Sunbursts from God

Colorado SunsetIt had been a long, good and full day. I first sat with a group of women participating in stimulating discussion around the story of a Pharisee, Jesus and a woman (or was it around a woman, a Pharisee and Jesus?!). Later we listened to a friend tell of her  experiences ministering in South Asia. Then it was on to worship in the sanctuary—truly the high point of the week as music, prayer and the spoken word drew us closer together as the family of God and closer to the One who deserves all worship. At home after a quick lunch and a task or two, I relaxed with Sabbath reading before heading out once more.

This time it was to be with people who vibrantly agree with Chris Tomlin’s lyrics:

You’re the God of this City
You’re the King of these people
You’re the Lord of this nation…
Greater things have yet to come
And greater thing are still to be done in this City…

The music was exuberant, flags waved, people shouted their praise. Psalms were read and prayers fervently offered first in adoration of our God, then in contrite confession and finally in humble yet bold supplication that God would enter our city gates, be honored and obeyed.

Suspecting that this beautiful, spontaneous worship could go on for some time, my body began giving me the unmistakable message that it was time for rest. I quietly slipped out, buoyed as I went with the words, “Our God is King!” As I drove westward to the parking lot exit, there in the sky was the scene pictured above. Not only a Colorado sunset, but truly a Colorado sun burst. It was as though God gave me a physical glimpse—just a glimpse—of the glory about which we’d been singing, that Jesus truly is King.

One day “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Until then—in the midst of confusion, anger, terror, broken dreams, loneliness, war and the everydayness of life—we sing. And look for the occasional sun burst to feed our faith.



Father’s Day

Father's DayA scant two months into my senior year of high school, my father died. Long afflicted by a variety of physical disabilities caused by an auto accident and serious illness, he never lost his sense of humor, trust in a loving God, positive outlook on life, faith in people.

Although strange in light of today’s understanding of how families prepare children for the death of a family member, my parents followed the accepted pattern of the day: do not involve your children. They never discussed the condition, diagnosis, treatment or prognosis. In the year before his death, my dad taught me how to drive: “Your mother doesn’t like driving, especially at night, so you need to learn.” The driving lesson was in a 1939 (stick shift!) Ford on a narrow, gravel, ditch-framed country road. At one point a road grader appeared—surely as big as a Mack truck—and Daddy simply said, “Just go around.”

Some studies indicate that when the death of a parent occurs during one’s adolescence, a myriad of negative psychological symptoms occur because of the lack of guidance. In my case, however, I think my father’s assumption that I would be “adult” somewhat counteracted this possibility. After the early tears, the gathering of family and the huge church funeral, my life as a high schooler moved blithely on. It’s hard for a teenager to hold sadness too long and Daddy obviously believed that his admonition to “just go around” was sufficient.

How I wish I’d had the privilege of an adult relationship with my dad (always known as “daddy”) but such was not to be. I also wish I’d been curious enough—and he had been forthcoming enough—to discuss his childhood. I know only barebones, anecdotal information. Born in 1904, he grew up a first-generation American in a German-speaking family in Pennsylvania. Eight grades were his only formal education, and—wanting at all cost to avoid the life of a coal miner as was the determined future for his peers—he moved to Detroit where he attended a trade school for the training that positioned him for a successful factory job akin to lower middle management for the rest of his life.

Hard work in the factory and life in the country interspersed with fishing, hunting, annual “vacations” (visits to grandparents to assist in their simple lives) were the norm. He and I (to my mother’s chagrin) loved listening to radio broadcasts of the era. In summer we tuned our ears to broadcasts of Detroit Tiger baseball games and I became adept at recognizing players of those years. His sense of humor—never, ever at the expense of another—seemed to sneak up when least expected to the delight of all and was remembered long after his brief fifty-one years on earth.

As an only child I perhaps had more exposure to adult conversation than do children growing up with siblings. I listened; they talked. As I look back through the lens of time, I realize that the information about my parents—their values, character, relationships—filtered into my mind from “overheard” casual supper time exchanges.

An enduring and caught-not-taught lesson came from my dad’s acceptance of people when such tolerance was not culturally suitable. The word was unhesitatingly used in the culture of my childhood but never crossed the lips of anyone in our home. While others felt free to speak deprecatingly about African Americans, often with rude humor, I remember hearing conversations about how he and “the sweeper” chatted over their brown bag lunches. Everyone knew that “sweeper” meant janitor and all janitors in factories at that time were black. And shared lunches were unthinkable. No lessons on tolerance, just a life lived according to an unswerving moral compass.

