Monday, December 14, 2015

The Sky is Falling

This is the text of my sermon from December 13, 2015. Here is a link to the audio, as well if you'd like to listen. 

When I decided to participate in the national vigil to end gun violence some months ago, I felt that it was the right thing to do. It was important to stand in solidarity with those around the nation who have suffered immeasurable, senseless loss at the hands of predominantly white Christian-identified men with all too easy access to weapons of war and unlimited ammo.

I felt that it would be good to have a conversation. Oh, sure it would be an intellectual exercise, a kind of --- well not hypothetical, because the violence I’d be talking about is all too real-- but definitely a sanitized conversation; a conversation seen from a distance, as Sharon’s prelude suggests, a peering through a telescope at tragedy without being touched by it.

But of course, that’s all changed hasn’t it?

Suddenly, instead of watching the tragedy unfold on the evening news, we were the evening news. Twice. In 27 days. Bookended by tragic violence in Paris, and in San Bernadino.

In our own community, we lost six lives in 27 days to mass shootings. Who knows if there were other gun deaths that occurred, a single gun death not enough to make the news anymore; a gun death by suicide hardly causing a ripple in the current of our communities.

You know, this isn’t the first mass shooting we’ve experienced here in Colorado Springs. The New Life attack that took the lives of two sisters, and was linked to an attack at the YWAM center in Arvada, just a few hours earlier --which also took two lives-- happened in 2007; the 8th anniversary of that was just this past week, December 9th.

And this certainly isn’t the first string of mass shootings I’ve lived through in my 53 ½ years on this earth. And beyond the mass shootings that actually make it to the news, there are approximately 32000 gun deaths in the United States every year.

In fact, according to an October 3, 2015 news story on CNN published, you know, in the wake of the shooting at Umqua Community College in Roseburg, OR that took the lives of 9 people, according to that news story, we are the most heavily armed nation in the world, with a firearm for nearly 90 percent of our 321 million citizens. None of them belong to me.

In that Oregon shooting, the shooter had six firearms at the scene, and eight other firearms were found at his apartment, and all of them were legally bought by himself or a family member.

That shooting was on October 1, just 30 days before our Halloween shooting, which was just 27 days before our Black Friday shooting, which was just 5 days before the San Bernadino shootings.

So I’ve witnessed all these--and more-- through the years, and witnessed gun violence in my own family when my brother bought a gun he should have not been able to buy, and shot himself in the heart.

And what I have finally realized is that we are in a state of emergency, my friends.

I feel such a sense of urgency about this epidemic of gun violence. It’s like being back in the US AIDS years, and seeing all my gay male friends sick and dying, and everyone else having a party-- not even noticing.

Well this has reached a point where we have to notice. We have to speak up.

The sky really is falling; it is falling down in a hail of gunfire and our little paper umbrella laws
and prayers are not going to save us. And if we, as Unitarian Universalists, really hold true to our first principle that every life has inherent worth and dignity, then we cannot be silent. We can no longer be on the sidelines of this issue.

Despite Dan Hodge’s tweet on June 19th of this year that stated: “In restrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” We cannot let this conversation be over.

If we are to honor the lives of the 20 6-7 year olds and the six adults who were gunned down
in Sandy Hook with weapons obtained legally three years ago tomorrow, if we are to honor the lives of our own that we lost recently, and in 2007, we cannot put a period at the end of the sentence; it must be a semi-colon.

We cannot let the benediction at the funerals of the fallen be the last word; we cannot let the sound of Taps being played at the memorial services of Andrew Myers--gunned down while riding his bicycle on Halloween morning-- or Ke’Arre Stewart-- shot outside Planned Parenthood on November 27--both veterans who survived multiple tours of duty in Iraq--we cannot let that song Taps be the final song we hear.

If we are to maintain our own humanity, our own ability to be shocked, and outraged, snd deeply grieved by these events, we cannot be silent.

