God meant things to be so much easier…

God meant things to be so much easier…

“We want to build a society where it is easier for people to be good.”  Peter Maurin (Co-founder, with Dorothy Day, of the Catholic Worker Movement)

Long before last week’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I’ve been in turmoil over the brokenness I see, every where I look…

  • Thousands dying from opioid overdoses.
  • Countless women revealing the abuses they’ve suffered from men behaving like animals.
  • The growing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
  • The bullying young people endure in our schools, and on social media.
  • The vitriol that dominates our politics.
  • Senseless acts of “road rage,” ending in senseless deaths.
  • The public rise of hate groups.
  • The decline of civility.
  • The alarming negative impact of social media on everything from our politics to our children’s social development.
  • ISIS.  Al-Queda.  Boko Haram.
  • The Pulse night club massacre.  The Las Vegas strip massacre.  The Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre.

What is happening?

I know the world’s never been perfect.  There’s always been war, violence, hate, prejudice, addiction, sickness, poverty, disasters, racism, injustices, etc.  Certainly, anyone whose lived through wars, or famines, or the Holocaust, or slavery, or in a refugee camp, or a natural disaster, may not be as shocked or disturbed as I am by our current state.  Perhaps the world is no more broken than it ever has been, and I’ve just been blind or ignorant.

Nevertheless, my eyes are wide-open now, and I don’t like what I see.

Do you?

Dorothy Day wrote, “We are not expecting utopia here on this earth.  But God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.”

Is it possible that we’ve created a way of living that’s unhealthy, unsustainable, and undermining the kind of life we actually long for? Is it possible that our values and lifestyles – the values and lifestyles of normal, church-going, law-abiding citizens – are actually completely out-of-whack?  Is it possible that for the world to change, we’ll have to change ourselves?

In the shadow of recent events, children are on my mind.  I think we’re failing our children.

  • We aren’t providing children with adequate role models, mentors, and guides.
  • We’re pushing our kids to be too busy for their own good, and have placed too much pressure on them to perform.
  • We’re sacrificing family time, for work and activity.
  • We’re sacrificing community and extended-family, for opportunity and mobility.
  • We’re sacrificing religion and spirituality – in the Church and in the home – to competing obligations and recreation.
  • We’re not teaching children the values of respect for authority, hard work and discipline, and basic morality.
  • We’re exposing our children to way too much evil in movies, TV, the internet, and social media, without the supervision or skills to discern good and evil, right and wrong.
  • We’re indulging our kids, instead of investing in them.
  • We’re allowing our kids to grow up with way too much fear, without the foundations of security we all need to thrive.
  • We are creating survivors, not thrivers.

And, when I say “we,” I’m not just blaming parents.  Parenting is the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I certainly didn’t do it perfectly.  “We” is me.  “We” is you.  “We” is society, culture, government, the Church, the media, the press, school systems, sports leagues, etc., etc.  “We” are the problem.

I’m also not suggesting there aren’t countless parents, grand-parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, Scout leaders, police officers, politicians, etc. trying to make a difference in kids lives.  There are, thank God.

But, something has to change, doesn’t it?  What we’re doing isn’t working, is it?

I don’t have the answers, and it’s certainly much easier to identify problems than to develop solutions.  But, increasingly, I want to be part of building a society where it is easier for people to “be good.”

What if we lived simpler lives, with less stress, and more time for family, friends, and faith?

What if we knew our neighbors, and built stronger community with them?

What if we developed habits of helping each other, relying on each other, supporting each other?

What if we all gave more time to service, helping the most fragile members of our society?

What if we spent more time looking into each other’s faces, and less time at screens?

What if we planted deeper roots in one place, forsaking the next promotion or opportunity, for the sake of long-term stability?

What if we valued character-development – our children’s and our own – over academic, athletic, or professional achievement?  Not instead of, just more than.

What if church, worship, service, and faith development was a priority for the whole family?

What if we were more generous with our resources, our time, and our hearts?

What if we collectively committed to fixing what is broken in our society, instead of turning our backs and hiding from it?

What if we collectively believed we could make the world better than it is, and did something about it?

I want to be part of building a society where it is easier for people to be good – really good.  Do you?

