Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Guns, Personally

Like most Americans, I've been thinking a lot about guns for the last month or more.

I've tried to organize some thoughts around the issue and I find it very difficult to do. In fact, I kind of give up and admit I can't. I may come back to this topic, but I decided I'd start here, with my personal history with guns. This isn't particularly religious or theological. Maybe I'll get to that sometime. This is just personal anecdote, which is hardly persuasive to anyone but maybe it gives a context to anything that may follow in future posts.

I grew up in a house with guns. I think it was only two, but may have been three. We had at least a shotgun and a .22 rifle. They were not locked up. They simply leaned in the corner behind Mama and Daddy's bedroom door. Daddy's dresser was next to the door and the shells and bullets were kept on top of it.

We weren't hunters. We had guns to protect livestock, the end. I don't ever recall a conversation about self defense, although I'm sure that had there been cause for such use, we would have done so. That's hard to imagine, though, as we lived in a house without locking doors. We hooked the screen doors at night, mostly to make sure no animals tried to get in.

My experience of my parents (and I say "my experience" because I was born in their mid-forties while my oldest siblings were born while they were in their twenties---I recognize they may have had different parents) is that they didn't make a big deal out of much of anything. Their approach to dangerous things, like farm equipment, was to show us how they worked, demystify them, if you will, and in the process showed us how to be careful around them. The guns were no different. They were simply there, and we knew it, but there wasn't much of a "forbidden fruit" aura about them. When I got old enough---12-ish, as I recall---I was taught how to use them and over the years I did a few times. I shot several chicken snakes in the hen house, a skunk, also in the hen house, and a couple of armadillos that were tearing up the yard. That's all I recall at the moment. There may have been other creatures along the way, but all rather usual farm predators and pests.

Mama didn't like toy guns and I only remember a couple. I think one was a leftover relic from older sibs' childhoods. One Christmas, I remember a pair of plastic rifles that shot those suction-cup darts that never actually stuck to anything. If Gary, the only brother I really grew up with, and I ever pointed a toy gun at each other, we got fussed at. Not punished or yelled at even, just told that we weren't ever to point a gun at another person, even a toy gun.

I recall a time when a cousin brought a BB gun to our place. I don't think Mama liked it, but she let us go out to the barn and shoot cans off of fence posts and the like. We were told to not shoot at any animals and to make sure there none in the background. I think Gary and I both wanted one, but I don't recall much of any kind of discussion about it. My best guess is that my parents, being the practical German Lutherans that they were, didn't see BB guns as useful. If guns are used only to protect livestock, a BB gun didn't add anything to that arsenal and therefore were only useful for mischief and mishaps.

And that's pretty much my experience with guns. Once I left home, I never owned a gun personally and still don't---I have no livestock to protect! Despite living in large cities for the last decade (more if you count Austin as a "large city"), I've never felt the need for one.

But given my personal experience, I can't say that having guns in the home is categorically unsafe. I can make the argument that I grew up with unusually safe people, but I can't say that guns made us feel unsafe.

What I do know is that we were taught not to point guns at other people, not even toy guns. Who knows what one will do in a life threatening situation, but if I carried a concealed weapon, I'm not sure it would make a difference: my hard wiring is set for not pointing a gun at another person. Maybe I would in self-defense, but even if I did, chances are high that I'd likely just be dead. Or, as some manage, I'd talk the assailant out of killing me, but I'd probably be dead. If someone else's life was threatened? I'd probably be more aggressive, but even then my hard wiring is to not shoot people.

And this is the part I've been puzzling over for weeks now. Why is that just a basic thing for me? Why is that so hard wired for me and other people obviously aren't? I realize not everyone had my parents, but why are we, as a culture, so given to violence?

I have my ideas and maybe I'll get around to them. Having told my story and given my context, I'll jump to the thing everyone's arguing about these days: I'm for tighter gun control. But given my history, I also know that fearing a gun in the home---or even feeling safer with one in the home---isn't all there is to the discussion.

Anyway, here is my context and my confession that I don't think this is all about giving up our guns, nor is it about everyone being armed to the teeth.

I know it sounds simplistic, idealistic, and naive to say that we, as a culture, need to do a better job of teaching each other and our children that it's wrong to point guns at people. But is it anymore simplistic, idealistic, and naive than saying everyone would be safer if we all had a gun on our hip?