We cannot, as I wrote in an article for the Quartz website, be content with the fact that this time we were spared, and that this time no one we know and love has been killed.

We must take action.

And I know it can be so easy to feel hopeless and helpless. In the wake of the San Bernadino shootings, I sat in on a skype call with about 12 other Unitarian Universalists, most of them clergy, and the pervasive emotion was helplessness, was a sense of what else can we do?

I don’t know about you, but I cannot give up Hope. I must believe that we can do better as a nation, as a city, as a community of faith.

And I do believe there are things that we can do-- concrete things that can make a difference.
We can urge our legislators, at the state and national level, to pass gun safety laws that make sense. For example, in the Quartz article, I talked about Australia’s response to their 11th mass shooting, a horrific mass shooting in 1996 that left 35 people dead.

Australian lawmakers took only 12 days to make sweeping changes to gun laws. These included a buyback of over half a million semi-automatic weapons, registering individual guns with their owners, eliminating private gun sales, implementing background checks, and requiring prospective gun owners to supply a valid reason for purchasing each weapon. Self defense is not a valid reason. In the decade following, murders dropped by 59% , and suicides fell by 65%. Most importantly, there hasn’t been a single mass shooting in Australia since then. We can do that.

There is a petition afoot, here in Colorado, to ask our legislators to ban open carry that is legal everywhere except the city of Denver. On the morning of the Halloween shooting, the shooter was walking about openly with an AR15--a weapon produced for war--and even had coffee in a McDonald’s where he laid it across the table, and was unhindered. Why? Because we’re open carry. The first call to the dispatcher from a neighbor was answered with, well, we’re open carry. That’s legal.

And minutes later three people were dead.

There is a vetting process, a very comprehensive one, if you want a concealed carry permit, but no vetting process for open carry. There is no need for any citizen of this state to carry a firearm openly. What that does, is make you and me responsible for determining who is the good guy and who is the bad guy when we see someone with a firearm. I don’t know about you, but I’m not trained for that.

Beyond writing letters to our legislators, we can make the choice, as I have, to immediately leave a public place should I see someone with a firearm. If I’m at a restaurant, that means I will not pay my bill. My safety is more important. If I’m in a store, I will leave my cart, and then I will call and tell the manager what I did and why. I will make it a point to shop and dine in places that do not allow open carry. Businesses don’t have to. Safeway and Albertsons don’t allow it. King Soopers does. Some restaurants don’t allow it.

In our own church, in the wake of the Halloween shootings, we researched to see if we had a policy in place, and discovered we did. In 2001, this church created a policy of being a weapon free zone, out of respect for the safety of our families. And our current board is researching signage to get so that it can be clear. If you have weapons, leave them home.

I said in a statement to City Council following the Halloween shootings, that our first amendment guarantees us the right of free speech, right up until the moment we falsely yell fire in a crowded theatre. Then it becomes a crime, because it threatens public safety. Open carry laws force us citizens to determine, when we see a gun, is it really a fire? Is it not? Public safety needs to come first.

There are other things we can do. If you are a gun owner, make sure your guns and ammunition
are locked up and secure. According to the Smart Gun Laws website, people of all age groups are significantly more likely to die from unintentional firearm injuries  when they live in states with more guns, relative to states with fewer guns.  On average,  states with the highest gun levels had nine times the rate of unintentional firearms deaths compared to states with the lowest gun levels. A federal government study of unintentional shootings found that 8% of such shooting deaths resulted from shots fired by children under the age of six. The U.S. General Accounting Office has estimated  that 31% of unintentional deaths caused by firearms  might be prevented by the addition of two devices: a child-proof safety lock (8%) and a loading indicator (23%). If you have a child, make sure you know if the friends he or she is visiting, have guns in their house, and if they’re secure.