Preaching for the Governor… and Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, Reuters…

Preaching for the Governor… and Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC, Reuters…

I was prepared for yesterday (Sunday, February 18, 2018) to be a “different” kind of Sunday, given the recent tragedy in our community.  We’d already modified the service to address the myriad questions and emotions, to honor the dead, and to comfort the hurting.  We were prepared for larger crowds, knowing people often turn to the God and the Church following tragedies.  And, they did.

I didn’t, however, expect Governor Rick Scott to show up.  We’d heard it was possible, but didn’t know for sure.  Governor Scott was in town to attend several funerals of the victims, and wanted to attend a worship service in the community.  He chose First Church, and we are honored that he did.

I also didn’t expect the press.  They weren’t there for the Governor – that had been kept a secret.  But, they were all there!

Throughout the morning, different people said comments to me, like, “You must have worked extra hard on that sermon, preaching for the Governor!”

With no disrespect for Governor Scott, at all, and no desire to sound self-righteous, I  honestly replied, “Governor Scott never crossed my mind.  I was preaching for the person whose hurting the most, and needed to find God this morning.”  

Maybe that person was Governor Scott.  I don’t know.  If so, thank God.

I wrote and delivered my sermon, with someone local in mind – not Governor Scott, and not the press.  I was thinking of the grieving, the confused, the traumatized, the hurting.  I was thinking of the men and women, children and youth, who’ve been most personally affected by this terrible tragedy.  I was thinking about the person who needed to be reminded that God exists.  I was thinking of the person who needed to hear that God is with us in our pain and suffering.  I was thinking about the person who needed to hear that it’s ok not to be ok.

Please don’t hear any of this as false humility.  Yes, I was conscious of the Governor’s presence (as well as his security detail).  I was aware of the cameras and microphones, recording my every word and move.  I was aware that I really need a hair cut; that my shirt was too wrinkled; that I’ve gained way too much weight.  I was aware that I was missing a rare opportunity to address the broader topics of gun violence, mental health, school safety, mental health, etc., etc.   I was painfully aware of every word I stumbled over, and every thought I couldn’t articulate.  I was deeply aware of my many pastoral inadequacies and shortcomings.

But, thankfully, none of that was my primary focus.

Maybe something I said, or something the press recorded, or something they experienced personally, may have touched them or a broader audience.  If so, to God be the glory.  But, that, to me, is secondary.

Isn’t it interesting how our attention is drawn to what, or who, the world says is important – like a governor or the press?  No doubt, they are important, in their own respective ways.  And yet, Jesus’ attention was always drawn to the least “important,” and the ones who suffered the most.  Jesus’ attention is still drawn to suffering.  I hope the same is always true of me.

The Governor has returned to Tallahassee, I suspect.  Soon, the attention of the press will be drawn elsewhere – not to another tragedy, like this one, I pray.  Soon, life in Coral Springs and Parkland will return to “normal” – whatever that means, now.  But, the wounds inflicted upon us on February 14, 2018 will remain for a long, long time.

That’s all that mattered to me yesterday.  That’s what matters to me today.

Coddling Evil

Coddling Evil

Yesterday, in a brief conversation with a colleague, reflecting on the recent tragedy in our community, she asked, “Why do we coddle evil?”  

She wasn’t only talking about the mass killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  She was talking about the myriad evils in our world – in our own communities – that we are either blind to, or just consider insignificant.

She was also talking about personified evil – the spiritual forces of wickedness at work in our world; undermining good, turning people away from God and their neighbor, and seeking out opportunities to cause death and destruction.

“Why do we coddle evil?”

I wonder if it’s because we blame evil on people.  We see people.  We see what they do.

Surely, people do evil things.  Surely, people are complicit for their evil acts.  Surely, people are responsible – and must be held responsible – for their choices.  But, what about the evil that shapes and forms the people who do evil things?

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Ephesians 6:12

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  1 Peter 5:8

I wonder if it’s easier to dismiss evil, blaming it on the bad choices of bad people?  We fear evil, of course.  But, we think we can avoid it by living in nice neighborhoods, sending our kids to “good” schools, avoiding certain parts of town, not associating with certain types of people, putting “bad” people in prison, protecting our borders, and certainly not participating in anything “too” bad ourselves.

Yes – evil exists in bad neighborhoods, bad schools, and in bad people.  Evil also exists in gated communities, private schools, and in “model” citizens.  Evil exists in our work places, in our government, on our TVs, and in our social media.  Evil, sometimes, exists in us.