As I said, I'll likely come back to this. But tonight I end by saying one more time the thing Mama and Daddy taught me: It's wrong to point a gun at another person. Period. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Twelfth Day of Christmas---The Beginning

There's a phrase that pops up now and again in Christian literature and liturgy. It popped out for me last Sunday during the Eucharistic prayer: ". . . in these last days . . . "

I get the phrase and I understand how it arose and what it means within a certain context, but it is a concept in Christianity that gets corrupted and feared. It turns the Revelation of John into a doomsday text instead of a text about restoration. I suspect that there is a direct and, I guess, inverse correlation between our lives getting easier through the centuries and the idea of "these last days" as a negative, fearful thing. The early Christians were more apt to look for the ending of the present suffering and the coming of the Reign of God, in its eschatological sense. As life gets easier, the end of the current reign looks scarier, the coming Reign of God (again, in its eschatalogical sense) looks uncertain, unnerving.

(I've heard some people speak of reincarnation in similar terms. In the Asian religions where the concept arose, it was seen as the curse to escape. You built up Karma until you were good enough to escape the cycle of rebirths and, hence, the suffering of the world. Now, our more affluent cultures that play with a belief in reincarnation, see it more as this cool opportunity to live life again. But I digress.)

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Before Christmas, a meme made the rounds of Facebook with people holding signs that said, "The Beginning is Near." Websearching it just now, I see that it was often used in conjunction with the Occupy movement. I think I saw it, at least once, used in connection with the Mayan end of the world hysteria. The calmer of the Mayan calendar watchers were seeing it as the beginning of a new world, a new era in humanity. 

I rather liked the meme, whatever its associations. There are plenty of references in our scripture and tradition about God doing a new thing, about new creations and a new heaven and a new earth. 

Even in these last days, God is busy doing new things. 

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We've come to the Twelfth Day of Christmas. We've had a child born unto us, a Son given to us. We've seen him named and circumcised. We've seen other children die because of his existence. We've seen the powerful lash out in fear the poor rejoice. 

And whichever Gospel you want to look at it, this is only the first chapter or two of the book. It is not the end. Not by a long shot.

The beginning is near and in fact has begun.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Eleventh Day of Christmas---Dreamers

This year, looking at the nativity narratives, I'm struck how many times Matthew's gospel uses dreams for revelation, instruction, and warning.

I'm lucky enough to remember a good many of my dreams. I'm lucky enough to hardly ever have anything that qualifies as a nightmare (not since childhood). Yet, I can count less than a handful of dreams that ever felt like anything more than dreams.

Did Joseph have other dreams that he recognized as not from God? Did the wise men regularly interpret their dreams as instruction or warning? I admit, I'm not likely to make travel plans based upon a dream Ihad about coming trip.

Of course, I also realize that these are not likely to be historical stories, that they may have been Matthew's way of connecting Jesus (the "new Moses" for Matthew's more Jewish gospel) to dreamers (like Moses' ancestor, Joseph).

Still, I can't help but project my own experience with dreams (tainted as it is with 20th Century theories from Jung and Freud about them) onto Joseph and the Magi. Clearly the ancients were more likely to associate them with messages from the gods. I'm all for shedding old superstition in favor of actual knowledge, but I'm not sure we have a great deal of actual knowledge about dreams. Or at least I don't.


For the record, the dreams that I've had that felt like something "more" than "just a dream" were about dead people. I dream about my (deceased) parents all the time, but there's one dream that I've always counted as instruction from my mother---and I've so far followed it. Another was a dream of a deceased friend who phone-called me from heaven. There was so much of his personality in that dream (right down to his apparently having snuck into an office in heaven to make the call and he might have to hang up at any second!) that felt like an actual visit with him. I told his widow about the dream and she said another of their friends had received a similar dream. But there was no real message in it. Well, except maybe that he was in heaven (with offices and phones?) and okay. We'd talked a lot, as he was dying, about life after death. I guess it had a touch of revelation that this was not the only world we'd know.

I don't know. I don't really have much to say on this Eleventh Day of Christmas. Just speculation and musings (made with a crooked smile as I type).
Some things are just mysteries and part of the journey is learning to live in them.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Tenth Day of Christmas---Glory and Contemplation

You've probably heard before that shepherds, in "those days" of Emperor Augustus, did not have access to regular showers or other hygienic upkeep. And perhaps you've heard that sheep are, well, stinky. (I've not had much personal experience with sheep, but I once had a pastor who grew up with sheep and we heard many a sermon that mentioned the stench and stupidity of sheep.)

So we can extrapolate that shepherds living in the fields would not be the desirables of polite society.

Mary and Joseph were, as I noted last post, poor, but probably a notch above shepherds. They ended up in a stable for the birthing of Jesus, but we're also told there was no room in the inn, not necessarily that they couldn't afford a room.

So here's Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, already surrounded, presumably, but livestock, and in come these stinky men of the pastures. They are excited and rejoicing and telling of angel song and vision.

