Preventing Mass Shootings by Going Back to Kindergarten

I have recently been using Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered by Martin Copenhaver in the Bible Study I co-facilitate for parents of school-age children.

compassionThe second chapter of this book speaks of Compassion and the act of truly seeing someone. Honestly, it did not resonate with me when I first read it. It seemed rather mundane. I remember thinking, “Yeah, okay. Notice people. Pay attention to the stranger. Show compassion to the outcast. Blah, blah, blah.”

It felt a bit basic, like Kindergarten Christianity.

By the end of the week, however, this chapter eerily struck home. On that Thursday our local and national news channels broadcasted word of yet another mass shooting. This time the tragedy unfolded at the Umpqua Community College just over an hour south from where we live in Oregon. With my own 18 year-old son having just started at our local community college, I felt a deeper pit in my stomach when the names and especially the ages of the victims were read.

It is still unimaginable.

Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks a Pharisee who has generously dumped judgement on a woman who crashed the Pharisee’s party and proceeded to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Simon, the host, while busy labeling the woman a sinner had himself neglected to show such hospitality to Jesus (Luke 7:36-50).

Do you SEE this woman? Do I?

Copenhaver argues in Chapter Two that Jesus’ question comes with risks. If we choose to see the woman, really see her, we might “need to move beyond the stereotypes and preconceptions“. We might “have to stop simply labeling her a sinner,” “relate to her as a person, as one soul to another,” and “respond to her with compassion” as Jesus did.

Do you see this woman? Do you see this man? Do you see these people?

In a recent report about the Umpqua shooter, it is suspected in part that he carried out this heart wrenching, violent act to gain notoriety and be seen. In a since-deleted internet comment he left regarding the August shooting in Virginia he concluded, “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”

He is not the only one who ever sought the limelight.

Let’s face it.

So many of us long to be seen, to be noticed, to be valued and deemed worthy.

We post our selfies to Instagram, share inspirational memes on Facebook, and tweet our daily comings and goings in an effort to be seen and validated. I have realized for myself that too often I am more interested in how many people liked or commented on something I shared than in what others have posted.

Blame quickly followed the reports of this mass shooting: too little gun control; not enough guns in each law abiding citizens’ hands; too many attacks on masculinity by too many feminists; too little mental health services. I even read vaccines and medications to be the ultimate culprits.

I, however, can’t help but believe that this horrific attack was due in part to the missing sense of community in the life of shooter, Chris Harper-Mercer. Who were the core people who truly saw him and related to him as a human being, “one soul to another?” Where were the individuals with the Christ-like vision to see him with compassion?

I would wager that such people in his life were few and far between.

Sadly even in the wake of his death, most are unable “to move beyond the stereotype or preconception” of him as autistic, or mentally ill, or bi-racial, or a loner, or the child of a single mother.

loserWe prefer to label him a loser, as I’ve read in many on-line comments, or lay blame at the feet of his mother for her failures in raising him better or his father for not being a bigger part of his life.

Simon, the Pharisee, could only identify the woman who tended to Jesus as a sinner. He was unable to see her with compassion. He wanted nothing to do with her loser-self and was annoyed that she was usurping Jesus’ attention. It was all about him.

And today 2000 years later, nothing’s changed.

Individual needs seem to trump what the community would benefit from as a whole. On most days I see a society that is leaning more and more toward division, public shaming, disrespect, and disregard.

We would never dream of seeing mass shootings as a communal problem.

It is too difficult or impossible to consider the impact or consequences of how we treat one another. We can’t bother to compassionately see one another, especially the outsiders or outcasts. I’m questioning these days if we even know how. We fire off our personal world-wide-web opinions with no regard for the targeted people involved. (A reason, I believe, Donald Trump continues to lead in the polls. He channels and personifies this growing attitude of disregard and disrespect.)

I listened to Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk, The Price of Shame, yesterday as she addressed our 21st Century problem of cyber-bullying. She spoke of being one of the first to endure it and how today, even more so,

We need to return to a long-held value of compassion—compassion and empathy. Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Maybe my initial thought of Copenhaver’s chapter on compassion as being Kindergarten Christianity wasn’t too far off or wrong. Perhaps as a society that has developed a compassion deficit and empathy crisis we need to go back to the basics, the kind we learned in kindergarten.

KindergartenPatti Ghezzi, in her article on Kindergarten Social Changes, admits that Kindergarten has become more about 5 year-olds being academically prepared for 1st grade.

Still,” she writes, “a primary intent of kindergarten is to teach children to work together, share, accept each other’s differences, solve problems by communicating, and enjoy playing with each other.”

