Thursday, December 3, 2015

Thoughts About the San Bernardino Shooting

So many things are going through my head today as I digest the news following Wednesday’s shooting in San Bernardino. Having lived there for seven years in my first ministry and during seminary, and it being Kathy’s hometown, you cannot hear about this tragedy without thinking about the past as well as the present. Thankfully, we’ve had no word of any harm coming to friends and family there. But fourteen families are grieving today, and the network of sorrow certainly extends throughout that community.

I’m saddened that before the situation was even resolved with the shooters dead or captured, some saw fit to moralize on the evil of gun violence in our society and the need for more gun control. I don’t disagree, and I’m not opposed to such measures if they are constitutional and can be shown to be able to accomplish real protections for society. However, every gun used in this case (as in every shooting rampage of late) turns out to have been purchased legally, with background checks, in California—which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country. And the shooters here (a married couple) also had pipe bombs in their arsenal (illegal in any situation); thankfully, the bomb deployed on a remote controlled toy car failed to detonate. They also wore assault gear, had Go Pro body cameras to record the carnage.

As details have emerged, this incident looks like an intentional plan to inflict mass casualties, record it in order to scare others, and continue until dead. In short, this was a terrorist operation. It may not have been an ISIS or al Qaeda operation. The husband was a U.S. citizen who flew to Saudi Arabia to marry his wife and brought her back. His family says he was a religious Muslim, and it would seem they created their own personal arsenal to create their own personal jihad. This was not simply “workplace violence”—you don’t prebuild pipe bombs so you can react if someone insults you at an office party, and then wear a Go Pro while you shoot up a room at random. No, this would appear to be what many have feared—a radicalized, independent “cell” of Muslim radicals. I would probably feel better if we found that they were in league with a known terrorist group and not just homegrown, independent terrorists.

Another development that caught me off guard was a strong pushback against politicians and others who urged that people’s thoughts and prayers should be with those in San Bernardino during the ongoing incident. The New York Daily News highlighted tweets from four Republican candidates with the headline, “God Is Not Fixing This” and saying that these politicians were “cowards” for not doing something about gun control, and hiding behind “thoughts and prayers.” The Atlantic ran a similar story and talked about this as “prayer shaming”—I didn’t even know that was a “thing.” But it is, and it grows out of thinking that those who would call for prayer must be pro-gun rights and conservative. Further, it shows a commitment to the idea that praying is really doing nothing, and that God isn’t fixing this, but politicians and elected officials could.

Such thinking is profoundly wrong on many levels. Not all who pray are against gun control. When a crisis is ongoing, prayer is a proper response for those who believe in God. A person in the building contacted her father and her request was “Pray for us.” She was not arguing against gun control, she was fearful for her life and asked for the only help that she could seek—God’s. Can people (including politicians) use prayer as a platitude? Certainly they can. But it is no more platitudinous than decrying gun violence and calling for gun control before we even know what is going on.

This thinking also takes God out of the equation as not “fixing” this. Such an arrogant attitude springs either from disbelief in God or a purposeful disregard of such concepts as God’s sovereignty, moral responsibility, human freedom, and the existence and all-encompassing power of sin in a fallen world. Evil people will do evil because that is their nature, and it is the restraining grace of God that keeps all of us from being the monsters that we could easily be. Yet we cannot escape the issue of moral responsibility because in this case and all others like it, we always ask, “Why did they do this?” We want to understand what is, to us, incomprehensible. We want to say they were crazy or on drugs or offended or religious zealots, but we want a reason that we can judge.

Of course, those who believe in God will not be dissuaded from believing that prayer is one of the most important actions to take in any situation, regardless of what else we may be able to do. We also believe that God rules in the affairs of men, and has already told us that when humanity chooses not to acknowledge him, he gives them over to their own sinful desires and imaginations, to passions that will undo them, and to debased minds and thinking that will justify and celebrate doing what ought never to be done (read Romans 1:18-32 carefully, and see what it says about the human condition once the truth about God that is available to all is rejected). Our world continues to experience the evil that people can and will do as they exercise their choices out of their own motivations.

