Children, Church Life, Family, Reflectionary

Why would anyone go to church now?

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

The Boy wondered this, watching the news about the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. He has reached the age where he hears about the news at school, so we have become more open to having him hear and see things on TV, rather than trying to shield him from the hard things that happen. We need to be able to answer his questions ourselves. I don’t know if you have heard the common talk of 7th grade boys lately, but it definitely requires some counter-influences.

“Why would anyone go to church now?” He asked us again. “The doors are unlocked! Anyone could come in.”

It’s true that in church we are a special flock of sitting ducks, focused in one direction, both physically and spiritually. I rarely look around in church, when I am sitting in the pews, other than when we pass the peace. I estimate how large a crowd is behind me by the sounds they make. I’m trying not to seem overly interested in who is late, or whose children are making noise; I’m trying to be a good pastor’s wife.

Up front, as the pastor and preacher, it’s different. I’m counting heads, noting who is missing. But even then, I am not worrying about disaster, or I haven’t been, even though I know Kathryn has a plan in case someone dangerous comes into the sanctuary.

Experts offering their two cents worth on cable news recommended that churches review their emergency plans and look into security systems of staffing appropriate to their size and situation. Maybe, they suggested, someone in the congregation is already wearing a weapon to worship.

I know this is true in some of my colleague’s congregations.

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

It’s not clear yet what the shooter’s relationship to religion was. His social media accounts were quickly archived, but not so fast that some bad actors didn’t have a chance to create alternative “likes” and loyalties for him. What does seem to be clear is that a man with a history of domestic violence threatened his mother-in-law, and then he shot up the church she attended. This morning the President suggested that had a neighbor not fired at the shooter, there might have been hundreds of deaths. A better guess is had he not been given chase, his next stop would have been his mother-in-law’s house.

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

We did our best to reassure The Boy, pointing out that the shooter did not choose a church at random. I’m not sure how comforting that is, really. How was a guy who cracked his infant stepson’s skull out on the street to do this? He choked his wife; he punched his dog. Why don’t we take these clusters of behavior seriously? We don’t because we undervalue harm done to women/children, overvalue white men and their chance of a future. This is magnified when we add race, sexual orientation, gender identity to the victim side of the equation.

The permission given to this man to keep assaulting other people, the pattern of abuse he inflicted on others before Sunday, the ready availability of a weapon that can kill, terribly, so many people, so quickly – all these factors remain for other abusers, other men who cannot manage their anger or their disappointment or their frustration, who cannot resist the temptation of power and have the means available to deal out death.

Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24:15)

It might not be fair for me to make suggestions about what churches should do about their security when I am not serving one right now. Our own history as people of faith is problematic. Joshua and his house pledged to serve the Lord, but in the Promised Land, they used all their available weapons and powers to kill the people they saw as enemies, and to gain the land they wanted. They saw being the chosen ones as permission to deal out death. We should not be surprised that righteousness and power have been confused and conflated throughout human history.

Why would anyone go to church now? Our boy doesn’t drop his questions until he gets a satisfying answer, and he usually asks them again, just to be sure. We will go because it’s what we do, just like we ride on a bike path, or go to the movies, or attend a concert. We will go because most of us cannot maintain the kind of hyper-vigilance required to be on watch at all times. We will go because we want to be with the people we know and love. We will go for solace, and solidarity.

That is not enough.

I’m not saying this is easy. In the United States, we worship our guns like no other nation in the world, and some will say more guns are the answer. I do not believe this. We need to be direct in saying the god of guns is a false god. As much as I believe Jesus is among the grieving, I believe he is also pressing on his church to engage with the powers and principalities and say “No more!” Our culture privileges the powerful; often our church culture does the same. Yet we know Jesus proclaimed a preferential option for people who are marginalized and oppressed. We need the church to be a place where we talk about why mass shootings happen. We need to have those conversations and let God be part of them. We need to decide whether the church will be not just a voice speaking but a body acting to bring change in human priorities and understanding. If we have any power left as an institution, we must work together for good, in Jesus’s name.

I could stay screened here across the street, watching for unfamiliar vehicles and people, but I want more than the safe view from my window.

As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

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Children

What’s Next?

Smith College MomThis morning, we get in the car and travel to a small town in Massachusetts, which will be over-filled with parents and other relatives gathering to participate in graduation ceremonies at four colleges. Our daughter will graduate from Smith on Sunday morning, and in the ongoing competition for who had the best speaker. Mine years ago was Garry Trudeau at the height of Doonesbury fame; #1 Son had then-Senator Obama in 2008, with Secret Service agents on the rooftops surrounding the ceremony. We all think LP wins with Oprah.

Passionate about her major, Japanese, LP will leave in July to be an Assistant Language Teacher in the JET program for a year. Or two. Or five. Although we still have one child at home, we’re clear that this is a new phase in our family life. All three of the older children are far away, and they are game pieces in motion, one of our sons swapping the East Coast of the US for the West, and the other preparing for the reverse. I keep changing the cities in my Weather app. Maybe it’s a little silly to get alerts about pollen in Los Angeles when I’m sitting at my dining room table in South Central Pennsylvania, but it reminds me that wherever we are, we all live under the same sky. And what do I expect after urging them to pursue the things they love?

A friend who served as a missionary in South Africa once told me that her aim there was to put herself out of a job, to empower the women she worked with to support themselves with the sewing and crafting her ministry helped enable. That feels like the work I’ve been doing as a parent, slowly getting out of the way, trusting that these children – no, these adults – can make their way in the world, as reasonably good members of the human community. It’s both a help and a challenge to have an understanding of call. My children watched me wrestle with my call to ministry, accompanied me through my theological education, gathered at my Commencement 15 years ago this week. Their feelings probably resembled mine now, some mixture of relief and pride and “what’s next?”

What’s next is this: Go out there and be the person God made you to be.

It’s a good word for a big day; it’s a good word for every day.


A version of this post appeared in the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader, May 18, 2017.

Children, Church Life, Ministry

Only love can do that

I’m in the strange-for-me position of being out of the pulpit for the foreseeable future, and at least for now, I am attending my wife’s church as a worshipper.

Yesterday, in the first session of a wonderful and thoughtful Sunday School on Peace, Reconciliation, and Forgiveness that includes all ages from 6th grade to Senior citizens, we were asked to share in small groups the names of people we thought of as truly good. I was proud of The Boy when he named Martin Luther King, Jr., then saddened to hear a trusted adult respond, “He was good, but he was not perfect.”

Now, this was going to be the further point of the discussion – we are all in need of God’s grace, as the Presbyterian Confession of 1967 was used to illustrate – but I felt frustrated that an adult would administer that kind of corrective to the one student in our group. No one questioned any other suggestions.

When the full class shared answers, The Boy whispered to me, “Don’t say it. Don’t say it.” My heart hurt.

img_0055Later, as we sat in our pew before worship, he picked up the bulletin and saw the quote on the cover. He pointed out the words and the name to me and said, “I wasn’t wrong!”

No, son, you were not wrong.

We went on to read portions of the Letter From Birmingham Jail as the Confession and the Statement of Faith, alongside a text from Luke reminding us that the hometown crowd tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

Thus it has ever been with prophets, even the 6th-graders.