A few days ago, I searched several travel websites that encourage people from other countries to visit the U.S. Toward the beginning of their information are statements designed to reassure people that, contrary to what they might think, the U.S. is a relatively safe destination. Here’s what you find on the website: Travel Safe Abroad:
The US is a very safe country to travel to. Tourists are unlikely to experience any incidents or inconveniences. What contributes to the general feeling of insecurity in this country are the mass shootings and isolated terrorist attacks, but they are highly unlikely to occur at a place frequented by tourists.
Well, that ought to bolster the confidence of Brits who might be pondering a visit to our nation. “Mass shootings…are highly unlikely to occur at a place frequented by tourists.”
In recent conversations and emails, it is obvious that many of you are distressed over the recent mass shootings. Two weeks ago, an 18 year-old targeted African Americans and murdered 10 people in the Tops supermarket in Buffalo. Five days ago, another 18 year-old murdered 19 children and two adults in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. While mass shootings only account for a fraction of the annual deaths by firearms, the death of a 70 year-old by suicide is not the same as the death of a fourth grader by murder. Not only is it a tragedy to snuff out the life of a child whose existence is only beginning to unfold, but the repercussions of a child’s death swallow up parents, siblings, friends, surviving students, and whole communities.
In the United States, on average, 123 people die every day from a gun. In Japan, less than one person per month is murdered by a gun. Yet, incredibly, many Americans believe there is nothing we can do to reduce gun deaths.
Chase Rigby, a conservative Christian, who grew up owning guns and supports the right to bear arms, asks the question that leaves many of us baffled: “Why is it harder to obtain a driver’s license than to buy automatic high-caliber rifles?”1
Fallan Patterson, a high school teacher in Florida, expresses the frustration of many of us when she writes: “This is no longer about the right to bear arms. This is now about the right to a childhood. This is about the right to grow up safe.”2
What is it about our culture that produces so many violent people? Why are violent movies and games so popular?
I do not believe it is a coincidence that, as membership in churches declines, we see a rise in hate groups, an epidemic of drug use, a surge in suicides, and a growing number of mass shootings. We followers of Jesus need to find our voice. We can serve as a counter point to skewed values that destroy lives and fracture communities.
If you know anything about Jesus, it is impossible to imagine him witnessing the mass killings of the past two weeks and his only response being a tepid, “Let us light a candle for each victim and remember their families in our thoughts and prayers.” Jesus had harsh words for people who neglected the poor. We can only imagine how fierce his words might be for his followers who reject even the baby steps of background checks, banning weapons that can fire like machine guns, and raising the age for purchasing fire arms to 21.
The gunmen in Newtown, Parkland, Santa Fe, Columbine, Buffalo, and Uvalde were all under 21. Psychologists have learned what each of us have known since our youth: the teenage brain can be too impulsive and easily swayed and radicalized. Not all shooters are mentally ill. Many swallow hateful rhetoric and some act on it.
The Uvalde gunman went into a gun store the day after he turned 18 and bought an assault-style rifle. You have to be 21 to buy alcohol, but you can buy a semiautomatic rifle at 18. Does that make sense?
Over the years, the gun lobby and politicians who gobble up their contributions have convinced a sizeable number of Americans that any legislation to control the sale of guns is the first step to some government agency confiscating their hunting rifle; that if you don’t allow 18 year-olds to buy guns, well, there goes your freedom. Some politicians have whipped up fear in their constituents and convinced them that their freedom is tied to a hardline stand on any legislation that might limit the availability of guns. They take photo-ops holding weapons or run campaign ads firing at targets. The very fact that showing off your love of guns is a vote-getter is a disturbing commentary on the state of our nation.
What happens to our country if we become accustomed to the grim news of another mass shooting? I fear that we are developing calluses not on our feet, but on our hearts. What happens to us if we no longer shed tears when 10 year-olds are brutally cut down? If you are not sad, you had better check your heart. And if you’re not angry, you had better check your soul.
Today’s two scripture readings highlight the ascension of Jesus. Following his death, a number of his followers experienced the presence of the risen Jesus. Luke tells us that these appearances ended after 40 days when Jesus withdrew from his followers and was carried into heaven.
However, we miss the point of the story if we imagine the ascension of Jesus to be merely an ancient tale from a prescientific era describing how Jesus was beamed up to heaven. This is a pivotal event in the Christian story. It marked the moment when the ministry of Jesus ended and the mission of the church began.
Initially, the disciples misunderstood. They said to Jesus, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom?” Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know the time.” And then, he cut to the bottom line. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
“YOU will be my witnesses,” Jesus says. It is a moment akin to a pitcher walking off the mound and handing the ball to his reliever. It is the moment when the musician sets down her instrument and invites someone else to take the stage.
The ascension of Jesus marks the moment when we received our marching orders. Jesus said, “Through you the homeless will be sheltered and the hungry fed. Through you the sick will be healed and the grief-stricken comforted. Through you the weak will be protected and the oppressed set free. Through you the faith will be spread and the ways of God will become known.”