Finally, we do believe that God is fixing this world, but in a way that will bring divine judgment upon all who fail to acknowledge him and deliverance and blessing for all who receive his grace and forgiveness. In fact, “…now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).”
Until that “fixed” day, we repent, we worship, we pray, we bear witness, and as representatives of the truth and compassion of Jesus, we do what we can to stem the tide of evil in our society, whether systemic (such as racism) or individual (such as a lack of daily food).

And we wait in hope for that day.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"I Finally See the Mountains"

An event 35 years ago reminds me that what's real isn't always visible

One of my favorite stories from my early ministry days happened about one month after I started seminary and my work at First Baptist Church of San Bernardino. It was quite a time for me, having driven cross country in a Buick Opel in August (without air conditioning) to begin both work and seminary in a new place. My mentor, Al Somers, was my senior pastor, and I was living in a small house on our church property, surrounded by the church buildings.

I left every Tuesday through Friday morning at 6:10 am to drive the 55 miles from San Bernardino to Talbot Seminary in La Mirada. It was three freeways and 2 major surface streets and traffic was already getting thick every day as I got off the freeway and headed to school. I often stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way if I had time, but when traffic was bad, getting there in time for my 7:30 class could be dicey--and it was Intermediate Greek that year, so I didn't want to be late and fall behind.

Like every other day thus far, I arrived on time, went to my first two classes, then to chapel, and then my final class for the day. I finished at 12:30, stopped at Del Taco for lunch (if you don't know what it is, you've missed out and I can't help you), and then headed home. I'd be in my office before 2:00 pm and work until 9 or so, breaking for dinner at some point.

On that day, I was driving home, listening to the radio turned up to be heard over the wind coming in my open windows (remember, I had no a/c) as I drove as fast as traffic would allow to get  home and get cool. I wasn't really thinking about the drive until about 40 minutes from home, and then I almost drove off the road!

I don't recognize where I am! There are mountains to my left, my right, and ahead of me. Those ahead were snow-capped! What happened? Did I make wrong turn?

I glanced at the side of the road and saw the freeway sign; I was on Interstate 10 East, where I needed to be. The next exit ahead was one I recognized. But I didn't recognize the scenery!

Slowly it dawned on me that the day had been more than a little breezy, with a condition that natives called "the Santa Ana" winds blowing. The name was a corruption of a phrase for "devil winds," and not a reference to the city of Santa Ana, but what they were were high winds coming over the mountains and blowing toward the ocean. These conditions brought dry air, warm temperatures, and most importantly, blew all the smog and haze in the air westward toward L.A. and the ocean, clearing out all the valleys along the way, including mine.

What I was seeing is what my new home looked like when the air was clear. And it was amazing to see! I lived in the shadow of the mountains!

Now, I knew there were mountains around me. I had driven over them to come into San Bernardino. But as I descended into the valley the bluish/brownish haze filled in, and when you looked around from my porch or from the church or from most of the city, you saw hazy sky, and you didn't see the mountains unless you were really close. In that first month, I hadn't gone anywhere other than church, home, school, and a few homes for dinner that didn't give you any sort of panoramic view. So, while I had known they were there, I simply stopped thinking about them.

Until the air cleared, and I saw them. I think from that moment on, my perspective changed. I lived with mountains and valleys. I treasured the seasons when I could see them clearly (winter and spring were the best). And when I couldn't see them I missed them, and longed to see them again. But now they were a part of my reality.

