Thursday, February 22, 2018

My Take on the Gun Debate: Tool or Toy

In recent years I have tried to avoid divisive political issues. As a Christ follower commissioned as a pastor, my passion is to reconcile people to Jesus. To that end, I don't want to create barriers between me and someone who doesn't know Jesus. Though I try to carefully calibrate what I post on Facebook (I don't always succeed), I feel a bit more freedom to address such issues in this forum.

I've been often asked – more so recently – about my take on the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the ensuing gun debate. Here it is. (These thoughts are mine alone. They do not represent the church that employs me. I do not expect everyone to agree with me, and I respect my fellow firearm owners, hunters, and sportsman who have a different take.)

With every firearm in my gun safe I ask, "Is it a tool or a toy?" 

Every firearm I own is a tool. My family has shotguns and large caliber rifles for hunting. None of them are semi-automatic. We do own a semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle for target shooting. It is used for practice so we can become more proficient with our deer rifles. As a small-bore rifle it is not considered a deadly weapon in the same sense as large-bore semi-automatic rifles. We also have handguns. Two are .22 caliber target pistols; two are for home defense. Every firearm we own is locked in a gun safe.

Would I like to have an AR style rifle (called "modern sporting rifles" by the people who market them)? Absolutely! I've fired them at the range several times, and they are FUN to shoot! Really fun. But here's the deal: for civilians like me they're not a tool; they're a toy. (Stick with me. The understandable reaction is to say one should not call a weapon that can be used to murder 17 people at a high school a toy.)

Ask firearm enthusiasts why they want to own at AR and though it might take a bit to get to the root reason, it boils down to this: They're cool. I want one. And the Second Amendment says I can have one.

Some claim, "I hunt with it." Many do hunt with modern sporting rifles, I agree. But anything a hunter can do with an AR-15 can be done with a rifle like the Remington Woodmaster 750. It is a semi-automatic, large-bore centerfire rifle that does everything a modern sporting rifle does except look cool and serve as a platform for extreme military-style customization. You will never see a Woodmaster in a Call of Duty video game. They're not nearly cool enough.

Some will say, "I want an AR for home protection." Most gun enthusiasts – AR owners included – admit it isn't the best choice for home defense. Rounds from an AR can pass through walls and harm the very people you're trying to protect. Larger than a pistol, it is less maneuverable in tight quarters like a bedroom hallway. If one insists on a lung gun rather than a pistol, home defense experts agree that best long gun for home protection is a slide action shotgun, commonly referred to as a pump shotgun. For one simple reason: the sound it makes when a round is chambered. My police officer friend once told me, "When a thief is climbing through your window and he hears someone rack a pump shotgun, he s---- his pants!"

The other widely-used argument in favor of AR ownership is this: we need the AR to protect Americans from government tyranny. I am not a historian so I will leave the merits of that argument's second-amendment premise to constitutional scholars. That being said, we long ago passed the point at which a well-regulated militia could seriously challenge the United States military.

The modern infantry soldier employs body armor, night-vision capabilities, advanced communication, specialized tactical training, and a military version of the AR-15 that is capable of fully automatic gunfire. That – together with grenades, mortars, mines, tanks, missiles, and aircraft – pretty much ensures that citizen militias armed with modern sporting rifles would be only slightly more effective against the most powerful army on the planet than my buddies and I armed with our duck hunting shotguns.

So, to review: there are hunting weapons that are equal to or superior to the AR; there are home defense weapons that are superior to the AR; and, the argument against a tyrannical government is specious.

There is really only one argument in favor of the AR that is irrefutable: I want one and the constitution says I can have one.

Is it legal? Yes. Is it your right? Yes. Are the massive majority of AR owners responsible and incapable of committing illegal, let alone heinous, acts with their firearms? Yes.

That being said, there is a word for someone who insists on possessing a toy simply because he wants one: a child. When a child exhibits that kind of behavior we call it childlike. But too many gun owners embroiled in the AR debate stamp their feet and with red faces insist on their rights. In adults we call that kind of behavior childish.

I doubt that banning so-called assault rifles will stop mentally deranged Americans from killing other Americans. The problem is far more complex and will require multifaceted solutions including increased mental health funding, increased age restrictions for firearm purchases, parents who actually parent, and a complete rethinking of the way gun violence is glorified in movies and video games.

