Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Peaceable Kingdom

The Peaceable Kingdom
Isaiah 65:25
            Recently I received two letters from a gun advocacy group.  Actually, except for the first paragraph, it was the same letter twice.  I have no idea how I got on their mailing list since I have never owned a gun, never expressed an interest in owning a gun, and can visualize no future in which I might want to own a gun.
            Let me make one thing perfectly clear:  I am not anti-gun.  I believe with all my heart that responsible people should be able to own guns for legitimate purposes. On the other hand, I am also committed to the idea of keeping guns out of the hands of those who use them to murder innocent victims.
            Columbine should have been enough.
            Sandy Hook should have been enough.
            But they weren’t.  There are still individuals and groups who believe that any law which restricts gun ownership in any way will lead to having all guns confiscated—something which is absolutely impossible.  Unfortunately, these individuals and groups have enough political power to block the passage of rational laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who are a danger to themselves and others—laws favored by the majority of Americans.
            I would like to share my answer to the letters I received.  I had hoped my response might have opened a dialog with the advocacy group.  It didn’t happen.  Please feel free to respond.  Only when we can debate this issue in rational and meaningful ways can we hope to find a solution that will allow gun owners to pursue their constitutional right to own guns while protecting innocent people from being victims of gun abuse.
Dear Sir:
I read your letter—or should I say letters—with amusement.  I found it interesting that, apart from the first two paragraphs, the letters were identical.  I would have expected more originality from someone in your position.  I am also amused because I am not a gun owner, nor a supporter of gun rights the way you interpret them.  I have no idea how or from whom you got my name.
I do agree with you that responsible adults should have the right to own guns.  This right is not under attack as you so vehemently insist.  The Constitution undeniably gives you and others the right to own guns, and no one is trying to grab yours.  It is proof of the level of your paranoia that you feel your gun ownership is under attack.
I know that part of your standard argument is, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”—and, of course, that is correct.  I would hope, however, that you would admit guns kill people more effectively than most other weapons.  Otherwise we’d be arming our soldiers with swords and spears.
That efficiency lies at the heart of the major problem with gun ownership in this country.  Easy access to guns means easy access to killing.  Too many dangerous people find it too easy to get their hands on guns. A recent article in our local paper documented this fact.  Since Sandy Hook there has been an acute increase in gun incidents and deaths in our nation’s schools.  The article identifies this increase as part of a larger problem.  There are 86 deaths from bullets in this country on an average day.  These include suicides, which are more prevalent in homes where guns are present.  I’m sure you will tell me that none of the current or proposed gun laws would have prevented these deaths—and you may be correct. I expect you might also feel that a certain amount of collateral damage is acceptable as long as your rights are protected.
If you had any sense of history, and if you had any compassion for the people whose lives have been affected by gun violence, you would find a way for your organization to work with those who are trying to find sensible solutions to the problems caused by guns.  You would realize that you and your co-enthusiasts are part of the problem.  Instead, in the face of overwhelming evidence that something must be done, you continue to parrot the same old tired lines.  You should be ashamed of yourself for maintaining an adversarial position rather than working with those trying to find a reasonable answer.
At some point you will likely tell me that if it’s criminal to own a gun, only criminals will have guns—and that statement is correct as far as it goes.  It is impossible, however, that the simple act of owning a gun will ever be criminal in this country despite your assertions to the contrary.  (I would be glad to reason this out for you, and am surprised you haven’t reasoned it out for yourself.)  More important is the corollary:  If everyone is free to carry a gun with no restrictions, then criminals can do so.  The streets of Memphis provide an example.  Since Tennessee has adopted an open-carry law, Memphis has become a much more dangerous place to live.  Gun violence has increased many fold in the past few months.
I am sorry that you, your organization, and other gun rights groups cannot see how damaging your stand is to your own cause.  The reaction to your adamant insistence on your position has already begun.  Recently, in New York City, 1,000 people marched to call attention to gun violence, and to urge that a solution be found.  Lest you dismiss this number as inconsequential, I assure you it is only a start.  The time is coming when the rational citizens of this country will realize they possess the untapped power of the majority.  When that happens, the result will be much more draconian than if you had had the foresight to be part of the solution rather than such a great part of the problem.
Kenneth L. Sipley