And there are other ways to help prevent violence, simple things like getting to know your neighbors, paying for the car behind you in the Starbucks line, making a decision to let love and not fear of the “other” rule your life. These may not seem like they have anything to do with ending gun violence, but they do. They foster a culture and attitude where openness and love is the coin of the realm, rather than fear and suspicion.

The reality of it is, at the end of the day, as the reading from Erik Larson reminds us, no one wants to take away the genuine right to bear arms the second amendment gives us. But this is a different world than it was when that was written, when it took a full minute to load your single shot musket. Still, both sides want to make sure that guns only wind up in the hands of stalwart, responsible citizens. No civilian needs a weapon of war, A weapon of mass destruction.

This weekend is no longer an intellectual exercise in solidarity. This weekend is a clarion call to justice, to safety for our children. It is a wake-up call; it is a stark reminder that the biggest terrorist threat does not come from outside our borders, but from within.

The sky is falling, but we can take comfort in knowing that it’s a false sky in A false world, and we can choose another way. We can choose to live in a saner world where the sky is an empyreal blue, marked only by the nesting clouds of hope and peace, a world where gun violence does not rain down upon us, s world of love.

I don’t know about you, but that is the world n which I choose to live.\

And we can. I swear to you, we can.

But it will take more than our prayers. It will take our action. Are you with me? Then let’s go.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Cheap Grace

This post was originally published on the online news site Quartz on December 4, 2015. As I head into a weekend that includes a Sunday message on seeking ways to end gun violence, and a Monday night vigil to #endgunviolence at 7 PM--the third anniversary of the Sandyhook shootings, I feel more strongly than ever that we must find a way to change this trajectory of bloodshed and death. If you feel the same, I invite you to join with me in a different kind of grace.

Thoughts and prayers are not enough.
In the aftermath of the Dec. 2 San Bernardino shooting, several prominent Republican leaders expressed their sympathy with the victims by offering prayers to victims and their families. But it appears the nation has become weary of platitudes in the face of ever-increasing deaths from gun violence. The New York Daily News’ provocative headline “God Isn’t Fixing This” is the publication’s most retweeted of 2015, according to USA Today.
As a Unitarian Universalist pastor, I believe that it is long past time we got up off our knees and got to work. We need to ensure that our families are better protected by sensible gun safety laws.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned Christians against the theology of “cheap grace.” By this he meant forgiveness without repentance and grace without discipleship. He was tired of hearing Christians declare that Jesus had forgiven them and there was nothing they needed to do to show remorse. And he was sickened by those who praised God for their own salvation without caring about the welfare of others in the world.
Today I see cheap grace every time a politician offers a rote response to a mass shooting, tweeting prayers rather than taking action to end the epidemic of gun violence in our nation. It is not enough to say “I’ll pray for the families and victims.”
In fact, I would say that offering prayers while continuing to block legislation that would create sane gun laws in the US is the definition of sin. It is obscene to say that you’ll pray for a family while pocketing money from the very organizations that ensure weapons of war and unlimited ammunition are available to virtually any member of society that wants them.
These days, cheap grace seems to be the main religion on Capitol Hill.
What the US needs are politicians who embrace a different kind of grace: a grace that is costly, that requires action and sacrifice, and that may even involve a dip in the approvals ratings. It requires us to not be content with the fact that this time we were spared, and that this time no one we know and love has been killed. We should not say, There but for the grace of God go I, but rather There, because of the grace of God, I must go.