Let’s hear that again class:

A primary intent of kindergarten is to teach children

to Work together,

to Share,

to Accept Differences,

to Solve Problems by Communicating

and Enjoy Playing with Each Other.

Come on people!

As a society we must acknowledge our current compassion deficit and empathy crisis and face down this destructive emotional epidemic by returning to the Kindergarden basics of cooperation, sharing, acceptance, communication, and play.

To embody more compassion and empathy requires we return to a more tender time, as children eager to embrace the world, open to the power and possibilities of community.

Let us then intentionally choose to truly see one another—

the so-called saint and the presumed sinner,

the liberal and the conservative,

the neighbor and the stranger,

the Muslim and the Christian,

the Citizen and the Immigrant,

the socialite and the loner.

May we rise above “the stereotypes and preconceptions” we have for the Other.

Let us refrain from the habit of slapping labels on people and instead relate to each other as human beings, “as one soul to another,”  as we compassionately and empathetically engage one another in the world.



Ambushed by Grief

“I love this song!” I over heard a woman exclaimed as I sat with a hospice patient in a facility. “It reminds me of my couisn,” she told her coworker.  “He died at 16 in a car accident. My brother was driving.”  Her recollection was heartfelt.  Without missing a beat, however, her mood switched. “I can’t listen to it anymore,” she announced in a hurried voice. In an instant she had fled the nurses station and headed down the hall, leaving her co-worker and beloved song behind.

From Website:
From Website:

She had been ambushed by grief.

Brutal as it is, that’s how grief works sometimes. Out of nowhere and without notice, memories of our deceased loved ones spring up, snatch our serenity, and leave us stripped and shaken.

I was ambushed once in a grocery store.   It had been about 6 months since my father dropped dead at a gym, literally.  There was no warning. No signs of illness.  Zero chance of survival.  His aortic artery ruptured and he was gone.

The shock of his death had worn off months prior and the time of grieving, passed.  I was doing well.  Or so it seemed until I strolled down the canned food aisle. No sooner had I reached for a damn can of organic beans was I suddenly flooded with sorrow.

I was remembering a conversation my dad and I shared the year before in that very aisle.  He was baffled that I would spend twice the amount on an organic product when I could buy a much cheaper, generic brand of beans instead.  I couldn’t believe, with all that he had taught me about caring for our planet, that he wouldn’t applaud the extra money spent. The memory was so clear.  All I could do was stand there, crying with a can of  beans in my hand, ambushed by grief.

“The best way out is always through.”  I often call upon these words of Robert Frost when I collide with difficult times on life’s journey.  In order to soften grief, we cannot ignore it or run from it.  Rather, we must move through it—through the memories of favorite songs and canned beans as we flow with the tears and move with the pain that springs forth.

Processing a death or any kind of loss is on going and sometimes never fully resolved.  My sister, whose oldest son, Deniz, died as a toddler, acknowledged that years later the pain from his death lingers on. “The heart that beats,” she told me on what would have been his 17th birthday, “waxes and wanes with grief.”

And so it is.  With life, comes loss and with loss, sorrow.  Grief, an inevitable part of living, waxes and wanes, and yes, is sure to ambush us now and again.

Psalm 46 (NIV) begins with these two verses: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.

When life appears to be giving way and falling apart, when grief rises up out of nowhere, it is scripture like this that lift my spirits and assures me that I do not journey alone. Even in the canned food aisle grieving the death of my father, God was and is my ever-present help.

As your own life unfolds, believe in something greater than yourself.  Be grounded in and inspired by your faith (or your spiritual practices or philosophical beliefs).  Have a safety net of close friends and/or family with whom you can rely on and confide in.  Reach out.  Be compassionate, especially with yourself.  Show empathy.  Embrace change.  And, when ambushed by grief, fear not.


Smart Phones, iPhones, and the Kin-dom of Heaven

talk to each otherI see it more and more wherever I go.  People with each other—dining, sipping lattes, riding in cars, strolling down the street—yet solitary, as they remain glued to their personal gadgets.

I got my own smart phone this past May and within days understood the compulsion to look at that damn screen every few minutes for the newest email or text, to search random trivia, or to capture that moment in history by snapping, in many cases, pointless pictures.

These gadgets, coupled with the social media craze, have propelled so many of us into this strange world of See Me.  See my life–my humor, my friends and family, my success, my uniqueness, my abilities and interests, my joy, my sadness.  We spend life-consuming time on our gadgets, posting and tweeting to keep people in the loop of our lives and yet, we are reluctant or unable to be truly present with someone in person. We see each other, but we don’t really know one another.