Sunday, July 20, 2014

First, Do No Harm

First, Do No Harm
Romans 13:8-10
            Anyone who has read enough medical novels, seen enough doctor movies or TV shows, or has anything to do with the medical profession will recognize the title.  It’s a misquotation from the Hippocratic Oath, the vow taken by doctors and other medical personnel as they begin their careers.  The actual quote is, “never do harm to anyone.” 
“First, do no harm” is a good place for medical personnel to start.  If they can avoid making a situation worse, they can begin to work on the healing process.  If their treatment causes more damage than has already been done by disease, illness, or trauma, then that situation must be reversed before the original problem can be addressed.
“First, do no harm” is good advice for all of us.  If our interactions with others cause damage to those relationships, we have reclamation work to do before we can build something positive.
Paul understood this.  Although he may not have heard of the Hippocratic Oath (and was certainly not a doctor), Paul knew how easy it can be to harm relationships.  Remember his letter to the church at Philippi:  “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.  Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women…”  Paul was concerned enough about the rift to encourage them to make peace, and to ask that others help resolve the conflict.
It may seem strange to hear Paul speak fervently about love.  We expect discourses on love from John.  His first letter is full of entreaties for believers to love each other.  Paul usually holds forth on other subjects, but here he focuses on love, and he does so by returning to the commandments—at least some of them.  Exodus 20:1-16 gives us all ten, but Paul is only concerned here with the last six.  The first four deal with humankind’s relationship with God.  The last six deal with humankind’s relationship with each other.  We know Jesus said the two great commandments were to love God and love neighbor.  The first four commandments are about how we show our love for God.  The rest are about how we show our love for people.
Paul says that the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  Then, after quoting the human-to human commandments to support his point, he uses the same language Jesus used to sum up:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Like Jesus, Paul recognized the need for healthy self-love—not the narcissistic love that causes us (again to quote Paul) to “think more highly of ourselves than we ought,” but a realization of our value as God’s creatures, the same value in which we should hold all God’s creation.  When we learn to love all our neighbors in this way we will begin to live—and love—like Jesus.
We’re used to hearing Paul speak against the law, but here he speaks for it.  Is this a contradiction?  By no means!  The law Paul so frequently criticizes is the formal structure imposed by the Pharisees.  Here Paul cuts to the heart of the law—love!  Remember:  “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
The last verse of this passage brings us back to the misquote in the title: “First, do no harm.”  Paul says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love fulfills the law.”  When we avoid doing harm to our neighbors we are on the path of fulfillment.  As we interact with others, whatever else we do we must be sure we don’t damage our relationships.  This gives us a starting point to build positive ties to our neighbors.
And who is our neighbor? 

Who isn’t our neighbor?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Prisoner Set Free

A Prisoner Set Free
Ephesians 4:1-7
            We are acutely aware that our system of justice is far from perfect.  We read of prisoners who have been set free when new evidence has come to light.  Today that evidence often has to do with DNA samples that prove the convicted person could not possibly have committed the crime.  There are college classes designed to analyze this kind of forensic evidence.  Some of these classes are responsible for proving the innocence of people who were wrongly convicted of serious crimes.  We rejoice when someone is proven innocent and released, convinced that even though justice was delayed, in the end it was not denied.
            Paul begins the fourth chapter of his epistle to Ephesians by identifying himself as “a prisoner for the Lord.”  He doesn’t claim to be innocent, and isn’t trying to fight the charges against him—nor is anyone else taking up his case to try to prove he isn’t guilty.  He’s a prisoner and that’s that! 
            Of course, we know why Paul was a prisoner.  Elsewhere in his letters he calls himself “a prisoner of the gospel”—and that is a true statement on two levels.  He considers himself a slave for Christ; he has given himself willingly into that servitude.  He is Christ’s servant just as Christ was—and is—the servant of the world.  Remember how Jesus said, “If any would be great among you, that person must be a servant; and in order to be first, you must be everyone’s slave.”  Paul took that to heart.
            Paul was also a prisoner for the gospel, imprisoned because he had become a Christian and had fulfilled his calling as an apostle to the Gentiles.  As he preached and taught the gospel in cities throughout the Roman Empire he made many enemies.  His preaching eventually cost him his freedom, and finally, his life.
            Even in prison Paul continued to preach and teach.  Several of his letters were written during his imprisonment in Rome.  In the sense of being able to communicate, Paul was never a prisoner.  Today people are imprisoned to shut them up.  That certainly wasn’t the case in the first century.  Paul met regularly with visitors, and obviously had writing materials made available to him.
            Within himself, Paul was always free (remember Paul and Silas in Philippi?).  Imprisoning his body had no effect on his soul.  We can be sure that, even if he had not been able to write, or meet with his fellow Christians, Paul would not have felt like a prisoner.  He would have missed the fellowship with other believers, and he would have been sorry he could not communicate with the churches he held so dear, but his soul would have been free.
            Listen to what he says to the church at Ephesus.  He tells them to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”  This doesn’t sound like a man embittered over being in jail.  We know that, in spite of his fiery nature, Paul conducted himself as a model prisoner, exhibiting the same humility, gentleness, patience and love he urged on the Ephesians.
            Paul also establishes the unity that believers find in Christ.  Listen to the “one-ness” he describes:  one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.  Here is where Paul finds his real freedom.  Despite his physical imprisonment, he remains one with the Ephesians—indeed, with Christians everywhere—in hope, in faith, and, most importantly, in unity with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

            So—is Paul a prisoner or not?  Despite the restrictions on his movement, his acceptance of Jesus as Lord of his life and his reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit sets him free.