This is a grace that is born of prayer—in which the devout ask for the courage to take action, and to acknowledge that even one more death because of our lax gun laws is too many. Enough lives have been sacrificed. Enough families have been forever devastated.
This kind of grace isn’t attached to a particular religion or a god. Rather, it is available to all people whose hearts break with each new tragedy, and who dare to believe that we can do better as a nation. It is this grace that gives me hope that, if enough people can acknowledge the truth of the New York Daily News headline, we will acknowledge that we have to fix this problem ourselves.
I’m no wide-eyed Panglossian who thinks we can eradicate gun violence in our land. I do know, however, that we can reduce deaths by enacting legislation that would make it harder to buy weapons of war and excessive ammunition.
We could follow Australia’s lead, for example, as Slate’s Will Oremus and others have suggested. Following a horrific mass shooting in 1996 that left 35 people dead, Australian lawmakers took only 12 days to make sweeping changes to gun laws. These included a buyback of over half a million semi-automatic weapons, registering individual guns with their owners, eliminating private gun sales, implementing background checks and requiring prospective gun owners to supply a valid reason for purchasing each weapon. In the decade following, murders dropped by 59% and suicides fell by 65%. Most importantly, there hasn’t been a single mass shooting in Australia since then.
I’m tired of the cheap grace that substitutes prayer for action. I want more from our leaders. I want to know the lives of Americans mean something to them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What's So Amazing About Grace?

"Can I meet with you?" A friend emailed me on Monday. "I want to talk about what we can do next in the wake of this latest tragedy."
So we met this morning at Rico's. I'm not sure what I expected. My friend is a lifelong activist, committed to the cause of justice in all its kaleidoscope forms, and to creating a more diverse community. Perhaps we'd talk about concrete actions to take: writing letters to members of Congress urging them to both enact more secure gun safety laws, while at the same time increase funding for Planned Parenthood. Or maybe it would be more local: rallies on the steps of City Hall, speaking out at City Council meetings for the need to end the open carry gun laws that threaten the sense of safety and well-being of the citizens of Colorado Springs.
It was neither of those things. Instead, it was a meeting of two women who feel daunted and overwhelmed at the never-ending story of gun violence in our town, our nation, our world. It was a meeting of hearts that were broken over the continued devastation of our society. It was a sharing of stories of hope and hopelessness and finding hope again.

What can we do? We asked one another. We ended up deciding that maybe just gathering as moms and activists once a month to cry and laugh together might be the best thing we could do. As we were preparing to leave, I noticed a card on the rack. Maybe that's the secret, I said, pointing to it. Maybe we just need to remember that. Filled with hope that the card gave me, I bought it.

I returned to my office and turned on the computer to the news that another active shooting event was in progress. This one was in San Bernadino, CA, with estimates of  at least 20 people being shot.

Another friend and colleague texted me to say that she was convening a gathering on Skype so that we could cry together. I joined in; it was a small group-- maybe ten people or so-- crying over this latest violence unfolding in San Bernadino. There was a pervasive sense of deep grief and hopelessness over the state of our nation, the rampant gun violence that takes aim at all of us.

It was a brief conversation and when it was over I thought again of the card I brought home from Rico's. I thought about having to preach on Grace the day after the shootings here. I decided once again to turn to Grace, to Hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. What else can I do? What else can you do?

Here is the text of my sermon from this last Sunday, entitled What's So Amazing About Grace?
May we all keep remembering.
What’s So Amazing About Grace?

This service theme, as all service themes, was planned months in advance of today. When we chose this theme--myself and my intrepid music and worship team--I don’t know about them, but I was imagining a Lifetime Movie of the Week sort of service; maybe--at worst--a Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day service where we could each think about My Problem and How I Solved It--one of the favorite columns I used to read in some teen magazine back when problems centered around your boyfriend cheating on you, or an outbreak of acne just before the prom
(which is almost worse.)

But life doesn’t work that way, does it? Instead we got bombarded with Real Life Opportunities to wait on grace to find us, to unblind us, metaphorically speaking, to lead us home. But what do we do when we no longer know where home is? And how will we know when we’ve found it?

Don’t worry. That’s where grace comes in.

Grace is our tour guide through devastation. Through loss and overwhelming grief. Grace is the voice of Siri guiding us through the unforeseen detours, the road hazards, the sinkholes that threaten to swallow us whole.

Grace is Siri saying, in that slightly annoyed voice, recalculating, when we didn’t follow her instructions the first time and she has to find a new route for us to get home. And she always does. She always does.

