Thursday, December 20, 2012

Prayer, Newtown, Special Providence and Reinhold Niebuhr

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. 
Isaiah 43:1-3

When I was a little boy my mother taught us a bed-time prayer which my sister and I said every night:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
The Lord go with me through the night,
And keep me safe till morning light. 

In the more common, older and much scarier version of that prayer, the last two lines are:

If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. 

I’m glad Mom gave us the revised version. I can’t imagine teaching a child to say the original.

The scarier version dates from a time when little children did sometimes die in the night from a host of deadly childhood diseases which have mostly been eliminated over the last century. Today our children are safe from those deadly diseases because scientists have discovered vaccinations and medicines that are truly miraculous. Our medical and scientific progress is (I believe) part of what God is doing in the world. It is part of God’s continuing creation

Today we have come to expect that for our children, safety is the norm. And death and disease are rare. At least they are rare among the developed nations of the world. It is easy for us to forget that in other parts of the world children continue to die of disease and malnutrition at a rate that makes what happened in Newtown little more than a blip in the statistics.

We expect our children to be safe, and there is nothing wrong with that. All children ought to be safe. And safety is what every parent wants for his or her child.

But the biblical promise is not safety. The promise is that God will not leave us. Or to put it differently, in the context of my bed-time prayer, “safe” meant “safe in God’s care.”

One of the most cherished misunderstandings of biblical faith is the doctrine of “Special Providence.” 

We want to believe that God loves us more and protects us more than others. Special Providence promises that God cares for me, and for my family and loved ones, in a special and unique way. Of course, that is true in the sense that each of us has a unique experience of God’s care. But as Jesus said, the sun shines and the rain falls, on the just and the unjust, and God’s love is there for everyone.

In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” 

As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”

For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. 

Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”

The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Rachel Weeping for Her Children

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Matthew 2:16-18

During an interview this fall, Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan was asked repeatedly what he intended to do about assault rifles. He deflected the question several times before finally saying something like, “Why are you asking me about that, even President Obama isn’t going to do anything about assault rifles.”

Sad but true.

Both parties are so fearful of the NRA that they will not put forth even the mildest plans to limit the availability of guns.

When Bob Costas talked (in the mildest terms) about the “gun culture” in the United States and in the NFL after Javon Belcher shot his girlfriend and then killed himself, there was widespread outrage, not that we had endured another senseless gun death, but that Costas had the bad manners to talk about it.

We can all agree, before we go any farther, that whenever we talk about something like the killings in Connecticut this morning, or Aurora, or Columbine, or Javon Belcher, we are talking about people who are mentally imbalanced. And we can all agree that we need to do more about mental health, and that mentally unstable people should not have access to lethal weapons. All of that is true, but if we had reasonable controls on guns, we wouldn’t be talking about 20 dead children in Connecticut.

Sticks and stones may break your bones but they are nothing compared to a semi-automatic weapon with lots of ammunition.

We are not number one in the world in gun deaths. In fact, we are 28th. Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Jamaica, and almost two dozen other countries are ahead of us. But we are number one among wealthy developed nations. And among those nations, it isn’t even close. The gun murder rate in the United States is nearly 50 times as much as the murder rate in England or France. That means that Americans are 50 times as likely to be killed by a gun as people from England or France.

In this country we have as many licensed firearms dealers as gas stations.

Gun reform will not come easily. There will be massive and well-funded resistance. Proponents of reform will be vilified (just ask Bob Costas). But we need to try. We owe it to the future, but most of all, we owe to those little kids in Connecticut. Nothing can bring them back, or ease the grief of their parents, but reform would be a living legacy.

Are We Getting Smarter?

Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. 

Isaiah 42:5-9

Have you heard of the “Flynn Effect?” It’s named for James Flynn, a New Zealand researcher who first discovered the world-wide phenomenon of rising intelligence. His findings have been confirmed by many other scholars and his work is now accepted science.

Who knew?

In a recent column on this subject, Nicholas Kristof writes, “My readers are all above average. But if I ever had average readers, they would still be brilliant compared with Americans of a century ago.” He goes on to explain that a century ago the average American had an I.Q. that by today’s standards would be about 67. In other words, by today’s standards the average American of a century ago would be described as mentally disabled.

This means at least two things. It means that human intelligence is increasing. And it means that vast amounts of human potential are being wasted in places where the conditions of life are so difficult that human beings cannot grow as they should.

“The implication,” Kristof writes, “is that there are potential Einsteins now working as subsistence farmers in Congo or dropping out of high school in Mississippi who, with help, could become actual Einsteins.”

Human beings are smarter today because they are nurtured in a world filled with new ideas and knowledge. They are also smarter, measurably smarter, because of environmental factors. The removal of lead from gasoline may be responsible for an average gain of 6 points in I.Q. for American children.

What the research suggests is that kids are not getting smarter in spite of video games and television; they are getting smarter because of those activities.

This seems impossible (to me). It’s hard for me to believe that we are smarter than Emerson, or Thoreau, or Jane Austin. What about Lincoln? Biblical faith is always about remembering the past while moving into the future. We do not have to devalue the past in order to have hope for the future. Like the poetry of Isaiah’s proclamation, Flynn’s research points toward a hopeful future. If we can harness those gains in intelligence through better schooling around the world, we should be able to make enormous progress.