I think that we all have a tendency to forget about mountain-like realities that we may "know" exist but have been so obscured by the haze and pollution of our lives that we forget about them. What are some of the mountains we may be missing? Oh, how about...
  • God's constant presence--"As the mountains surround Jerusalem (or San Bernardino), so the LORD surrounds his people"--Ps. 125:2
  • The Lord's willingness to help--always. "I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth"--Ps. 121:1-2
  • The reality of the spiritual realm of powers arrayed on our behalf, like Elisha's servant was made able to see on the mountain where they were--2 Ki 6:17
  • The promise of dwelling in God's presence in a place he calls "my holy mountain"--Is 11:9, 56:7, 57:13, 65:25
I've only used four, and I've only used references that referred to "mountains" because they were easy. But there are so many more such realities. God's promises to us and his descriptions of what truly is and will be are powerful, but often missed when sin--including our own--pollutes our environment to the point we don't see or remember anymore. 

So, I'm here to shout to you today, "The mountains are there!" And I'm praying that God sends a strong east wind your way to clear the valley and remind you once again of his realities!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Inconsistency in Interpretation of Current Events

OK, I normally try to rein in my thoughts related to current events and politics. While my "conservative" leanings are no secret or surprise, I am not a lock-step "right wing" person, and try to think clearly on issues. Yesterday, as I heard people trying to link the Colorado Springs shooter with "pro-life" arguments against abortion generally and Planned Parenthood specifically, I became frustrated at the false equivalence. Just because one deranged person MAY have decided to do something heinous and would claim to be acting out of a motive to punish PP for its selling of baby parts (we don't really know what his motive is other than one report released by PP claiming a remark was made to that effect) does NOT mean that the argument against abortion or PP incited this man, or is somehow responsible for the violence. And his very anti-prolife actions do not justify ending the argument in any way.

Jim Geraghty writes a daily newsletter, "The Morning Jolt." He commented on this response and the generally unbalanced way such links between violence and a "cause" are drawn today. I was so impressed, I'm republishing it here (the links provided in the content are his, not mine).

The On-Again, Off-Again Arguments about ‘Dangerous Rhetoric’ Leading to Violence 

Let me get this straight. In the eyes of the Left . . .
. . . criticism of Planned Parenthood means something like the shooting in Colorado “was bound to happen“ . . .
. . . when an event by Pamela Geller is targeted by an Islamist shooter, it is “not really about free speech; it [is] an exercise in bigotry and hatred” and the attempt to kill her means she has “achieved her provocative goal” . . .
. . . while at the same time, investigators contend we may never know what motivated a 24-year-old Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez to kill four Marines and a sailor in an attack on Chattanooga’s U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center last July . .
. . . a shooting by a diagnosed schizophrenic, who believed that grammar was part of a vast, government-directed mind control effort, is characterized by the Southern Poverty law Center as having views that are the “hallmark of the far right and the militia movement” . . .
. . . while the shooter who opened fire in the lobby of the Family Research Council in downtown Washington in 2012, who planned to target the Traditional Values Coalition next, does not spur any need for a broader discussion or societal lessons about the demonization of political opponents . . .
. . . but there’s little reason to ask whether the Oregon shooter’s decision to target Christians reflects a broader, societal hostility to Christians, or whether it reflects his personal allegiance to demons . . .
. . . when white supremacist Dylann Roof commits an act of mass murder in an African-American churchSalon declares, “White America is complicit” and the Washington Post runs a column declaring, “99 percent of southern whites will never go into a church, sit down with people and then massacre them. But that 99 percent is responsible for the one who does” . . .
Do I have all that right? And does that make sense to anyone?
Wouldn’t Occam’s Razor suggest that those already driven by a desire or compulsion to kill other people are going to do so, and will merely latch on to whatever “reason,” justification, or excuse is at hand or is most convenient? Isn’t it ridiculous to expect sane people to watch what they say and restrict what thoughts they express in order to prevent a rampage by someone with an inherently illogical, literally unreasonable, not-sane thinking process?
Isn’t “don’t say what you think, because it might set off a crazy person” the most insidious form of censorship, because none of us can really know what prompts a crazy person to go on a violent rampage?

We must not forget that, in a fallen world, evil people (read, "all of us at some level or another") can also be unhinged people, and that combination will always be difficult to understand and their actions to explain.