So…how about that Grace? What is it that makes her so amazing?

First, maybe I should introduce you all proper like. The dictionary’s definitions are simple:
Moving with elegance and grace; a prayer of blessing said before or after a meal--and that’s the riff I was going to take for this sermon, in the wake of Thanksgiving when many of us gathered
in large or small groups and reflected on what we had for which we were grateful.

In a Christian sense, Oxford has this to say: Grace is the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Guess that last one is great if you’re a Christian, but what about for us wild and crazy Unitarian Universalists? What’s so amazing about grace for us?

When we step out of the pages of the dictionary and into lived experience,
Grace has so much more meaning; it means blessing and gratitude, and forgiveness and redemption.  Grace means getting a do over. Grace means, as the chalice lighting suggests, a fresh start at life with each dawn; not on a perfectly cleaned chalk board-- the past lessons and grace given show in bas relief against the study green of the day—but clean enough. Fresh enough. Hopeful enough
to get us out of bed and into our world, even on the bleakest of mornings.
And if we look even at the Christian definition--through our Unitarian and Universalist lens there is something for us. Just this morning someone posted on our Facebook page, What do you believe about heaven? And Jo Winn, our resident scholar and lifelong Unitarian Universalist, said “I can’t speak for everybody but the universalist side says that God welcomes all into heaven.”

And this is indeed what we believe. So when we look at this Christian definition through our Unitarian Universalist lens we can find something for us.

We can say Grace is the free and unmerited favor of the holy, of that which we name as sacred in our lives-- whether that’s human nature, the universe, God, Nature--as manifested in the wholeness, which is one of the meanings for the word salvation in Christian scripture, and redemption
--the reclaiming –of blessings. So grace is the free and unmerited favor of the holy as manifested in the wholeness of humanity and the reclaiming of blessings.

Now Grace may be amazing, but let me tell you: She’s no cheap date. As Herman Hesse says in Siddarhtha, “I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.” 

Hopefully his is a more extreme experience than ours but it is true that Grace shines her light in the deepest shadows of our lives. When we are lost in the corridors of pain, or grief, or loss Grace comes in, swinging the lantern of hope to guide us home.

I don’t know about you, but in these past few days I have felt the temptation to become lost, myself, in the darkness of despair and helplessness, in the jaded fear that we--as a nation, as a people--have peered too far over the abyss of violence and can only tumble over into it, falling forever into its vast chasm of pain. And it was grace that pulled me back; Grace in the sharing of that pain with others.
First—because this is 2015—individually, or in groups on fb. People texted or emailed or called me
asking me:  Are you safe? Are you ok? And I felt that grace in this gathering clan of concern, of love, of presence. Then corporately, as I worked with a fine group of people dedicated to peace, to healing, to wholeness, to plan a vigil that would both honor our grief and call us to action.

In so many of the pictures from the vigil yesterday that showed our speakers, the light from our windows cast an aura of gold around them, and so many people exclaimed about that. I like to think that was grace enfolding us, holding us, reminding us we’re not alone.

Grace is not only being pulled back from the precipice, Grace is also the act of letting go of what was, of what could have been, of what was hoped for, and surrendering to the reality of what is.
Grace comes, in the wake of Friday’s tragedy, when we can stop asking why? and start asking what now?

What now?

Grace comes when we stop shaking our head in denial and saying I can’t believe this happened—again--just weeks after the last vigil of three people killed in our city as a result of gun violence. It comes when we stop shaking our heads in denial and instead bow our heads in sorrow, and give in to the grief, and shock, and the anger.
“Un-winged and naked,
sorrow surrenders its crown
to a throne called grace.”
Aberjhani,  says in The River of Winged Dreams
That’s Grace.

Do those of you who are parents remember when your child was very little, and throwing a tantrum, and struggling against your arms as you attempt to soothe them, saying, “Get away from me! I hate you!” and then suddenly they would just burst into tears, snd throw their arms around your neck as they sobbed? That’s Grace. Grace happens when we stop struggling against our pain and acknowledge it.