My daughter’s liturature teacher spoke of the use of gadgets “atrophying our social muscles” whereby degrading our ability to interact with others. I couldn’t agree more.  We are  robbed of our real-world human connection in an effort to stay “connected” in our social media realms. (See the links below for two wonderful, poetic commentaries on the digital world we now live in. Watch them both!)

A striking example of this digital disconnect manifested in a recent report received by a renowned restaurant in New York City.  Concerned about their rise in bad reviews, they hired a firm to analyze why the restaurant’s number of dissatisfied customers was growing.

Thanks to a comparision of survellience footage from 2004 and 2014, it was learned that today’s patrons are obessed with their gadgets.  Sadly, diners are not making the connection that their dissatisfaction in the service or their meals is often because of their social media needs: wi-fi has to be figured out and group pictures must be taken—often with the help of the wait staff—prior to food being ordered; multiple photos are snapped of the dishes served, texts replied to and status updates are made long before the food is enjoyed.

A friend in the restaurant business confirmed this battle to adequately serve customers who are more engaged with their phones than with their surrounding environment.  He shared that a married couple came into the restaurant to celebrate their anniversary, then proceeded to spend their time absorbed with their individual gadgets.  What kept them from interacting with one another instead of their devices?

My Christian faith calls me into relationship.

Yes, this implies a deep connection with the Divine, but I do not exist solely in a religious bubble of my God and me.  I am called to See the Other, and more than that, to Love the Other.  When asked what the greatest commandment in the Law was (there were, after all, over 600 Jewish laws!) Jesus responded, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV).

Like I said, it’s about relationships.

I can’t really say when I first heard the word “kin-dom” used in place of kingdom—as in the kin-dom of God vs. the kingdom of God.  What I do know , however, is that I LOVE this image that in God’s realm we are are one family, a beloved community of God’s people.

In the words of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, “The word kin-dom makes it clear that when the fullness of God becomes a day-to-day reality in the world at large, we will all be sisters and brothers—kin to each other.”*

But how much more difficult will it be for God’s Kin-dom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, when we can’t manage or make time to truly be with one another?  What does God’s reign look like when we insist on making life about US?

To be a person of faith, I must look beyond myself—beyond my social media realm, beyond my gallery of selfies, beyond my recent status updates.

I am called by my God to notice the brokenness and injustice in my world and strive to be a vessel of healing.  And yet, if I’m obessessly snapping photos of that amazing banana flambe or if my attention is on my phone’s endless stream of data  instead of on the person next to me—I just may miss the opportunity to show God’s love by serving others.

People of faith, PUT DOWN your gadgets! Look up. Serve one another. And live into God’s kin-dom come!

*Page 304, “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 1980s,” in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside, edited by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Mary Potter Engel, San Francisco: Harper, 1990).


The Purpose of Prayer

praying handsI’ve pondered the power of prayer for much of my life.

Nearly 16 years into my work as a minister, I still question, “How exactly does this prayer stuff work?” Because honestly, I have had a good number of prayers go unanswered (or at least have yet to be answered)!

Admittedly I sometimes wonder, “Who am I to pray for a situation that at first blush appears hopeless? Who am I to challenge God’s will or to knock loudly on those divine chamber doors requesting, even passionately demanding, a miracle?”

Many Christian brothers and sisters would say, “Who am I to NOT do so?”  Are we not encouraged by Jesus to “Ask…seek…knock”?

One of my patients in Arizona was a man in his 50’s dying of cancer.

“Frank” had been battling the disease for over 2 years.  During that time, in addition to traditional treatments, Frank was under the care of a faith healer.  This healer would come to his home on a weekly basis, lead the family in scripture studies, and then pray over Frank for his healing.

When his cancer showed signs of worsening,  Frank was told his insufficient faith was at fault.  When the cancer advanced further, the blame fell on the wayward son whose reckless living, according to the faith healer, was detrimentally blocking God’s healing power.

By the time I came into their lives as their hospice chaplain, Frank and his family were spiritually crushed and emotionally wounded.  I, on the other hand,  was outraged when I heard their story. He was only on our program for a short time but I did my very best at bring peace into this family’s life and offered words of assurance to this man who felt abandoned by his God.

I have often thought of this man and his family, the promises and subsequent accusations of the faith healer, and asked “Since when did the act of prayer mean getting exactly what we ask for!?!”

Certainly there are numerous scriptures to support this.  Here are just two that speak of the promises of prayer:

John 15:7
But if you stay joined to me and my words remain in you, you may ask any request you like, and it will be granted! (NLT)

Mark 11:24
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (NIV)

I imagine that Frank’s faith healer was grounding his belief in part on  James 5:16: Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (NIV)

But I believe that the best prayer example is given by Jesus, himself, before the betrayal that leads to his crucifixion. “Abba, Father,” he pleads, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me…” (Mark 14: 36a).

