What you take into your Hands, You take into your heart

Via Hand and Heart: Part II

The Knotted Gun sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reutersward, United Nations, New York

 December 14th, 2012.  Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut.  It has been three years — such horror.  If there were ever evidence that we are following a misguided path regarding access to guns in our nation, Newtown is the evidence.

Twenty-seven murdered.  Children, teachers, a principal — all sacrificed to our nation’s inability to think or act rationally to protect the innocents.

In the early autumn of 2013, ten months after the tragedy, I was invited to preach in a congregation in downstate Illinois.  During the sermon on the text of “reaping and sowing,” I spoke of our inability to address the gun violence in our culture.  At that point, ten months after the Sandy Hook murders, Congress was still unable to offer even the slightest form of intelligent response of healing or hope for an alternative approach.

Following the worship service a well-spoken gentleman approached.  He didn’t appear angry but he did begin by saying he wanted to disagree with the sermon.  “Okay,” I said, “Please share; I am eager to learn.”  At this point he said that I should not have mentioned guns — “talk about violence, if you must, but when you make it ‘gun violence’ you make it political.  People can also hurt others with a knife.” He went on “if more people were armed the innocent could be protected from the crazies.” 

I was speechless, frightened really.   I didn’t want to have an argument right there in the fellowship hall.  A long pause followed.  I prayed.  He was obviously a sincere, intelligent man — one who had the courage to speak of his disagreement.  After what seemed like an eternity, I reached out and took his hand, still not knowing what to say.  Then, these words came, “How long have you worshiped fire arms?  Is it possible that you may have substituted trust in guns for trust in God?”  To my surprise he squeezed my hand and instead of taking up the argument he said, “I’ll have to think about that” and dropped his head.

Later I found out that this man was active in state politics… If he changed his perspective on the gun lobby his work would be in jeopardy.  He too was frightened.

The scripture lessons at Christmas tell the story of the birth of Jesus, yes.  There is more.  This story continues as it moves toward the story of the slaughter of the innocents and Jesus’ family becoming refugees to avoid his murder.  Herod sends out word that all the male infants should be killed.  I am reminded of the cover of the New York Post the day following the Sandy Hook tragedy.

tumblr_mf2xwj6iFj1rv4aqro1_1280Congress continues to give more protection to gun owners than to the innocent ones who face the terror of sick, troubled and misguided folks who find it easier to own a gun than have a license to drive a car.  We are not helpless… even in the face of difficult odds against change.  Let me suggest that you look to the work of the Brady Center at Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In Part I of this reflection I spoke of the movie Witness and the scene where the grandfather Eli is speaking with young Samuel about the gun he has found.  He says to the child “What we take into our hands we take into our hearts.”  This is one of two scenes I will always remember.

When the movie first came out in 1985, I was teaching an urban studies class for future pastors in Chicago.  One afternoon the class went to see the movie and then came back to discuss it together.  There were about twenty students in the class, approximately half of them were from the Mennonite or Brethren traditions.  The other students were a mix of Presbyterian, Baptist, Reformed and Methodist. 

The discussion turned to the second unforgettable scene for me from the movie.   It is near the end of the film.  Gunmen come to the Amish farm to track down and kill Detective Book and members of the Lapp family who witnessed a murder in Philadelphia.  What ensues is dramatic, haunting and amazing all rolled into one.  I won’t spoil you by giving you the ending of the movie, but I want to share the reactions from my class to one scene in particular.  The grandfather is facing an approaching gunman.  He looks into another room where Samuel can see him as he motions.  Grandfather Lapp’s hand is out at his side, clenched and moving slightly up and down.  The boy understands and runs to perform the unspoken task. 

In the debriefing of the movie Witness with that class in 1985, I asked how many thought the grandfather was signaling for Samuel to go ring the bell to gather the neighbors.  All of the Mennonite and Brethren students raised their hands.  I asked how many thought the signal was to go get the gun… almost all of the rest of us thought it was signal to get the gun.

The difference in what was seen by the two groups continues to haunt.  One group had grown up knowing the power of community when faced with danger; others of us had learned to prefer force and power.







What you take into your hands, you take into your heart.

Via Hand and Heart: Part I


The Knotted Gun sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reutersward, United Nations, New York


The movie Witness opens with eight year old Samuel Lapp (Lukas Hass) witnessing a murder.  Philadelphia detective John Book (Harrison Ford) questions the boy.  What did he see?  Detective Book is aware that young Samuel is now in danger.  As the plot unfolds, the detective is shot identifying a suspect; still he manages to drive the Amish boy and his mother to their farm. 

Upon arrival in Lancaster county, Detective Book collapses from his wounds.  He is now in the care of this Amish household/community.  Two scenes from this movie are particularly thought provoking for me.  The first scene is of Eli, the grandfather (Jan Rubes) talking with Samuel about the discovered gun.  Witness Youtube video: Eli and Samuel.  Eli says to the youngster “What we take into our hands, we take into our hearts.”  The scene is a too easy summary of one pacifist’s philosophy — still it carries power when thinking of the violence in our modern world.

In the wake of Paris, San Bernardino, Charleston, Colorado Springs, Newtown… [This list of the massacre of innocents can go on for pages] what will we take into our hands and hearts?  Thus far in 2015 there have been more than 40 mass murders in the U. S.  Of these, two involved persons claiming Islamic motivations.  Of over 12,500 gun deaths thus far this year, 19 were done by persons claiming a perverted radical Muslim identity.  We in the United States now have more guns than people.  To what end?