Grace is amplified when we can acknowledge, and seek solace with others, rather than isolating ourselves. Yesterday a couple hundred of us came together in this room to acknowledge our anger, and grief, and bewilderment. And we felt such grace.

As Rumi said:
“You are so weak.
Give up to grace. The ocean takes care of each wave till it gets to shore.

You need more help than you know.” 

Grace takes care of us and makes sure we get to shore. When we feel like we’re floundering, Grace comes along in the form of a friend, or stranger, or sunrise, or our dog, and holds us until we get the next wave closer to shore.

The good thing about Grace is she’s patient. She knows how unruly we humans are, how insistent that we can find our own way. We shout out, I can do it myself!  And Grace doesn’t even roll her eyes; she just waits. She smiles and waits. She waits for us to have our spiritual eyes opened to see her. There is no expiration date on Grace, no set point at which she will say
Time’s up!I gave you a chance and you blew it! She’s always there.

And Grace reminds us we’re not alone. Ironically, of all the media outlets I made yesterday, the one that drew the most attention and praise was from The Blaze. Scores of my friends posted that
and said Way to go! Calling it like it is! I have to say it was my favorite headline, too.

The irony is that The Blaze is a website run by ultra conservative Glenn Beck. The comments are horrifying! I hope my mom doesn’t read them! But I love how something sent out as a slam was so well-received by my activist friends Don’t you just love the irony of that?

And then when I started getting hate tweets from followers of The Blaze, my friends started sending love tweets to me. Which means I suddenly have a lot more followers on twitter and better do something more than post quotes from the latest Dean Koontz novel I’m reading.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Grace is that when we silence the critic in our brains; when we take the gavel away from the cruel judge in our hearts; when we turn from that hatred of those who are threatened by us, and look instead to those cheering us on, we discover that Grace has led us home.To the very center of our own being. To the core of who we are. And there we do find wholeness. We reclaim blessings we thought we lost. We stop fighting within ourselves and extend our love to our very souls, freely, and without fear.

Anne Lamott once said: “I believe that against all odds, grace bats last, and that little by little,
in ways that may not be visible for awhile, this polarization will heal. For my part, I pray not to be so self-righteous, and to keep remembering that we are all one family.”

I like that image, that reminder that we’re all one family—the shooter and the shot, Planned Parenthood and Bill Carmody—we’re all one family. Grace reminds us of that.

And Grace reminds us no matter how many times we strike out, or get fouled out, or have a pop ball caught right when we’re rounding first, we can look back at the batter’s box, and there is Grace, grinning and rubbing dirt on her hands before clenching the bat, and winking as if to say
No worries! I got this
.  And she does. She always does. She’s the cleanup batter; she brings us all home. And, where once we were parched, our thirst is now slaked. And where once we couldn’t see where we were going, we clearly see the path we’re on.
And then, in some mystical, alchemical transformation, we hear another voice calling out in the wilderness, lost and bewildered and alone, and we surprise ourselves when we reach out to take their hand, and become even more surprised--though in some ways, not surprised at all--when that person clutches our proffered hand, and calls us Grace.
And we respond, Come, follow me; I can help you find your way home.
That is perhaps the most amazing thing about Grace: how we are that to one another, how we can’t exist if we don’t offer that to one another, how, to paraphrase the words of William Blake from our opening hymn, Pity, Mercy and Love are in human dress. Home is in the reaching out to be a light for others as some were for us.
That’s what is so amazing about Grace, that’s what is so amazing about this congregation--the many ways we are grace-- to ourselves and one another. That’s something I could easily do, hand in hand with you, for at least 10.000 years.
That is so much more than a prayer before dinner. This is so much more than a lifetime movie of the week.This is, indeed, life. And I think that’s pretty amazing. Amen.