Yes, Jesus prays for what he desires—to ultimately be spared his life—but in the end, though he asks, his request is not granted.

Perhaps the true lesson from his prayer is what he wisely ends it with, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” he tells God (Mark 14: 36b). He asks for what he desires, but in the end seeks God’s will for his life.

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”  Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Kierkegaard’s words couldn’t be more true for me.

What I have noticed over the years is that through prayer I am more easily able to change what I can and accept what I can’t. Prayer teaches me to surrender my own will and my desires for immediate answers and results, and to leave room for God’s grace in God’s time.

I cannot say Kierkegaard’s understanding of prayer makes the act easier or clearer—especially when there are areas in my life where years of prayer for situations or people have gone unanswered.  At times I have been left wondering why I even bother lifting up my fervent requests. But as Kierkegaard suggests, when I look back upon my life it is revealed that through prayer my very nature has been evolving.

And perhaps, just perhaps, for this alone I should be grateful.



Tar Pits and Dungeons

Ouch!  My forgiveness class recently exposed me as quite the correction officer.  I wasn’t even aware I had taken up this career.

After a week of spiritual exercises to assist us in identifying those who have sinned against us, we gathered two weeks ago for a time of communial reflection on the forgiveness of others. The scripture that evening came from the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 19:21-35).

After listening to this parable in which a servant, who has been forgiven by the King of all his royal debts, turns around and beats a fellow servant who owes him money.  Worse, the ungrateful man has the other servant thrown in jail until the debt is repaid.

We were asked to consider who the “debtors” are in our lives and visualize the prisons that we have constructed within us and how we have used these dungeons or jails to detain our debtors.

I have never, ever considered the folks who have hurt me or let me down as prisoners, let alone MY prisoners!  Impossible, I first thought.

But if even the memory of these hurts remains festering in me, am I not in some way imprisoning, if anything, the memory?  And if I cannot let go of the hurt—if I am thinking of various individuals with “angry thoughts, bad wishes, or telling them off in my imagination”* then are they not indeed prisoners under my mental lock and key?

It was clear that night that I am also guilty of treating these people with “avoidance, emotional distancing and sniping remarks.”* Clearly my prison walls had long ago been constructed and cells, occupied!

I envisioned this prison of mine as a tar pit—sticky and nearly impossible to climb out of.  To make things worse, a beautiful garden surrounds the pit so that no one might suspect such a trecherous trap.  I have a reputation as a loving, peacekeeper to maintain, after all.

As our evening meditation continued I realized that I had many of my prisoners blindfolded, signifying their lack of awareness of their transgressions against me.  Imagine.  They don’t even know that they have caused me harm yet I have imprisoned them nonetheless.  Unwilling to speak my truth and expose my pain, I allow myself to suffer, then turn around and blame these individuals and refuse to grant them mercy.

So why do I keep my tar pit prison open?

Sadly, I admit I am drawn to picking at my emotional scabs.  See?  See the pain those people caused?  See how I still bleed?  Don’t you feel sorry for me?

I am attached and too invested in the emotional damage I’ve experienced.

“What would it be like,” we were asked  “to release all these prisoners, to forgive their debts, and set them free?  What would it feel like to come back tomorrow and find the dungeon empty?” *

In truth? My first thought was, “I’d be a jailer out of a job.  I’d have to repurpose my tar pit or labor to fill it in. Outrageous!”

Honestly at the time, I did not know if I could surrender my reasons for feeling sorry for myself or release my self-righteous anger.  The thought of letting my prisoners go began to feel like my tar pit would become my grave if I did.

Can you imagine?  I had become so attached to my pain that I was convinced it would be the death of me to give it all up!

Brutal, raw honesty.

That night as I fell asleep I prayerfully and courageously released my prisoners and set them free.  I pictured each person climbing out of that pit, myself included, for in truth this jailer had been imprisoned as well.

I woke up the next morning truly with a lighter heart.

Okay, so being the work in progress that I am, I may in time find reason to declare them all parole violators and haul them back to the pit, but for now…I am feeling an incredible sense of grace and peace and for this I am ever grateful.

“The Spirit of THE LORD JEHOVAH is upon me, and because of this he has anointed me to preach The Good News to the poor; he has sent me to heal broken hearts and to proclaim liberty to captives, vision to the blind, and to restore the crushed with forgiveness…” Luke 4:18, From the Aramaic Bible in Plain English

* From Companions in Christ, Way of Forgiveness, study guide.