All of those are possible solutions that need careful consideration and could be enacted, I believe, without infringing on my right to own firearms that serve as tools rather than toys.

To my fellow firearm owners who stand on their constitutional right to purchase modern sporting rifles my question is this: Can you demonstrate for me how an AR serves you as a tool? The vast majority, I think, will be hard pressed to demonstrate a need for an AR-15. Lacking the ability to demonstrate its utility, I must therefore assume that you must simply want it.

It is difficult for me to understand how wanting a toy – one that can be used to commit rapid-fire murder, anyway – is morally defensible as a singular justification for owning one even if it is legal to do so.

If restricting AR ownership is the price I am asked to pay for a child to feel even a little bit safer in his classroom, as an adult I am willing to pay it.

Monday, September 25, 2017

In memory of Angie Uber

When I arrived as a fresh-faced, newly minted preacher at the Butler Church of Christ twenty years ago, it didn’t take me long to realize that Angie Uber knew a lot more about being a church secretary than I did about being a pastor. Angie passed away last week at age 48. Cancer might have defeated her body, but I feel certain that her spirit thrived.

The truth is, I probably never would have gone to that church if it wasn’t for Angie. It had only been a few weeks since Brother Dale resigned before I applied for the position. The fact is, the church hadn’t even advertised they were looking for a new preacher yet, but I knew Dale, heard he had left, and called him up. He told me to go for it, so I sent a cover letter, a resume, and a couple of propaganda pieces that I thought would make me look better than I really was.

Angie was the first person at the church to see the envelope. As I recall, she didn’t even open it, but it was obvious from the shape and the addressee that someone was applying for the job. She could have tossed it in a desk drawer – they hadn’t even begun taking applications, after all. But, as she later told me, she sensed the Holy Spirit telling her she should take my resume to Terry Ulm’s house where the elders were meeting that night. She went out of her way – about ten miles out of her way – and interrupted the elders with her you-aren’t-going-to-believe-what-I-have-here story.

I am so glad she did.

Ron and Angie, and their children, Josh, Cameron and Kaitlin welcomed us into their Butler Church of Christ family. Their kids became friends with ours. My wife, Tracy, and Angie commiserated about the challenges of “dealing with Frank,” one as a wife, the other as church secretary. Angie’s office was a nonsense-free zone., and she tried hard to train me right. When I was annoying, she told me so. When I was unreasonable, she told me that, too. Between my red beard and her red hair there existed the potential for some hot tempers, but I don’t recall that there ever were. (She might tell you differently, but that’s how I remember it.) Any peace that existed between us was because she wasn’t just passionate about her faith, but also because she embodied the grace of the One who was the object of her faith.

Those were some challenging days for our church, and I couldn’t have navigated them without her. She knew everyone in town. She knew their families, where their kids went to school, what jobs they had, and where they went to church (or didn’t). She became the standard by which each of the secretaries I have been privileged to work for is compared. And even after her family moved away, and after our family moved away, Angie and Ron continued to bless the ministry of the Weller family by supporting the work of my missionary daughter, Abigail.

Angie and I haven’t seen each other in years. Though the Weller women stayed in touch with the Uber women, my path and her path diverged. And yet, I miss her more now, knowing that she is gone.

No…not gone.

Just … not here.

She is not gone; she has gone on. Gone on to see her faith become sight; her hopes become fulfilled; her devotion rewarded. In the 175-year-old building that housed our church, our offices were adjoining, separated only by a door. And, really, that’s a little like the way it is now. Angie’s home and mine are separated by death’s door. On this side is the pain of saying goodbye, the heartache of all the “ought-to-have-beens,” and family and friends who long for one more conversation, one more touch, one more moment with her.

But, even though I miss her, I don’t wish her back.

I’m a lot older than I once was and, hopefully, a little wiser. I know that on Angie’s side of death’s door there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain,” for God has wiped away ever tear from her eyes. And when her closed eyes opened, and her cancer free mind cleared, she was with Jesus.

And that is just as it ought to be.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Baptizing Bill and Jenny

The day before my friend Paul died from his two-and-a-half year battle with cancer, I stopped by his hospice room. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was leaving for Australia the next morning.