Evil isn’t only a troubled young man with an assault-style weapon – though evil was clearly at work in him.  Evil is greed.  Evil is racism.  Evil is materialism.  Evil is sexism.  Evil is addiction, in all of it’s varieties.  Evil is lust.  Evil is judging others as inferior.  Evil is careless, thoughtless, hurtful words.  Evil is idolatry, in all of it’s myriad forms.  Evil is selfishness.  Evil is division.  Evil is power used abusively.  Evil is apathy.  Evil is hate.  Evil is injustice.  Evil is violence.  Evil is complacency.  Evil is pride.  Evil is worldliness.

“Why do we coddle evil?”

In moments like these, we inevitably ask questions about how to protect ourselves from future evil.  “Shouldn’t we have tougher gun laws?  Shouldn’t we have better mental health screenings?  Shouldn’t we have better security in our schools?”  Security and the protection of the innocent is undeniably prudent.  But, evil always finds a way in.  Evil always finds a chink in one’s armor.   Evil always finds a willing partner.

Perhaps the questions we should be asking, as people of faith are, “How do we name evil, resist evil, and do battle with evil, before evil wreaks such havoc and destruction?  How do we acknowledge and name the evil we complacently accept and minimize in our world, our communities, and even in our own homes?  How do we stop coddling evil, and start confronting evil?”

I’m not talking about Hollywood-style spiritual warfare and exorcisms – though there certainly may be times, people, and places that is needed.  I’m talking about donning the “armor of God” and confronting the forces of darkness in their tangible forms – racism, poverty, injustice, and the pervasive acceptance of myriad worldly values contrary to the will of God.

Jesus said, “I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not stand against it!”

The Church of Jesus is not called to avoid evil, to accept evil, or to pander to evil.  The Church of Jesus is called to be a bright, piercing, billion-kilowatt light in the darkest darkness.  And, where the light shines brightest, the darkness flees.

Rob Bell writes, “Why blame the dark for being dark? It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.”

One of my favorite quotes is from a missionary named C.T. Studd…

“Some want to live within the sound of a church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell.”

Christian friends, “Why do we coddle evil?”

 

What broke him?

What broke him?

Yesterday, Nikolas Cruz entered the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, FL – a school he was expelled from – murdering seventeen innocent victims and injuring at least fourteen others.  The press is already reporting there were “red flags” – expulsion, social media posts, strange behaviors, etc.  He doesn’t seem to have friends.  Apparently Cruz has experienced significant loss and grief.

As yesterday’s events unfolded, I asked, “What broke him?  Who broke him?”  This wasn’t the act of a “normal” person choosing wrong.  This was not the act of a “normal” person suddenly overcome with evil.  Yes, what he did was unspeakably evil!  But, this wasn’t the act of a “normal” person.  Only a “broken” person could do something this horrific.

“What broke him?  Who broke him?

We could ask the same every time one of these tragedies occur.

Perhaps some people are born evil.  Some would make that argument.  I can’t accept that.  I believe God doesn’t make broken people.  I believe God creates us in his good image.  I believe this world breaks people.  And, today, I wonder what broke Nikolas Cruz, and others like him.

Inevitably, many are already debating the need for better gun laws versus better mental health screenings.  Though I firmly believe some kind of law should have prohibited Cruz from purchasing a semi-automatic weapon, my point is not to enter that particular debate.

I’m wondering when Cruz’s brokenness began, who might have recognized it early on, and who failed to intervene?  I’m wondering what might have saved Cruz – and, now, all of his victims – closer to when his brokenness began?  I’m not looking for someone to blame.  I’m wondering about how Cruz, and others like him, might have been helped before doing such unspeakable harm?  I’m wondering who the next Cruz might be?

And, I’m wondering what the Church’s role is?  Obviously, the Church is quick to offer aid following tragedies.  We hold special services.  We offer comfort, counsel, and prayer.  But, I’m wondering, if we are called to be salt and light in world, how we could – must – address the widespread brokenness in our world?  Where was the Church for Nikolas Cruz?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not blaming the world, the Church, or anyone else for Cruz’s sin.  Cruz made that evil choice.  I’m just wondering why, and what might have stopped him.