I imagine a bit of a ruckus.

Or perhaps they came in quietly enough, reverently enough, but Luke still tells us they returned to the fields glorifying and praising God.

I imagine there was at least some fading ruckus as they left the manger.

And why not? They had seen angels. Angels had chosen them, stinky shepherds, who polite society most likely avoided. They were the first to hear (in Luke's telling) of the birth of the Messiah. And even better, they found that savior not in a palace, but in a manger, a stable, the kind of places they were very familiar with. The Messiah was born to people who, if not as bad off as them in actuality, were pretty close to it.

That's worth some rejoicing, some ruckus.

And after they were gone, we have Mary. We have this nice little bit of characterization for Mary (and let's face it, characterization is not the Gospel writers' long suit). She "treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart."

Glory and contemplation. Ruckus and pondering.

Gifts of grace, in response to grace.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Ninth Day of Christmas---The Poor Family from Nazareth

One of the primary concerns of the Gospel of Luke is the poor. I've long recognized the places where this emphasis is readily seen. Luke has Jesus preach "blessed are the poor," in contrast to Matthew's "blessed are the poor in spirit." Mary's song, which we know from the Latin translation as the Magnificat, is full of revolutionary language, speaking of God's favor for the poor while the rich are sent away empty. Things like that. This "preferential option for the poor" can be seen throughout scripture, but Luke really hammers it home.

I was looking in my Harper's Bible Commentary to see what ideas I could find for this unexpected series on the 12 Days of Christmas. (I've mentioned that this wasn't exactly planned, yes?) The commentator is remarking on how many ways Luke tried to make sure we understood that Mary and Joseph were good Jews, following the Law of Moses closely in the days following Jesus' birth (circumcision on the 8th day, purification of the mother), but what the commentator didn't note was a piece of information that points to the poverty of the Holy Family.

In Luke 2: 24, we find, " . . . and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’"

The commentator notes that this is to fulfill a command found in Leviticus 12:6-8: "6 When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering. 7He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. 8If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean"

It sticks out to my eye that they did not offer a lamb, but the offering to be made "if she cannot afford a sheep."

Our American culture worships wealth. We wish to be the rich and famous people on the cover of magazine covers and we often support politicians' moves to favor the wealthy over the poor. Clearly, not everyone, but in general, we like our nice things and disposable income and if we don't have that, we generally want very badly to have it. There are preachers (strangely, very rich preachers with TV shows) who like to tell us that Jesus was rich, or if Jesus wasn't rich, he definitely wants us to be rich.

This is very difficult to support from scripture.

And if nothing else, I'm struck once again how this wealthy nation, which many want to claim as a "Christian nation," misses that our Lord and Savior is nothing like the rich people we admire or want to be.

Jesus was born a peasant and he died a peasant. His is not a rags to riches story, but a story of the Reign of God and how much we don't want it, how we are not satisfied with the abundance the Reign of God brings.

Mary made the poor woman's offering. We need to remember this.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Eighth Day of Christmas---The Name of Jesus

January first is better known as New Year's Day, I realize, but as we all make resolutions and turn over new leafs, the church calendar asks us to reflect upon the Name of Jesus.

The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is observed variously by different liturgical traditions, but for the traditions I follow, it makes sense to us to observe it today, eight days after the birth of Jesus. It was the Jewish custom to circumcise male babies on their eighth day and that was also when they received their official name. The Gospel of Luke gives the event exactly one verse: Chapter 2, verse 21.

But in the first chapter, the angel Gabriel had told Mary this would be the child's name. And if we parse out the name, we realize "Jesus" is a anglicized version of Yeshua, which is the Aramaic form of Joshua.

Whatever form, the name means "God is salvation."

And we forget this. In these uncertain times (have times ever been certain?) we are worried about the security of retirement funds, about government roles in our lives, about the dosage of our medications, about the price of gasoline.

We forget that it isn't a secure IRA or democracy or medicine or cheap energy that saves us. They can't. They might make our lives easier, no argument there, but they are not the things that bring peace, comfort, hope.

Salvation is one of those slippery terms that I'm forever pulling apart and reassembling, trying to get a grasp on what first century readers understood when they heard the word. I don't believe they all heard it as a "fire insurance" policy to keep them from hell. I don't believe that's what it is.

But I do believe, given the preaching of Jesus, that it has something to do with the Reign of God, wherein the poor are fed, the naked clothed, the imprisoned set free.

So happy New Year, yes, and happy Feast Day of the Holy Name of Jesus.

Let us resolve to remember from where our salvation comes.