“Hey Paul,” I said as I walked in the room, “You’re not going to guess who was in church this morning!”

His wife, Christiina, spoke up, “I already told him. Billy and Jenny.”

Paul looked at me and whispered, “You’re welcome.”

It was just like Paul to take credit. Three months earlier and we would have both been laughing about his joke.

Throughout Paul’s battle with cancer he and Christiina prayed lots of prayers, but one was repeated over and over: “God, we want something good to come from this. Something that brings glory to your son, Jesus.”

That prayer has been answered in lots of ways. It was answered Sunday when Bill and Jenny gave their lives to Christ and were baptized.

Bill and Jenny have been gathering with us at South Lansing Christian Church in the weeks since Paul’s death. They're plugged into a small group, and their small group leaders, Chris and Kathy, talked with them last week about what it means to follow Jesus, and why those who do are baptized.

And so, Sunday morning at 10:15, Bill’s sin and Jenny’s sin was washed away. They received the gift of the Holy Spirit. They were promised eternal life. 

Jesus said, “there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Make that, the angels, plus one: my friend Paul.

Friday, December 02, 2016

An open letter to the author of the hate letter sent to our local mosque

The Lansing State Journal reported today on the photo-copied note you sent to mosques throughout the U.S., including a mosque right here in East Lansing, Michigan. I'm guessing you have another ream of them all stamped and ready to deliver. (Did you use an American flag stamp?) But for the benefit of others who might not have read your tripe, I will post it here.

I don't know who you fancy yourself to be, but let me tell you who you are not.

You're not a Christian
Let's begin with that. "Christian" as a label has become so loaded with cultural meaning that many followers of Jesus won't even use the word. But let's be clear: Christian means someone who follows Jesus. Despite what you might think, you do not. Anyone who espouses hate cannot claim to follow the way of Christ. The Apostle John knew Jesus well. He walked, talked, ate, and ministered with Jesus during a three-year ministry intensive. Here's what John wrote about Jesus:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-12)
In fact, Jesus said, "They will know we are Christians by our love." Based on that definition, you don't make the cut. So please don't intone, "God Bless the USA" and claim to be a Christian. You're only making the rest of us look bad.

You're not a patriotic American
I'm guessing you think that you are. You probably have a USA bumper sticker on the back of your American made truck. You sport a flag belt buckle on your Wranglers and have a "Don't Tread on Me" flag hanging from your front porch. But you're not a patriot. Dress up a bigot in patriotic gear and you still have a bigot. Patriots don't write venom like you did. Patriots write:
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
Patriots - great patriots - like Dwight Eisenhower would tell the aforementioned "author" and anyone else who worships the President-Elect,
Never let yourself be persuaded that any one Great Man, any one leader, is necessary to the salvation of America. When America consists of one leader and 158 million followers, it will no longer be America.
Mike Gonzalez, a Senior Fellow at The Kathryn and Shelby Coulomb Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy wrote in his article on patriotic assimilation,
Thomas Paine, in the influential 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, likewise observed: “This new World hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty.” George Washington repeated the sentiment 12 years later almost verbatim when he wrote, “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.” He also listed the traits Americans needed: The new country would welcome those who were “determined to be sober, industrious and virtuous members of society.” 
Patriots do not fear immigrants. They foster them to become Americans.

Like someone did your ancestors.

You're not brave
You're a coward. A handwritten letter? An unsigned letter? I can picture you hunkered down at a Kinko's furtively glancing about, wondering when CIA operatives were going to high rope down from the black helicopters. You're a wimp. A feckless, milksop, namby-pamby weakling. Strong words? Yes, but keep in mind that I'm not calling for any ethnic cleansing.

If you think you can bring your hatred to East Lansing, you'd better come with more than your nameless scrawling. If you're going to attack our neighbors - whatever race or religion - you're going to have to go through the rest of us.

We stand together in Lansing, Michigan. And your hatred isn't welcome.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Two myths about Christians and depression

I'm wearing my Charlotte Strong shirt today to honor Ian Hartley, a young man who lost his battle with depression earlier this year. I presided at Ian's funeral surrounded by over 700 his family and friends. The reminders of Ian's fight - and the reason we need to continue his fight - are all around me. Every time I drive past Charlotte. Whenever I see a soccer ball. In the song of an Oriole.

