Harassment

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For the past two Sundays the folks in our adult discussion forum at First Church have been talking about sexual harassment. It’s an uncomfortable topic for some, but in light of the flood of allegations that have surfaced against high profile celebrities and politicians, we knew it was necessary to ask what might the Christian faith have to say, and how might our behavior as Christians be held to account?

I was particularly struck by the women in the room who came with a variety of experiences and were courageous enough to share their stories. One such story was told by a woman for the very first time in her life. (She has given me permission to write about it in this space without revealing her identity, knowing those who attended the classes will know who she is.)

When she was young – as so many other girls and young women did, and still do – she babysat for a variety of families. During that time she was accosted by more than one adult man in ways that would certainly be considered sexual assault or harassment. She said these experiences have left life-long emotional scars, and that she spent a good deal of time working through the shame she felt. She carried these experiences with her for a lifetime, not even sharing them with her husband or closest friends.

Yet she said she felt moved to talk about them in a Sunday School class, where she felt safe, and free from judgment or reproach. She trusted that her Christian sisters and brothers – some who have known her for many years and others only for a short time – would show compassion. Later she told me that the impetus for her decision came within the context of our discussion about why women wait so long to speak up. Many times women fear their stories will not believed, or their careers will be negatively impacted, or they will be blamed for bringing unwanted behaviors upon themselves. Telling her story for the very first time became a way to stand with those victims. Personally, I’ve known this woman for over 25 years and for so many reasons I have developed a deep and abiding respect for her. She is even more highly revered now because it took great courage for her to reveal that part of her life.

God was at work in these classes, reminding us that the church – while often maligned and burdened with its own sexual abuse scandals – can still be a place of refuge where deep bonds can be formed and the value of community can be accentuated. In a day and age where the church is being pushed farther and farther toward the perimeter of society, and new generations are struggling to find connection and meaning, there continues to be more than just a glimmer of hope when people invest their time and energy in regular and consistent participation in the Christian community.

I found myself wondering how many other women in the congregation have been impacted and what experiences do they carry with them? What are they thinking when they hear scripture about forgiving our enemies? Or when we pray for victims of violence and oppression? How can we be more sensitive to their pain, and what might we do to move the healing process forward?

And what of the men in our church? What can we learn from the stories of brave women who choose to bring into the light their awful tales of pain and suffering? We (men) need to learn that our behaviors matter, especially the ones we have attributed to the “boys will be boys” mentality. We need to be more mindful of our words and actions, and how they are perceived by the women in both our personal and professional lives. And we must hold one another accountable. The time of brushing aside hurtful comments or locker room humor has to come to an end. We can’t stand by quietly while others continue to make tasteless comments. We actually have to speak up. It’s true that many men continue to be in positions of power, but now is the time to use that power to change the culture in a way that reflects the intentions of the God we serve.

I will be forever grateful to the woman who shared her story in our Sunday morning forum. I hope by drawing attention to it in this space she will also become an inspiration for others – women and men – to open themselves to the power of community and the value of standing with one another in the streams of change and healing.

On My Desk

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With no apologies to those who choose not to keep a neat workspace, this is an actual picture of my desk (and its contents). In a way it represents the way my ministry has changed over the years. When I first started my desk was covered with a variety of Bible study materials, a homebound visitation list, clip art books, sermon helps, a preliminary study on homosexuality and the church, and a typewriter. For those of you who might not know what that last item is, think of it as a stone age computer of sorts without a screen. If you made a mistake you couldn’t just hit the delete button. Instead you would have to use this stuff called whiteout, which should not be confused with the crowd at a Penn State football game.

Anyway, what’s on my desk now reflects the signs of the times:

+A New York Times article entitled “What Explains US Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer.”
+A brochure from the Strongsville Police Department explaining their Active Threat Response Option Training for churches. Since the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs we’re preparing our people for what we hope to God never happens.
+The most recent edition of Living Lutheran, open to a piece written by our Presiding Bishop entitled “Living In a Broken World.” I keep it nearby to remind myself that even in the midst of horrific circumstances we have hope in the One who rose from the dead.
+A stack of handouts from last week’s adult class called Responding to Tragedy.
+An article we’ll be using for next month’s Pub Church called “Are You Living a Lie?” That’s a question we Christians ought to be asking on a regular basis when we’re thinking about how well we might be living Christ centered lives.
+Notes from a planning session that hopefully will lead to a cooperative trip to Washington DC with our brothers and sisters from New Covenant Lutheran Church in East Cleveland.