Flynn’s research reminds us that we often tend to believe that the present cannot possibly be as good as the past, when in fact it is better. I will hold onto that hope, and I will continue to trust in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God around us.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bob Dole and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

Jesus said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Luke 14:12-14 

Robert Joseph “Bob” Dole was born on July 22, 1923 in Russell, Kansas. In high school he was star athlete, and the legendary coach Phog Allen recruited him to play on the basketball team at the University of Kansas. At Kansas he played football and ran track, as well as playing basketball. His pre-med studies were interrupted by World War II. He was serving as a Second Lieutenant in the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division in Italy when he was seriously wounded by machine gun fire in his back and right arm. After the war, he returned to college with his right arm almost totally useless, and switched to law, rather than medicine.

When we talk about the greatest generation, Bob Dole is one of the heroes.

He served in the United States Senate from 1968 until 1996, when he resigned to concentrate on running for President. Bob Dole was a fiercely partisan Republican, but he was also able to work across party lines and he never lost sight of the big picture. Among his many achievements was his advocacy for the “Americans with Disabilities Act,” which dramatically changed the participation of disabled Americans in society.

Bob Dole returned to the floor of the Senate earlier this week in a wheelchair to support adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The treaty asks the nations of the world to catch up with what George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole achieved for the United States twenty-two year ago.

It should have been a slam dunk. But these are crazy times. The Senators came by one-by-one to pat him on the back and wish him well, and then thirty eight of them voted to reject the treaty on the grounds that it was a threat to United States sovereignty. Even though the United Nations would have no enforcement role, and we already have everything called for in the treaty already in place.

Opponents argued that language in the treaty which called on the nations of the world to act “in the best interests of the child” might result in the killing of disabled children. Former Senator Rick Santorum brought his disabled daughter, Bella, to the Senate and asked rhetorically if some people might think it was in Bella’s best interest not to be alive.

The treaty does not call for international enforcement; it is about our intentions as a world community to respect persons with disabilities and encourage their participation in society.

Senator John Kerry, along with Senator John McCain, a forceful advocate for the treaty, said after the vote: “This is one of the saddest days I’ve seen in almost 28 years in the Senate, and it needs to be a wake-up call about a broken institution that’s letting down the American people.”

Kerry went on: “Today the dysfunction hurt veterans and the disabled, and that’s unacceptable. This treaty was supported by every veterans group in America and Bob Dole made an inspiring and courageous personal journey back to the Senate to fight for it. It had bipartisan support, and it had the facts on its side, and yet for one ugly vote, none of that seemed to matter. We won’t give up on this and the Disabilities Treaty will pass because it’s the right thing to do, but today I understand better than ever before why Americans have such disdain for Congress and just how much must happen to fix the Senate so we can act on the real interests of our country.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bob Costas and the Gun Control Debate

Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them; and all the men who were with him did the same. 12They mourned and wept, and fasted until evening for Saul and for his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword. 13David said to the young man who had reported to him, “Where do you come from?” He answered, “I am the son of a resident alien, an Amalekite.” 14David said to him, “Were you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” 15Then David called one of the young men and said, “Come here and strike him down.” So he struck him down and he died. 16David said to him, “Your blood be on your head; for your own mouth has testified against you, saying, ‘I have killed the Lord’s anointed.’”
II Samuel 1:11-16

Javon Belcher was the best linebacker, and maybe the best football player to ever play for the University of Maine Black Bears, and he went on to play for the Kansas City Chiefs in the National Football League. He graduated with a degree in family relations.

Last Saturday morning he shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then drove to the Chiefs practice facility to thank his head coach and general manager, Romeo Crennel and Scott Pioli, for giving him a chance to play in the NFL before killing himself.

Now, three days later, there is widespread outrage. Just Google story and you will find bloggers and columnists from coast to coast up in arms.

The target of their outrage is Bob Costas.

If you haven’t been following the story, that may sound confusing. Costas didn’t shoot anybody, but he did something much worse. He spoke about gun control on national television. At half-time of the Sunday night game he took a little more than a minute to suggest that without a handgun, both Perkins and Belcher might still be alive.

Jeff Wagner, a sportscaster in Milwaukee said Costas could be summed up in three words, “What a weasel!” His blog on the subject was titled, “Hey Bob, Just Shut Up and Call the Game.” Apparently, Mr. Wagner is not aware that Costas doesn’t actually call the game. Maybe he has Costas confused with Cris Collinsworth or Al Michaels.

There have been calls to fire Costas and to boycott NBC.

The critics called it a “rant,” though it was delivered calmly and without rancor. Angry and outraged commentators asked how Costas could be so callous as to use a tragedy like the deaths of Kasandra Perkins and Javon Belcher to advance his own “political agenda.” It was, they claimed, “unseemly.”

Which makes sense.

Obviously, we wouldn’t use a death in a fire to talk about fire safety. We wouldn’t talk about drunk driving or seatbelts after a traffic fatality. And we certainly wouldn’t talk about smoking after someone who smoked for thirty years died of lung cancer. In all those cases, we would wait a decent interval, until all of us had forgotten what happened before we talked about how future deaths could be prevented.

Bob Costas crossed the line. He violated the unwritten rules.

In spite of the killings in a Colorado movie theater in July and a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in August, gun control was barely hinted at during the presidential election. And if you Google
“mass shootings in the United States,” you will be amazed at how many killings you don’t even remember. For the most part, we have followed the unwritten rule and have not spoken a critical word about the guns used (mostly obtained legally) to kill innocent people.

And as a pastor, I should confess that I don’t think I have ever addressed the issue of gun control in a sermon.

Ironically, the Javon Belcher murder and suicide probably provided the weakest argument for gun control. Sadly, men have been killing women since long before there were handguns.

I don’t know whether better gun control laws would have saved Kasandra Perkins’ life. I do know that our unwillingness to deal with the proliferation of firearms in this country is just plain crazy.