Monday, December 17, 2012

On the Death of Children

Before I begin, I just want to disclaim a bit. I'm struggling to process and understand my own personal reaction to the Connecticut tragedy and the responses to it - I very well might express opinions or thoughts contrary to your own responses and feelings on the matter. I don't intend to condemn or condone any reaction, my own included - simply to process how I've reacted.

That being said, I find it more than bit troubling how the world so easily claims this tragedy as it's own. Of course every death is a tragedy and the death of children even moreso because we recognize the loss of what could be. I don't have any problem expressing remorse and voicing the reality of the injustice and evil of an act like the killing of kindergarten students in Connecticut this week. I don't think we should ignore it.

I do think we should have firm and sensible boundaries. A Facebook meme with a lengthy quote attributed to the actor, Morgan Freeman, made the rounds in the wake of the tragedy - it expressed a desire for us to stop focusing so much on these mass killings - making the perpetrators defacto celebrities and perhaps incidently inciting more. I'm not just talking about the media - after all journalism, as tasteless and exhausting as it can be sometimes, is an important service. I don't think we need 24 hour coverage. I don't think we need interviews with little children who just escaped such a terror or a high school classmate of the shooter. They do it for ratings and because we have this inherent desire to know.

I'm not sure it's good for us to have that need satisfied.

I'll just say I don't understand how so many people find a tragedy like this makes them think more about their own children. I saw all the Facebook posts of people hugging their children. I've tried to figure out what mindset brings people to those posts - my only answers are unkind and likely untrue; I won't share them here. I do have a child now, one I love quite a bit - but I don't find myself more in love, more sentimental or more anything in the wake of this tragedy. One thing I do resonate with - I can't even imagine losing her.

I think that's what bothers me most. Those who haven't lost children really can't identify - we'd like to think we can, we'd like to think we have something to offer besides prayers and condolences. We don't. We're helpless and we're disconnected and we don't like it.

I think it's entirely appropriate for the President to stand up and acknowledge the tragedy and loss - to pledge the nation's support. I don't think it's appropriate for him to show up. It's not a national tragedy. It's a very localized tragedy in a small Connecticut town, specifically for 27 families and those who are a part of their lives. It is certainly evidence of a troubling national epidemic, but it shouldn't be treated as part of a larger problem. That's a disservice to those in mourning.

Certainly there are things we can do to help - but its a general help, not a specific one. There's absolutely nothing we can do for these families but allow them time and space to mourn. We can have those discussions of gun safety and the mental health process - we can work to shape our society into one where things like this occur less.

I also think we can leave the grieving to grieve. I am not saying we abandon the families of the dead - not at all. But we can't mourn with those who mourn when we have no connection to them. Ninety-nine percent of us don't have any connection to these deaths - allow those who do to represent us in comfort.

We want to express outrage - to feel like we have some power over the evil in our world. These are good honest responses, but sometimes focusing on a problem from which we're disconnected keeps us from addressing similar problems in our own communities. In 2011, more than 14 children were killed by guns every day of the year, just in the US. The number rises precipitously when the age goes to 18. 40,000 children die of starvation in the world every year. Nearly a dozen kids are killed by their own parents every day as a result of abuse or neglect.

I suspect, more than better gun laws or improved mental health services, we're most likely to prevent things like this from happening by being present and available to suffering in our own neighborhoods and communities.

If you need to hug your children extra, please do so. If you need conversation in your workplace or congregation or around the dinner table to help deal with the trauma, by all means have it. I am not trying to diminish your response or the tragedy that has happened, I just hope to remember, for myself if no one else, that pain and tragedy exist all around us. Our society has gotten pretty good at hiding it, which is why these times it smashes out into the open trouble us so deeply.

I'm not upset, necessarily, with what's being done. The desire and urge to help those far away from us is righteous and positive. At the same time, it's difficult to stomach in a culture where everyone and everything seems kept at arms length.

We have grandiose ambitions and we live in a super-sized world. We want massive solutions to massive problems - when likely the most effective course of action is, once again, to love your neighbor.

That's when things get messy. That's exactly what the people of Newtown, Connecticut are discovering in the wake of this terrible event. For me, at least, it seems disrespectful to assume I can have some part in that from far away. As much as I desire to comfort and solve. I just can't - not as a stranger hundred of miles away.

I'd like to hope (I am an optimist beneath all these contrarian ideas) that the legacy of this disaster could be a renewed sense of community around the country and perhaps the world. That we could find, on the other side of this loss, pain, and confusion, a sense of community and connection - some small piece of the relational world in which God created us to live.

I have to embrace my place, my town, my people - to own my pain and the pain around me. This just doesn't work from a distance.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Gay Students, Christian Colleges, and the Thought Process

There's been a bit of hubbub surrounding a proposed LGBTQ club at Point Loma Nazarene University. As an ordained Nazarene minister, a fifth generation member and a graduate of two Nazarene institutions of higher learning, this has been an interesting story to follow.

The group was founded in 2009 by a student leader who used an invitation for dialogue to challenge and undermine the school. They got burned and it's not difficult to see how the administration could be leery of the same group, albeit under different leadership, seeking a similar platform.

With the back story (and my lack of knowledge beyond what's been made public), I have to applaud the mission statement this group submitted:

We are aware that LGBT students are a suffering population on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), and we have realized that the common exclusiveness of the Christian community can overlook the spiritual and interpersonal needs of LGBT community. Through entering this place, we hope LGBT students at PLNU can share their neglected stories, lingering questions, and increasing trials with their Christian comrades, and together, we can learn what it means to practice listening to and dignifying your political or theological enemy and actively learning to live and love in real-time. We hope to seek reconciliation not based on a change of belief system but rather from a commitment to live in relationship with opposing worldviews while seeking to understand and dignify the humanity of the “other.”