The picture accompanying this blog is important though its edges are blurred with time. Daddy sits in his favorite chair in the living room after a long day’s work. On the floor to his left are the “funny papers” which he religiously read to me every evening while I sat on his lap. On the floor to his right is one of my dolls, discarded in pursuit of something more important like a book or radio program. The picture spells peace, acceptance, love, relationship. The very best memories to have on Father’s Day.

A Weeping God

Weeping GodIt was pre-coffee yesterday morning when I heard the tag end of the NPR horrifying news out of Orlando. Turning on the television (a definite no-no for me on Sunday mornings), I saw the flashing lights of first responders’ vehicles and the gathered though scattered onlookers, their faces blank with sorrow. I pondered a weeping God.

Now, twenty-four hours later, I wonder what words I write could possibly describe my questions, my sadness, my heart. Finding the article I’ve copied here seems the best response. I don’t recall reading anything else by Martin Saunders, but his words reflect what is within me. (I’ve taken the liberty of underlining words or phrases that particularly resonate.)

Orlando Shooting: Why Christians Must Not Stay Quiet

Most atrocities provoke a natural, instinctive response. Horror, outrage, sympathy for the victims and those that love them. Whether it’s a school shooting in America or a factory collapse in Bangladesh, most of us travel that same journey each time, and Christians are often at the forefront of the practical response: praying, grieving, lending practical support.

When Gunman Omar S Mateen walked into an Orlando nightclub on Saturday night and opened fire on those inside, he committed the worst attack on American soil since 9/11. 50 people died, scores more were injured. Yet for Christians, this didn’t simply represent another opportunity to stand beside the broken; for many it created a moment of extreme internal conflict. Because this was a gay nightclub, and this was a direct assault not just on the victims, but on the entire LGBT community; on who those people were and what they represented.

In fact, it was more complicated even than that. Mateen was a Muslim, committing an act of mass murder in America against a climate of rising nationalism and religious intolerance, and some Christians have been at the forefront of promoting a Donald Trump-esque ideology of segregation and fear. And Mateen’s weapon was of course, a gun, the sacred cow of American culture, exercised through that ‘constitutional right to bear arms’ that the rest of us hear so much about without ever sympathizing. A Muslim, using a gun to kill 50 gay people. This awful, awful tragedy couldn’t be more loaded with agonizingly uncomfortable meaning.

Just one night earlier, former Voice contestant and popular blogger Christina Grimmie was gunned down in a separate incident in the same US State. Christians responded swiftly and vocally, not least because Grimmie was a Christian. In the wake of Orlando, the responses were much more measured. Pastors tweeted that they were #praying for the families of victims. Many—including Donald Trump—used the massacre as an opportunity for political point scoring, issuing ‘I told you so’s’ about the dangers contained in America’s Muslim population. Few recognized the atrocity for what it was—a targeted attack on the LGBT community.

Orlando should make us sick. Sick to our stomachs at the depravity of Mateen’s actions, at the unspeakable pain that he will have caused for hundreds of parents, siblings, friends and partners. As with any other atrocity, we should be horrified; we should feel outrage; we should feel enormous sympathy.

But that’s not all we should do. Because if we’re really honest about some of our natural responses to Saturday night, then we can also take this opportunity to allow God to challenge and change us. And just as he might when there’s a flood or a famine, we can ask him to use us to help those who suffer and bring change where it’s needed. There are five elements to the response I believe the church—all of us—can and should make in the wake of Orlando.

Mourn.  Paul writes in Romans 12:15 that we should “mourn with those who mourn” (anyone worried about my proof text exegesis can relax; this comes in the middle of vv 14-21, which applies to the whole community, not just the church). He wants to see Christian love in action, because like Jesus he knows that this is how we truly love, and also how others will know that we’re different. Practically that means putting aside any conflicted feelings we may have around people’s sexuality or ‘lifestyle choices’, and simply allowing us to feel as God does; a sense of utter devastation at this tragic waste of life. Naturally our response becomes to offer compassion, support and understanding to those involved, and indeed to the entire LGBT community.

