “Is it your first time here?” she asks.

What?!?  Looking up from our menus, Cathy and I briefly make eye contact and then awkwardly look at the couple to my right (in the pic above I’m in 3rd chair).  They’re both smiling warmly at us. We say it is our first time. “We come here all the time.” She sees the rose petals, “Are you celebrating something?”

Thinking my answer might prompt them to leave us to our well deserved intimacy, “Our anniversary.”

“Oh? How many? This is our first anniversary” she says. He is holding her hand and has his other around a lamb chop, “we’ve been together for 12, but we got married here. We come here all the time. I got the Kansas City Steak, but I’m eating her lamb.  Get the lamb.” He’s in his mid 50’s and is doing a decent job of pulling off the urban hipster look.  But if you can afford to eat at Ruth’s Chris all the time, you can afford to pull off the hipster look when your old…

Our waitress arrives with our wine, which is delicious, and we proceed to order our dinner.  No lamb.  Steak, medium rare for me, medium for Cathy, mashed potatoes and broccoli.

“When your food comes we can pass plates and share!”

What?!? The male voice was to my left this time.  I look to my left and there is a slightly intoxicated gentleman looking at me. We go through the same routine: First time here? Are you staying in the hotel? Where are you from?

At some point in the first conversation, to my right with the hipster couple, without needing to say anything, Cathy and I made the switch. Setting aside our expectations for a quiet intimate dinner where we romantically looked and spoke to one another we both understood we were going to have to just take this one as it came.  

After 27 years, you can do that…

He is an excavator and she is an optometrist. They grew up and live in the  Upper Peninsula of Michigan and they eat at Ruth’s Chris twice a year.  She went to Ferris State.

“Are you celebrating something?” I ask after explaining we are from Kalamazoo and there to celebrate our anniversary.

“No, Yes, Kind of…” he leads with.  “He’s going to give you TMI,” she interjects quickly, giggling.

“I’m having my vasectomy reversed at 9:00am tomorrow morning,” he announces!  Immediately I felt a deep pain that made me want to hunch over and find a bag of frozen peas! But just to verify, or maybe to recover…

“What?” I ask.  “I’m having my vasectomy reversed in the morning. We have two kids and she wants to have another. Less than 5% chance, but we are seeing the best.” We encourage them with a story of a friend of ours who had his reversed the two great kids he and his wife have.

Our food comes but we continue to talk and laugh intermittently with the couples on either side of us. The food is really amazing.  Expensive, but amazing.

Eventually both couples are gone and we are eating our dessert in quiet. And it is more intimate than maybe I could have planned.

The couple to my right learned that 27 years isn’t unattainable. And the couple to my left was able to be less anxious about going under the knife in the morning.

We didn’t talk about Jesus, but I think they experienced his love. I’ve never had an anniversary dinner turn out quite like that before.

I love you, Cathy Stone.  Thanks for saying yes everyday for 27 years.

By the way, when I looked at the itemized statement under our door the next morning, the hotel had taken over $100 off the price of our romantic package.