It was Ian's death, partly, that motivated me to preach on mental illness this month at South Lansing Christian Church.

I began the series by debunking two myths about Christians and mental illness.

Myth #1: God’s followers don’t struggle with depression, anxiety or any other form of mental illness.

I know that's just not the case for two reasons. First, the Bible addresses depression and anxiety.
Psalm 43:5 (HCSB)Why am I so depressed? Why this turmoil within me? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise Him, my Savior and my God. 
1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 
Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The fact that God's word talks about depression and anxiety is powerful evidence that God's people can, and do, struggle with mental illness.

Not only that, but some of the heroes of the faith struggled with depression and anxiety. Who wrote the three verses I just mentioned? King David, and the Apostles Peter and Paul. And they're not alone. The Prophet Elijah was so depressed that he wanted to die. King Solomon had a seemingly perfect life, but he was trapped in a nihilistic spiral of meaninglessness. And Job, whom the scriptures describer as "upright and blameless," became so depressed that he despaired the day of his birth.

If you're a Christ follower who has struggled with depression, anxiety or another mental illness the simple fact is this: you're not alone. Other believers have struggled, too.

Myth #2: Depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness are evidence of spiritual weakness.

Some of the great Christians of our more recent history struggled with depression and anxiety.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was the greatest preacher in nineteenth century Europe. He preached to a congregation of 10,000 people every week in London. Yet there were times that he was so debilitated by depression that he could barely function.

Carlos Whittaker is a blogger, musician and worship leader who struggles with panic and anxiety and, what he calls, “it’s ugly cousin, depression.” There are times when he arrives at church to lead worship and he has to sit in his car and do breathing exercise before he can get out and walk into the church building. 

A recent study detailed that one in four pastors have struggled with mental illness.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are no more a sign of a weak spiritual life than kidney disease or nearsightedness. They are a reminder that we live in a fallen world that longs for God’s restoration and redemption.

Here's the fact about mental illness: it is no respecter of persons. All of us are susceptible and will, at one point or another, personally experience a mental illness or know someone who has.

If you're someone who struggles with depression, anxiety or some other form of mental illness know this: you're not alone. There are resources and people who are here for you. (You can find a list of mental health professionals that our church recommends here.)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Four post-election survival strategies

It's going to be okay.

The votes are all counted; half of America is reeling, half of America is somewhere between feeling mildly validated and euphoric.

I’ve already heard from two different women with two very different perspectives on the election. The first, a Clinton voter, told me, “I feel like I'm going to cry and throw up at the same time. I need some help coping with this.”

A second, who voted for Trump told me,
We’re not bigots; we’re not racists. I don’t approve of the way Trump speaks about women or the way he reportedly treats them. What I am is tired. I am tired of being dismissed by people in government buildings on the east coast and people in studios on the west coast. I am tired of the code-speak, "white, uneducated, rural voters," when what the elites really mean is "stupid rednecks." We’re the salt of the earth, but the ruling elites of both parties have dismissed the ‘flyover states’ as people who have lost our saltiness and as good for nothing other than being trampled under foot.
Whether you’re ecstatic, terrified, or somewhere in between here are four strategies from which we can all benefit:

1. Reconnect with time-tested words.  Social media is emotional jet fuel. It promotes sharing before thinking and applies heat and friction to already frayed emotions. If you’ve never unplugged from social media, now would be a good time to do so and to reconnect with ancient words. I suggest the Bible. It has outlasted monarchies and political dynasties. The Psalms are older than popes or kings. People were being comforted by Jesus’ words fourteen centuries before there was a United States. Returning again to time-tested words like those might be what is needed for these states to once again be united. Let words like, “Be still and know that I am God,” (Psalm 46:10) wash over you and cleanse you of anxiety.