Congress is so controlled and manipulated by the gun lobby that all sensible legislation is blocked.  A majority of Americans are seeking restrictions on gun ownership and usage.  Does this change any thing?  No.  Background checks?  Nope.  This week there was a vote asking that those who are unable to fly, who are on a terrorist watch list, be restricted from purchasing guns.  One would think this is an easy “yes”, right?  No way!   Can we limit the purchase of guns designed for military style use?  Nope.  Limit the amount of ammunition in a cartridge?  Not a chance.  Have electronic finger print control allowing only the licensed owner to fire any new weapon?  Are you kidding?  Not in the U.S.!  We are suffering from a suicidal social addition.

In Indiana we have the added burden of being the major supplier for the armaments sold that are used in the murders on the south side of Chicago.  Will the Indiana legislature act to have universal background checks on gun purchases?  You know the answer — it is “No, no, no.”

At Liberty University this week, Jerry Falwell Jr. encouraged every student to have a handgun — this as part of what a Christian should be about in these days.  He praised the ability to have a concealed weapon and said this would take care of our “Muslim problem.”  Alas.

Two of my friends made cogent responses to Mr. Falwell.  Let me close this Part I of “What we take into our hands” by sharing links to these.   My friends Will Willimon and Sara Wenger-Shenk give us perspective on how we proceed.  They help us better understand what it means to respond to Falwell as a different brand of Christians.

See Willimon’s at: Pistol-Whipped Preacher

See Wenger-Shenk’s at:Practicing Reconciliation



The Great Identity Theft of 2015

The Great Christmas Identity Theft of 2015 

The devastating assaults in Paris have shattered our best hopes during this season.  I was traveling the day following this tragic time and couldn’t help but marvel at the way persons sitting in the airline terminal transfixed by the television images from Paris.  The usual noises of travelers hurrying through the terminal were muted.  We were all distracted.  Fear and anxiety overwhelmed any sense of normalcy.  Then, our worst fears about the future of terrorism seemed confirmed by the murders of innocents in San Bernardino.  Terrorists assault.  They kill and gravely wound unsuspecting civil servants at a holiday party. 

How do we respond to such evil.  What can we learn?  How will we find a way forward when there are appropriate fears about the future.  One healthy response is to seek to learn more, to understand more, to gain knowledge of the situation.

Who are these misguided murderers?  What motivates?  Why do they choose these suicidal theatrics.  We want to know who is doing this and what are their motives. This is all healthy and appropriate.  It is needed information.  And what can we learn about Islam and this radical apocalyptic cult — this ISIS or ISIL?  Important this is, all of it.

Still, isn’t it intriguing that during these days of terror, we hear volumes from the experts about Muslims — who they are and how they behave — while at the same time there is little or no consideration about who is a Christian or how Christians might act at this time.  The media are full of analysis about Islam.  Good.  knowledge is helpful; as one of my mentors would say “facts are our friends.”

It may be as important, make that more important, to consider what it means to be a Christian in this time.  In the seasons of Advent and Christmas 2015 we hear again the Jesus narratives.  His life and words are captured in carols and story and sermon.  What is there to be learned from this narrative about retaliation, revenge, exclusion, bigotry toward those who are different? 

It is interesting that on the same day that Pope Francis announced the beginning of Year of Jubilee as a time of mercy and reconciliation, Donald Trump is loudly and adamantly speaking words designed to stir up fear and set up new systems of discrimination.  Many people in this country seem to agree with him — in some places, places where there are strong “Christian” environments, there may even a majority who agree with The Donald.  

What has happened?  Most of those who seem to agree with Trump would be quick to say the United States is a Christian nation.  Really?  There is grave danger here.  If we are to choose the way of discrimination toward persons of a different faith, this is a danger I would label identity theft.  Someone is taking the basic elements of what it means to be a Christian and substituting a cheapened, debased form of shallow and self-serving religiosity.

It is not up to me to say whether Donald Trump is a Christian or not.  He says he is, “I attend church on Christmas, Easter and special occasions.”  He says that if he is elected president he will be “the greatest Christian representative ever to be in the White House.”  His faithfulness and the ways he acts on his beliefs are between him and God.  However, he doesn’t get a pass on his easy claims.  How do they match up with the story of Christmas?

9931687_sNo, it is not my call to determine whether Donald is a Christian… but we do know a great deal about who and what a Christian is expected to be from the scriptures and the great traditions of the church.  Racism, bigotry and calls for revenge displayed by too many just don’t square with the person and teachings of Jesus.  Right now — as we gain knowledge about others, equal care needs to be given to thinking clearly about what it means to be a Christian.  Certainly the calls to exclude persons from the United States based on a religious test is unconstitutional.  That is easy.  For me, however, it is more important to ask, is it Christlike?

We are warned at this time of year to guard our credit card information.  We are told to be careful giving out information about social security numbers or family background.  Someone might steal your identity and this would be disastrous.  I want to warn of an even greater identity theft that is underway — it is a theft of what it means to be a Christian.  Guard this closely.  The loss of this identity might be even more damaging than having one’s credit compromised.  The loss of this identity may close down important options that will be needed in the future if we are to find a way past this current wave of terror.

Fear is a powerful thing; so is knowledge.  It is critically important in these days to know more about Islam — what is true and what is false?  Let me suggest that it is even more essential, for those of us who make the faith claim that we are “Christian” to consider carefully what this means — what is true and what is false?