+A brochure inviting me to attend an open conversation between Muslims and Christians.
+Another article entitled “The Invitational Christian” by Dave Daubert. A friend passed this along to me given the fact that the church is seeing a decline in attendance. The article suggests that the best, perhaps only, way to reverse that trend is to teach people to invite their neighbors to church. That’s a tall order for Lutherans who tend to keep to themselves. Therein lies the problem.
+A stewardship campaign folder containing pledge numbers that aren’t as healthy as they need to be in order to support our 2018 ministry plans and obligations.
+A building campaign folder with a lot of good ideas and big dreams that we had hoped to launch at the start of the new year. But that is unlikely to happen because I’m not sure we will even be able to meet our operating expenses.
+A gargoyle from the Biltmore Estate gift shop. I figured it was quirky enough to blend in with the Springsteen concert photo and the autographed Eddie Merckx lithograph.
And finally, a couple of pictures of my family. Just to remind me of God’s grace and favor in my life. And my Bible.

I’m not sure why you would necessarily care about what’s on my desk, but I share it simply because it may give you some insight into where some of my energy is being spent these days. Occasionally I’m told that pastors shouldn’t venture into the socio-political arena, and that we should stick to whatever passes for spiritual. But as the respected theological, Karl Barth, was purported to say, “A preacher should preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” And so when our churches become shooting galleries, advancements in race relations continue to be stifled by bigotry and hatred, ignorance about immigrants and people of other faiths still runs rampant, and new claims of sexual assault and harassment are almost a daily occurrence, shouldn’t we speak if the Gospel has something to say?

Which it most certainly does. The Gospel reminds us that God cares about how we treat each other. The Gospel has the audacity to claim that death and destruction will be overpowered by love. The Gospel bears witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ, and the hope we have in his resurrection. The Gospel tells us over and over again that sin will not win the day when confronted by the grace of God.

And the Gospel speaks to every single troubling article or folder on my desk, reminding me that the challenges and worries of this life will one day be taken up into the embrace of a merciful God.

Trusting in that promise is the only way to move forward.

 

Common Things

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This post is about a dog, the Reformation, and how God chooses to reveal himself in our lives. I know, it’s a strange combination with no immediately apparent thread that would connect the three, but bear with me.

First, the dog. Last weekend my wife and I adopted a retired racing Greyhound, a veteran of 78 races in Charleston, WV. We named him Rocket, appropriate for a dog that can reach forty miles per hour in four strides. Before we decided to accept Rocket into our home we took time to learn about Greyhounds and how they are treated during their brief racing careers. It’s sad and cruel, and something I would encourage you to look into on your own if you so desire, but try to imagine what life would be like for a dog that is crated for up to 23 hours a day, allowed out only to eat and relieve himself.

Even though Rocket was fostered for several weeks everything was new when we got him, though he did exhibit some familiarity with the refrigerator. He growled at his own reflection in the glass. (Who’s that strange dog peering back at me?) Stairs have been a challenge, though he managed to take all five steps from the backyard to the top of our deck in ONE STRIDE to take shelter from a sudden downpour. Trust is being built one day at a time. Since he had to devour his food at the track for fear of other dogs stealing his portion, he guards special treats like peanut butter filled Kongs with a warning grumble if anyone invades his space. And upon close inspection several scars from his life at the track dot his lithe sixty-five pound frame, reminders of how greed and profit too often outweigh caring for God’s creatures.

Bonding is in process, which is really all about discovering what you might have in common with your dog, and that hasn’t been very difficult in my case. I don’t always like my own reflection either. One look into my own eyes and past sins bubble to the surface rather quickly. I have collected a few scars too, some easily seen while others have been conveniently and purposely tucked away so they are not visible to others. And I continue to learn how to trust, which is often impaired by hurtful experiences in my past. Like Rocket, I take it nice and slow with new people, and even after a baseline level of trust has been established I proceed only with caution.

