What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-14-20

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 2-14-20

Handling anger is difficult to do well. Buddhism, for example, identifies anger (along with greed and ignorance) as one of the “three poisons.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “everyone who becomes angry with his brother is liable to judgment.” Anger is a human emotion. We feel it, often before we’re consciously aware of it. Anger “overcomes” us, floods our neurotransmitters, narrows our vision, sets our hearts racing, “boils” in our guts. It activates the “fight or flight” response in the most primitive parts of our brain. Anger can be incredibly destructive whether we express it outwardly in hurtful words and actions or turn it inward where it manifests as depression, bitterness, and physical ailments. So how do we handle it?

Although I doubt they intended to, my family taught me that anger was scary and shameful. They didn’t teach me this explicitly. Like all children, I learned my lessons on anger by watching my caregivers (who, in turn, learned how to handle anger from their caregivers.) We were a Dutch immigrant family that tended toward emotional reserve. As an adult I can see that there was a lot of anger under the surface. I’m grateful I didn’t witness any physical violence or verbal abuse. Instead rage seethed underneath and manifested as physical absence, cutting remarks, alcoholism, infidelity, lying, and other passive-agressive behaviors. This disconnect between how we as a family presented ourselves publicly as happy and healthy and the chaos churning behind closed doors created its own challenges for me as I became an adult.

As an adult I’m still very much learning how best to handle my anger. For me, meeting the reality of anger begins and ends with awareness. It was a huge shift for me simply to admit that I’m incredibly angry . . . for all kinds of reasons. These days most of my anger is in the form of “moral outrage.” I anger myself when I notice my own failings as a Christian. I notice loving churches that have so much to offer their communities “hiding their light under a bushel” while mean, vengeful, and bigoted Christians spread their message far and wide and I get very, very angry. Mostly I’m exhausted by the moral outrages of our current politics, but when our government puts children in cages or when 26 first-graders are gunned down in their classroom and politicians cry “2nd amendment” or when I notice the casual, day-to-day violence and racism that implicate all of us who vote, pay taxes, and work for the improvement of our communities, my anger flares up, and I say something.

Just creating the psychic space where anger can come into view increases the likelihood that I can engage it productively. It’s become a joke around our house when I’m moping and acting out of sorts for my wife to say to me, “Now Todd, use your words.” Just saying “I’m angry” opens the door for conversation that can create the conditions whereby anger, which is simply a form of psychic energy, can be directed toward fixing a situation that is not as good as it could be.

Anger arises in the context of love. Mr. Rogers put it this way, “It’s the people we love the most who can make us feel the gladdest and the maddest! Love and anger are such a puzzle!” Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is the context for his teaching on anger. This week at First Congregational Church of Granby we will stand close enough to the flame of anger to benefit from its warmth and energy yet at a respectful enough distance that none gets burned.

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-6-19

Mourners gather for a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. Multiple people in Ohio were killed in the second mass shooting in the U.S. in less than 24 hours. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 8-6-19

Three days ago, Saturday morning, August 3, a gunman opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing at least 20 and injuring many more. A manifesto thought to be written by the killer declared his intention to kill as many Latinos as possible. The Cielo Vista Mall Walmart is one of the busiest in the country. It is near the border with Mexico. It welcomes customers from both El Paso and Cuidad Juarez, which lies just across the border in Mexico. El Paso is a majority Latino city and one of the safest cities in the U.S. The gunman drove 9 hours from his residence in the Dallas suburbs to commit this heinous act of violence. Echoing hateful language that is poisoning our political discourse, the gunman wrote that he was responding to “the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

13 hours later a gunman in body armor opened fire at a bar in the Oregon District of Dayton, OH, killing 9 including his sister–this carnage despite the fact that police were able to respond and kill the shooter in 30 seconds. The amount of death he was able to inflict was likely due in part to the fact that he was armed with an automatic rifle and a 100 round barrel magazine. 

An El Paso leader summed up the situation well: “We have a gun problem, and we have a hate problem.”

I know that at FCC Granby we have a diversity of opinion on these issues. This much was evident in the conversation at the “Thank Goodness it’s Friday” social supper just hours before the first shooting. It so happened that the topics of both race and guns came up, and there was disagreement on both issues. This was also evident Sunday morning during the sharing of joys and concerns. Some prayed for a change in gun laws. Some prayed for access to mental health services and social “connection.” I suppose in this way we are simply a microcosm of the country as a whole.