And within a few days, the previously indecisive and panic-prone individuals were transformed into intrepid and energetic witnesses who created the first Christian communities and began to spread the faith against staggering odds.
The disciples realized what each of us must realize: that God calls us to transform the world by loving with Christ-like love, by dismantling injustice, and by overcoming evil with good.
Many in our country are obsessed with their rights. They believe they should have the right to do as they please. But, Jesus did not call on us to focus on our rights. He called on us to focus on our responsibilities.
Some ask why God would allow a radicalized teenager to murder children, but the answer does not elude us. Freedom runs throughout God’s creation. We are free to amplify life or to dispense death. Jesus and the prophets showed us what is right and true and good, but when we choose vice over virtue darkness blankets our land.
Each of us needs to ask ourselves: Who shapes our thinking? Who forges our character? From whom do we take our marching orders? How many can honestly answer: “It is Jesus.”?
Some will protest that swimming against the tide is so difficult. It is far easier to flow with the current of society. Well, if your goal is “easy living” you should not have signed up to follow Jesus.
I believe that requiring background checks, banning assault-style weapons, and raising the minimum age for purchasing firearms will help to reduce the number of deaths by guns. But that is surely not enough, because at its core, the problem is not only availability of guns, it is a disease of the human heart.
God can fill your heart with a peace that passes understanding, but peace does not come without resisting injustice and violence. Peace is not a stablemate of lies and disinformation. Peace is not a bedfellow with greed and intimidation. Peace does not prevail without opposing hate and fearmongering.
As people of faith, we pray for those in Uvalde and Buffalo whose lives have been ravaged by the grotesque murder of their loved ones. We pray that they experience the presence and comfort of God, and may discover in God the strength to survive. We pray that they will support one another and not lose hope in the promise of the resurrection.
But in addition to our prayers, God commands us to do all we can to lessen the pain and cruelty and violence in our land.
Will we be driven by the power of brute force or the power of love? Will we seek our personal good or the common good?
Nineteenth century theologian Soren Kierkegaard said, “Jesus wants followers, not admirers. His question to us is more than, ‘Do you agree?’ He also asks, ‘Will you join us?’”
And ever since the earthly ministry of Jesus ended and the mission of the church began, the challenge for every Christian has been to live our lives following the pattern set forth by Christ. God wants people to look at our lives and say, “Wow! They look a lot like Jesus.”
Lord of Heaven,
On the day of his Ascension,
Christ was carried into the clouds
and his friends were left staring skyward,
wondering what to do next.
Sometimes, we also look up and wonder.
We confess that we wonder where you are.
God, when tragedy strikes week after week,
we wonder if you have abandoned us,
if you have left us staring skyward
straining our eyes for a glimpse
of the One who has ascended into heaven.
We wonder if you can hear our lament
or if our cries fall just out of range.
So we raise our voices louder,
and — with the Psalmist — shout to the skies:
How long, O Lord?
How long will you hide your face from us?
And, if we listen closely,
we hear you turn the question back on us:
How long, O People?
How long will you tolerate this violence?
How long until you beat swords into plowshares
and spears into pruning hooks,
and commit to my way of peace?
If we listen closely,
We hear you echo the angels’ words:
Why do you stand looking toward heaven?
Why do you not look around you,
where my Spirit is at work?
Lord of Heaven and Earth,
in these moments of heart-rending sorrow,
help us to look around us.
Help us to see you in the midst of the pain.
Because you are there:
cradling scared and helpless children,
just as Jesus embraced the ones who came to him;
weeping alongside grief-stricken families,
just as Jesus wept with Mary at her brother’s tomb.
Help us to look out and see you
standing beside those who suffer.
Then give us courage to join you there.
But, first, O God, let us stare at the sky a little longer.
Let us look toward Heaven,
where you have received 21 precious souls.
You have welcomed them
into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
into the glorious company of the saints in light.
These, we know,
are sheep of your own fold,
lambs of your own flock,
children of your own redeeming.
We remember them now …
The bell tolls 21 times.
Now, God, turn our focus outward —
to the world you have not forsaken,
to the world where your Spirit moves:
comforting us in sorrow,
shepherding us beyond fear,
interceding for us with sighs too deep for words.
With the Spirit as our Advocate,
we lift before you the manifold concerns of our hearts:
For the grief-sick people of Uvalde
and for communities from California to New York
who have lost loved ones to gun violence;
for the families across our nation
who mourn sons and daughters
who did not return from war.
For those who grieve other losses:
the loss of a relationship,
the loss of employment,
the loss of a dream.
Fill them with your peace,
which surpasses all understanding,
that they might know healing and hope.
And fill us, too, we pray.
Fill us with righteous anger at the ways our nation fails
to fulfill its promise of life and liberty for all.
Fill us with conviction that a different future is possible —
that your ways can be our ways.
Fill us with courage to do what is faithful,
even when barriers seem insurmountable.
Most of all, fill us with hope that you, O God,
are drawing this world ever-closer to your vision
of wholeness and peace.
This we pray in the name of Christ —our crucified and risen Lord —and offer the words he taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
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