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Second, the Reformation. For the past year we Lutherans have been gearing up to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Our boy Martin was fairly instrumental in getting the whole movement jump started. While most of the focus has been on significant contributions to the life of the Church – things like the authority of scripture, salvation by grace through faith, the presence of Christ in the sacraments, and the education of the laity – I recently came across one of Luther’s lesser known quotes:

“The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made his greatest gifts the commonest.”

Which brings me at last to how God chooses to be revealed in our lives. God uses ordinary elements like bread, wine, and water to deliver the precious gifts of grace and mercy. God is glorified in the beauty of sunrises and sunsets, the distinct aroma of a fresh Spring day, the wonder of the first snowfall, because they all remind us of God’s power and majesty. We marvel at the birth of a baby, and grieve at the death of a loved one, and all the while God is telling us there is a time for every purpose under heaven. In the midst of so many things we have come to take for granted because they have somehow become ordinary occurrences or simple expectations – or we have become too busy to notice (which is another issue altogether) – God is there just waiting to be acknowledged.

Like in the greeting of a dog at the door after a long day, wagging his tail and licking your face because he’s glad to see you, and because it’s his nature to love unconditionally.

It’s good to have a dog in the house again, and I’m very thankful for the opportunity, because it’s going to be much easier to remember the truth in Luther’s saying that “Our Lord God has made his greatest gifts the commonest.”

Recovery

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With a nod and a wink we used to be able to say, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Unfortunately, that is no longer true. The repercussions and consequences of the senseless massacre on October 1st have certainly not stayed in Vegas. Tens of thousands of lives have been impacted. Even though the violence of that fateful night has all but faded out of the news cycle, sorrowful funerals have been held, victims remain hospitalized, criminal investigations are underway, the search for answers continues, and survivors have returned to their homes and families where life will never, ever be the same. The tentacles of what happened in Vegas have slithered their way through America’s cities and towns, hamlets and burgs, and continue to effect the survivors and their loved ones. For many of them, this will never entirely go away.

I wish to express my deep appreciation to all those who reached out to me, to Barb, and to David during the past two weeks. Your sincere expressions of love and concern remain very meaningful to us, and will never be forgotten. This is neither a short nor an easy journey toward recovery, and it absolutely helps to know that we are not traveling alone. We will continue to lean on you as we progress through the healing process.

We are thankful for small steps. David has returned to his teaching position and has immersed himself in his students. He keeps as busy as possible, so as to at least sometimes be able to stave off the nightmares and flashbacks. What used to be boisterous gatherings of friends to watch football or tailgate at the Horseshoe have become (at least for now) quiet get-togethers with just a few people. His friend, Kody, who stayed with Michelle Vo as she lay in a hospital clinging to life, and became the sole channel of communication to her family in California, will travel to San Jose this week for her funeral. Most of us probably would not attend the funeral of a person we had only known for a few hours, but this is a special instance.

I’m finding that I am in a different state of mind these days. Life has taken on a more somber tone. I’m laughing less (not like me) and crying more (mostly when I see or read about a compassionate deed or an example of unconditional love). I wonder if that’s because it feels like these acts of kindness are too often being overshadowed by hatred. I lament that mass shootings have become an unwanted strand in the fabric of our society, and it appears we’re just going to allow them to keep happening. As caretakers of the culture, what messages are we sending to our children?

I have become more easily distracted, and my mind wanders more than normal. I have to work harder to stay focused. Priorities have shifted, and what seemed important just a few short weeks ago no longer feels so urgent. To cope I have turned continually to Psalm 139 and to a prayer written for me by a very dear friend. I find it comforting to hear again and again the words of the psalmist:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me… You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways… You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb… In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed… I come to the end – I am still with you.

It is reassuring to know that no matter where we go, no matter where unwanted thoughts and memories may take us, no matter how horrific and terrifying life may become, God is present in the midst of it all. We cannot escape the unconditional love of God who promises to have mercy especially on those who are weak and broken hearted, and those whose lives have been shattered by unthinkable circumstances.

For all the people who have been touched in any way by the tragedy of the Las Vegas massacre, life will never be exactly the same, with one exception. God is still here, and I’m convinced that we must hold onto this truth in order to survive.