2. Embrace love. Are you fearful? You’re not alone. The Dow Jones futures dropped 750 points overnight. Silicon Valley investors are calling for California to secede from the union. The website for Canadian immigration was so flooded last night that it crashed. The only antidote for fear is love. One of Jesus followers, John, wrote, “perfect love expels all fear.” (1 John 4:18) If you’re feeling afraid, let God love you, and practice loving others. Christians ought to be the least fearful people on the planet because we are called to be the most loving people on the planet. Love your children; love your parents. Practice love in the workplace; model love in your home. “We love each other because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

3. Do good. Concern about our government’s pursuit (or lack of pursuit) of good ought to propel us to do good ourselves. Are you worried that there are difficult times ahead for immigrants? Volunteer with St. Vincent Catholic Charities Refugee Services program. Do you fear that corporate America now has a blank check to pursue greed and inequality? Be intentional about shopping local. Concerned about cuts in education? Volunteer at an under-resourced school. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) The only way evil – I am not speaking of people, but of ideology – has ever been defeated is by good people doing something.

4. Practice "microfocus." I can’t control what happens in the White House, but I can contribute to what happens in my house. My individual efforts will never have an effect on Wall Street, but I can have an impact on Main Street. Republicans, Democrats and Independents agree that we should all take personal responsibility for our choices. So I choose to change what I can and not sweat what I can’t. I choose to love my brother and not despise the foreigner. (Leviticus 19:34) I choose optimism and hope. I reject the catastrophic thinking to which I am so predisposed. I will not be overcome by the circumstances in which I find myself; rather, I choose to change the person over whom I have the most direct control: me.

It’s going to be okay.


The sun will come up tomorrow.

As I wrote yesterday, God is still on His throne.

We’re not as fragile as we think.

It’s going to be okay.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The day after the election

I voted this morning and, for the first time in my life, I went to the polls as an undecided voter. After I cast my ballot, the election official offered me an "I Voted" sticker. I refused. Frankly, I am not proud of the vote I cast. I am not pleased with either major candidate.

This election was the worst in my lifetime: a woman who is corrupt on a heretofore unforeseen scale; a man whose vulgarity eclipses any candidate in my memory and perhaps in American history; and a bruised and bloodied electorate that limped to the polls with this one thought in mind: is this over yet?

But what about tomorrow? What about November 9?

When Abraham Lincoln was elected America's sixteenth President, the Jackson Mississippian called he and the Vice-President elect, "... bigoted, unscrupulous and cold-blooded enemies of the peace and equality..." The New Orleans Courier decried Lincoln supporters as "hordes of fanatics and
negrophilists," and predicted,
The crisis now impending upon the whole country is a necessary consequence of the abnormal condition into which our dearest and most sacred institutions have been plunged by the success of our avowedly unrelenting enemies. . . .
The unmistakable fact stares us in the face that we are now in a state of danger unparalleled in the annals of our history …
Guess what? The day after the election, on November 7, 1860 God was still on His throne.

A hundred years later John F. Kennedy was narrowly elected the first Catholic President of the United
States. The next day the Chicago Tribune editorialized, “We are disappointed, of course, and so, too, are just short of half of the men and women who went to the polls on Tuesday. But they were outvoted and now they accept the verdict. So do we.”

On November 9, 1960 God was still on his throne.

On election day in 1988 many thought little of George H.W. Bush and his running mate, Dan Quayle. John Kerry, himself a future Presidential candidate actually said, "The Secret Service is under orders that if Bush is shot, to shoot Quayle."

On November 9, 1988 God was still on his throne.

A decade after George W. Bush emerged from his contested election with Al Gore, the Daily Beast wrote,
The obvious problem with making Bush president was the fact of the Bush presidency, a catastrophe in so many directions at once that presidential historians argue today about whether Bush was the worst president in American history or merely the worst since Grant, Buchanan, or Johnson (Andrew, not Lyndon).
God was on his throne the day after the nation's ballots were cast, and they day after the Florida's were certified. He remained on his throne ten years later for the Daily Beast's post-mortem.

Following President Obama's reelection in 2012, the histrionic Glenn Beck urged Americans to "buy guns, ammo, and stock up on farmland because this President will destroy America."

But on November 7, 2012, God was still on his throne.

And he will be tomorrow, too.

So tomorrow, the day after we hear either, "Madam President," or "President Trump," – words that half the country celebrates and half the country dreads – let's commit to these two honorable and immutable truths: We can trust God and we need to pray for the new President.
"Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again— my Savior and my God!" (Psalm 43:5)
"I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior, 4who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth." (1 Timothy 2:1-4)