I confess I am struggling today.  These aren’t just theological ponderings.  I’m wrestling deep in my soul.  I’m torn between knowing there is darkness in our world, and feeling an immense responsibility to stop playing “Church”; to actually do something substantial and assertive, to drive back the forces of evil in our communities and our world.  I’m torn between believing in the free-will that allows for evil choices, and believing God’s will ultimately prevails.  I’m torn between feelings of hopelessness in the face of so much despair, and an outrage-driven conviction to do more about it.  I’m torn between utter hopelessness, and knowing we have the power of almighty-God at our disposal.  I’m torn between wondering if the Church is making any difference in this world at all, and knowing Christ, working in the Church, is the only hope we have.

I watch as society drifts further and further away from God.  I watch as families senselessly decay.  I watch as more and more die of drug overdoses.  I watch as so many “Christian” families are less and less involved in Church, and more and more drawn away to other worldly distractions.  I watch as woman after woman after woman comes forward to bravely confront men who’ve assaulted them.  I watch as our country grows more and more divided.  I watch as age-old-racism seems to be rekindled.  I watch as the constant threat of war and nuclear annihilation looms on the horizon.  I watch as we literally throw away our lives on the smallest, most petty, trivial pursuits.

Friends, what are we doing?  Yes, Cruz is broken.  But, maybe Cruz is broken because we are broken?  Maybe Cruz if broken because the world is so broken.  Maybe the world is so broken because we – the Church – are doing so little about it.

And I’m thinking a lot about Jesus today.  I’m thinking about Jesus coming to heal our brokenness and rescue us from sin.  I’m thinking about the trivial ways we talk about sin, without confronting the sin that leads to yesterday’s massacre.  I’m thinking about the terrible weight Jesus bore on the cross, dying to save us from all of our sin and brokenness.

I’m wondering what Jesus is calling his church to do?

I don’t know who broke Nikolas Cruz.  But, I do know who could – who can – heal his brokenness. I know who can heal the brokenness all around us.

So, here’s my question, to the Church.  Are we going to keep playing Church – with nice worship services, cozy fellowship, shallow religious programs, and petty squabbles over silly, unimportant, irrelevant disagreements?  Or, are we going to get to work, with all of the courage and conviction we can muster, driving back the forces of darkness that lead to death and destruction, in Jesus’ name?

Isn’t the correct answer obvious?

What broke him?  What are we going to do about it?

 

 

More Than Objects

More Than Objects

Anyone whose lived in Florida for long, and traveled on I-75, will recognize the billboard pictured above.  Though the signs have been changed, the billboards, like the one above, adorned the Interstate for years and years.  I’ve passed those billboards countless times.

I assume the photos imply beautiful women can be seen – without their clothes, of course – at Cafe Risque.  Perhaps the photos were even meant to imply THESE women can be seen – without their clothes, of course.

I recall looking at those signs, wondering about the photos.  Did the women actually work at Cafe Risque?  Were the women paid for the photos?  I wondered about their families.  Had their parents seen those billboards and looked at their photos?  If so, did they care?  As a father, of a daughter I adore, I can’t imagine the heartbreak I would feel to see her beautiful face on that billboard.

Whoever these women are, and however their photos were procured, they’re someone’s daughter, someone’s sister.  They might be someone’s mother.  They have stories.  They have histories.  They have talents and abilities.  They have strengths and weaknesses.  They have qualities and flaws. They have personalities.  They have likes and dislikes.  They have potential.  They have lives.

As beautiful as they are, their physical beauty – their sexual allure – is only one dimension of who they are.  They aren’t objects, existing only for men’s pleasure and stimulation.

Did I mention that they were made in the image and likeness of God?

Some might assume they chose to be photographed, or chose to be strippers.  Maybe so.  Maybe they like their job.  Or, maybe, they were never told they’re more than their beauty.  Maybe no one every told them they’re more than objects.  Maybe they’re desperate to earn a living, and didn’t know they had other options.

Though obviously different, there’s been a recent tidal wave of accusations of varying degrees of sexually inappropriate conduct – men behaving very badly.  Accusations range from offensive joking, to lewd comments, to inappropriate touching, to unwelcomed/unwanted advances and propositions, to indecent exposure, to physical intimidation, to threats, to physical assault and rape.  Story, after story, after story of men treating women (and, sometimes, men) as little more than objects to fulfill their sexual desires.