Pray. Talk is cheap, and so is that generally misleading Internet hashtag, #praying. Instead, Christians should do what Christians have done best for two thousand years; to invoke the help and intervention of the Almighty. Pete Greig, the founder of 24-7 prayer, posted a simple list of prayer responses the day after the massacre, writing: “Would we ‪#‎PrayForOrlando more if the terror had taken place in a church this morning instead of a gay club? If so, we know very little in our heart of hearts of Christ’s true mercy. Let’s pray together: comfort for the grieving, strength for the medics, peace for the city.” These are excellent, worthy prayers and a great starting point; I’d also add that we should pray for justice (even if we don’t yet know what that looks like), for good legislative change to come as a result, and for the news story itself not to become hijacked by those who’d seek to misuse it for political ends (see next point). Most importantly though, we should simply pray God’s peace and presence in Orlando, and not just think or talk about doing so.

Respect. We need to call this what it is: a targeted hate crime. We must not allow this story (as Sky News and The Sun already seem to have done in the UK) to become subverted into a story about terror, ISIS and general American safety. We should call out the harmful idea that this could have been any nightclub; it just happened to be a gay one. This was no coincidence, and suggesting that it was only increases the pain and sense of injustice that the LGBT community is feeling.

Welcome. For years campaigners within the church have been pointing to the number of gay Christian teenagers who’ve committed or attempted suicide because they were unable to reconcile their faith and their sexuality. That in itself hasn’t been enough to help many churches become welcoming to and accepting of LGBT people, although of course, many are. There is no argument for churches actively rejecting any people on the basis of their sexuality or gender, and perhaps that is even clearer in the light of this attack upon those who don’t fit the neat heterosexual male/female mould. Of course ‘welcome’ and ‘acceptance’ will look vastly different between different churches, but we need to get better at managing the tension between strong and respectfully held theological beliefs on certain behaviors, and unconditional love. And the love must come first.

Rethink. It’s time to change the narrative on gun control. Christians—who still represent a huge and awesomely powerful political lobby in the US—simply have to take the lead on cutting back, and perhaps eventually stamping out personal gun ownership. Most of the arguments against that are wounded every time America suffers another of these regular gun massacres; the rest are simply pragmatic (the bad guys already have guns, so we must have them too), but Jesus was an idealist who called people to a better way of living. I do not underestimate how hard this is, or how entrenched this right and value feels for my American cousins. But incidents like this should act as a prompt to offer every area of our thinking to God and ask: is it possible that I could be wrong on this?

Christians haven’t been silent in the hours following this atrocity, but we have been subdued. So perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves: we’re supposed to be the light of the world. When evil strikes, as it does, and it will, we should be among the first responders every time, and not just when the victims fit our profile of those who are somehow most worthy of our grief. It’s not enough simply to agree that the human loss is tragic; we must be part of creating a world where the kind of hatred and intolerance which motivated Omar S Mateen simply cannot prevail. For the church, this is the perfect moment to stop standing against the LGBT community, and start standing alongside them. Otherwise not only do we miss a huge opportunity to build bridges and demonstrate our Savior’s love, but we risk getting caught on the wrong side of history.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders


Lost in Translation

Language BarrierEarly in our days in Germany and just learning how to live (somewhat!) successfully in this new culture, we attended a conference where the audience was German and the speaker from Texas. We requested headphones to hear the translation thinking that hearing English in one ear and German seconds later in the other ear would somehow help in the language learning process.

The translator that day was Hans Joachim, a German colleague whose English was perfect but, as far as we knew, had never lived in the U.S. and certainly was not well acquainted with the American pastor’s Texas drawl. At one point, the pastor recounted his experiences as a teenager, explaining how he tried to hide from his mother the smell of alcohol on his breath after an evening “out with the boys.”

“I knew my mother wouldn’t approve of my drinking so I popped a couple of Sen-Sen in my mouth…” Sen-Sen?? How would our German-born and bred colleague know the meaning of “Sen-Sen”? This breath freshener from our—and the speaker’s—childhood was no longer commonly used, and certainly wouldn’t have been part of the translator’s experience. But with scarcely a pause, we heard, “Pfefferminz” (peppermint)! Asked later how he knew to use that specific word, Hans Joachim said, “I’d never heard of Sen-Sen, but the context of the sentence told me what the speaker meant.”

So often we of the Christian faith use words that are just as foreign as Sen-Sen to people of the secular culture around us, especially those of the millennial generation. Words like faith, scripture, saved, lost and many others fall on deaf ears or—at the very least—have become words of mockery. Instead of expecting the culture to understand our “insider” language, perhaps it’s time to better translate the message of Christ’s love in words that can be best used by the Holy Spirit to remove all language barriers. After all, when he translates, nothing is lost.