This is a pretty powerful statement of charity and reconciliation, one that dovetails pretty well with what I've often used as an ethical motivation - we have to live together. If we believe in a future of peace where the world is as it's intended to be, then we're all going to get along. We might as well start now.

I don't think this means we have to agree. I think things work better when we come to different conclusions about things. I think things work poorly when we refuse to listen and learn from one another. I happen to believe that God's Holy Spirit is at work in the world, speaking and shaping us, even if we don't know it.

I am grateful for a school (Eastern Nazarene College) that created a supportive Christian community without dictating belief. I struggled mightily with issues of faith, belief, and ethics during my college years. I am convinced that were those struggles not undertaken within the context of a Christian community, I would not be a Christian today.

I said, did, and believed a lot of things that I disagree with today - but I did so in the midst of a community drenched in a commitment to God's prevenient grace. My peers and professors, for the most part, trusted that sincere questions of faith would be answered. People prayed for me and with me.

I didn't have a lot of direct conversations with people about faith - but I have a strong group of friends and a wonderful chaplain who were merely present and provided the kind of atmosphere necessary for me and the Holy Spirit to work things out.

Mike Schutz was the chaplain most of my time at ENC, but I don't recall having very many interactions with him during those four years. I do count his influence upon my life as extremely great - mostly because of the spiritual atmosphere he fostered and the space it provided me to grow without pressure.

I'm not sure Point Loma needs a group like this - I'm not really in a position to have an opinion one way or another - I do think the conversation suggested by the mission statement is a necessity. Conversations on faith and sexuality will take place, formally or informally. I think a Christian college does a great disservice to its mission and purpose by ignoring them or limiting them.

I think there's still some perception that we send our kids to a Christian school to protect them from the dangers of the world. Those dangers are just as real at a Nazarene school as they are anywhere else. We shouldn't be fueling this idea that our schools are bastions of purity. They're colleges with a specific mission to serve God and help young people learn to think critically. Refusing a group like this, at least from my perspective, fails to represent both Christian love and our confidence that God is bigger than theological differences. It makes us look scared - and we should be exhibiting a perfect love that casts out all fear.

If we are convinced of the Truth of Jesus Christ, the sufficiency of atonement, the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, we don't have anything to fear from honest (and by that I mean openness and a willingness to be affected by the other) dialogue.

We're going to lose a whole generation of young people in the Church of the Nazarene, not because of our positions or doctrines, but because we seem unwilling to allow a new generation to contribute to our understanding and actually participate.

I have said time and again that our position, at least the position officially outlined, is perfectly defensible and a responsible interpretation of scripture. I think there are reasonable and defensible positions on both "sides" of the debate (just as I think there are unreasonable and indefensible positions on both "sides"). If people who disagree (meaning both sides) are willing to have honest discussions, there is no reason why there can't be a building of respect, even if the end result continues to be disagreement.

Ultimately, I do think the problem is one of fear. We're afraid that people who accept even committed, monogamous homosexual relationships (marriages where denominations allow) might end up in hell - and if we're party to a discussion where even one person changes their mind from our position to the other, that we could be responsible for their eternal damnation.

I don't think that's an irrational fear at all.

I disagree with that line of thinking in a number of ways, certainly, but it does make sense to me. I can see were any kind of open engagement would be difficult to swallow.

I welcome this kind of dialogue because I don't share that fear - and what's more I see every day more and more young people I care about who are questioning faith altogether because of the fear inherent in that mindset. I welcome this kind of dialogue because I believe in hell - that it is full of selfishness and anger and fear all of which lead to pain - and that we experience hell when we allow any of those things to control our lives.

I cast no aspersions on anyone but myself here. I don't want this to sound like an attack. I am merely trying to illustrate the journey I've taken.

I faced down the fear I outlined above - what if I get swayed from the right path, what if I inadvertently sway others to their detriment? I've wallowed in that fear often. In the end, I had to make a choice not to let that fear or any fear - even a well-intentioned fear, hold me captive.

I believe God is in control and that God is big enough and smart enough to handle any problem we might create, but I have to move forward boldly without fear and in love.

Finally, (and I'm sorry this post is so long, but I've taken more than a month off, so you get what you get) I've been processing this alongside an investigation into why this kind of dialogue - not just about homosexuality and faith, but about anything - appears dangerous to many. I wonder if there isn't a bit of a modern-postmodern disconnect at work.

I do think the generation emerging is more comfortable with disagreements if relationship is strong - there's sort of an idea that if I can be confident you're earnestly seeking God, I can trust the Holy Spirit to work things out. It doesn't work so well for building and maintaining institutions, but then again the generation emerging doesn't care much about that either. I do think Nazarene higher education is as best placed to tackle this problem as anyone else. I have hope.

I'm not sure exactly what the solution is - beyond grace and love - but I do think it says something about the way we process and dialogue. I've been taught and value the idea that you enter every conversation willing to be changed or it isn't a real conversation. I want to hear how others have answered tough questions differently than I answered them. I want to share ideas or perspectives someone else might have missed or not considered and I want a light shined on my blind spots as well.

I'm excited about the possibilities that lay beyond the comfort and security of my decided opinions. I'm excited about people who wish to engage diversity of all kinds beyond our own labels and definitions, united solely in Jesus Christ.

Yes, the "other side" might be lying. They might not be willing to commit to the same honesty. They might be up to dirty tricks and sneaky schemes - maybe. I am willing to get burned a thousand times rather than be false myself.

*Big thanks to the community at Naznet for helping me formulate these thoughts - much of this post is adapted from my comments there.