And, the men accused are among our most culturally admired – entertainers, journalists, elected public servants, business moguls.  Educated.  Successful.  Famous.  Cultured.  Respected.  Professional.  I have admired some of these men.

But, behind closed doors, these men revealed who they actually are.

So, what’s the connection between inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace and photos on Cafe Risque billboards?  Both objectify women.  Let’s be honest – strip clubs don’t exist because women want to dance naked.  Strip clubs exist to entertain men.  The issue is the same – men assuming others exist to fulfill their sexual desires.

Don’t get me wrong.  Sexual attraction is normal.  Sex, between mutually-consenting, committed, covenanted adults , is beautiful – godly even.  The human body can be beautiful to see, and exhilarating to touch, when willing shared and freely given.  God made sex as a gift for us – a gift to be cherished, honored and protected.

But, when sex is misused; when sex and sexuality is cheapened and degraded; when sex is imposed, but unwanted; when sex is expected, demanded, or forced; when humans, made in the image of God, are objectified sexually; when sex victimizes; the human toll can be devastating.

The recent wave of accusations reveals a sickness – a sexual sickness – in our society.  Add to these accusations, incidents that will remain unreported.  Add to these accusations the high instances of date rape.  Add to these accusations the epidemic of porn-use.  We have a massive problem.

Though my heart breaks for all of the victims, for what they’ve endured, I celebrate and applaud their bravery coming forward now.  And, I hope, this might be a moment of societal shift.

But, true change will only come when we learn to see and treat people and sexuality with utmost dignity and respect.  EVERY human is a child God.  Physical beauty is to be appreciated and respected, as one dimension of a person.  Sex is a holy gift from God, to be enjoyed AND treated as sacred.

May I be so bold to suggest this is a spiritual issue, needing a spiritual solution?

 

Brutiful

Brutiful

My morning began with a text from a good friend shaken by the shootings in Las Vegas.  At this point, the news reports 58 killed and over 500 injured by a lone gunmen with unknown motives.

Brutal.

Moments ago, I listened to a radio report, saying conditions in Puerto Rico are rapidly deteriorating, and millions of people are suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Brutal.

While trivial by comparison, as I drove, I passed piles of debris awaiting pick-up since Hurricane Irma passed through Florida, nearly a month ago.

Not brutal – at least in my community – but, more signs of destruction.

I know there are three emails in my inbox regarding a young woman who was abducted, brutally raped, and murdered earlier this year.  I haven’t read them, yet.  I will.  But, not yet.  I know the family.  I know the story.  I know the brutality.

Brutal feels like the word of the day.  So much brutality.  Brutality everywhere I look.  Perhaps another word is broken.  So much brokenness.  Brutal and broken.  That’s how the world feels to me today.  Brutal and broken.

Later this evening, I will gather with a cohort preparing to become Spiritual Directors.  Spiritual Directors are companions on the journey, seeking God in prayer.  Inevitably, I have no doubt, we’ll be wrestling with how to find God in the brutality, and how to pray in moments of brokenness.

I’ll confess, I haven’t known what to pray today.  And, thus, I haven’t.

Days like today, I trust in the promise of Romans 8:26-27 (NLT), “The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.  And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.”

Days like today, I groan more than pray.  Maybe my groans are prayers.  I hope so.  Maybe your groans are prayers.  Maybe the groans arising from Las Vegas and Puerto Rico are prayers.  I think God’s hearing a lot of groaning these days.

I’m also reminded of an expression I learned from Glennon Doyle:”brutiful.”  Glennon says, “Life is brutal. But it’s also beautiful. Brutiful, I call it. Life’s brutal and beautiful are woven together so tightly that they can’t be separated. Reject the brutal, reject the beauty. So now I embrace both, and I live well and hard and real.”

Amidst the brutality of today’s events and news, I hear stories of heroic acts in Las Vegas and the generous outpouring of donations for Puerto Rico.  While the dark clouds of brutality obscure the beauty of the day, some beauty remains.  Thank God.  There is a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1:5, NLT)

I need to be reminded of beauty sometimes.

There is so much that is brutal and broken in this world.  There’s so much brokenness.  So much despair.  Help us, Lord, to never lose sight of the beauty that co-exists with the brutality.  Help us, Lord, never to lose sight of you.

And, when we don’t know what to pray,  hear our groans.