While any and all of these may or may not be helpful responses, it seems to me that as followers of Jesus we are called to respond to acts of violence and the trauma they cause. As James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.” As a follower of Jesus, it seems to me the height of immorality to turn away from the suffering we are inflicting upon each other with these repeated mass shootings. We must face who we are and what we are doing because what we are doing has to change. I can’t believe that this is the world God would want us to create.

We have a gun problem. So fix it. Stop blaming others. Start taking action. I’m not a legislator. I’m not a policy expert. I’m not interested in excuses. I’m interested in results. Don’t tell me what won’t work. Show me something that will. I stand with the people of Dayton who are calling on their governor to “do something.”

We have a hate problem. This goes much deeper. It goes to the heart of our history as a nation that has committed genocide against Native Americans and enslaved Africans. Our ancestors laid the groundwork for hate based on the Doctrine of Discovery and the false ideology of white supremacy. It is what theologian Jim Wallis calls America’s “original sin.” 

Both of these shooters were not only white but also men. Why are the perpetrators of mass shootings predominantly men? I wonder whether patriarchy–the idea that men are entitled to priviledged status–could also be a factor. I do not believe that men are inherently more violent than women. I believe that men in our country are socialized in such a way that for too many, violence is seen as a legitimate form of resolving differences and expressing feelings.

  Pinning all of this on “mental health” is not helpful. Yes, by all means provide better access to mental health care. By all means enact red flag laws. But many factors make treating mental illness difficult. A big challenge is stigmatization. And putting the blame for mass shootings on mental illness, only further stigmatizes those who already feel the stigma of their mental health status. It also allows us to dismiss those who commit violence as somehow fundamentally unlike us “sane” people. In this way we are conviently let off the hook from examining the roots of hatred and violence in our own hearts. 

While I am not a legislator or a policy expert, I am a Christian who has, despite spectacular and ongoing failures, committed himself to the way of love. And I believe you, my fellow members of FCC Granby, despite our differences of life experience, political opinion, social location, economic class, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, country of origin, race, ethinicity, etc., are also committed to the way of love. We can do something about this hate problem right here and right now. We can extend love. We can have honest conversations about difficult things. We can repent. We can mourn. We can be instruments of peace. Remember what Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot overcome darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot overcome hate. Only love can do that.” 

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-1-19

What’s Up with Pastor Todd 7-1-19

Growing up I attended Christian schools. Every morning we would stand by our desks, face the American flag hanging from a bracket on the wall, put our hands over our hearts, and recite the pledge of allegiance. I’m sure there were other morning rituals–taking of attendance, prayer, announcements over the intercom–but I remember most clearly reciting the pledge while facing the flag.

My education was intended to reflect a Christian worldview. English, math, social studies, science, phys ed–none of these subjects were beyond the purview of God, and, therefore, of the Christian faith. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we looked for hidden spiritual meanings in times tables or the condensation cycle. At times there were explicit Christian connections, for example, in learning about evolution as a “theory” incompatible with the Biblical teaching of creation, but most of the time the teaching was implicit: the logical beauty of math reflects the order of God’s good creation, the creation of art is humanity’s appropriate response to our Creator, history is the story of God’s hidden plan of redemption. What was the implicit Christian teaching behind our unquestioned ritual of honoring the American flag every morning?

Looking back as an adult, I would say the teaching around the flag was twofold: 1) that one can be both a patriotic citizen and a faithful Christian; and 2) a Christian’s highest loyalty is to Jesus and his teachings. Full stop. The practical result is an approach that honors every single one of my fellow American citizens as a child of God no matter our disgreements while at the same time critically assessing our nation’s history and current policies in the light of Jesus’ one commandment: love.

Many years of theological education at some of the finest learning institutions in the world have taught me to call this stance critical or “prophetic” engagement in public life. While I have left behind many of the beliefs of my childhood–denial of evolution, uncritical acceptance of whitewashed U.S. history, nearly complete obliviousness to subversive themes in art and literature–I carry with me the prophetic engagement that I was (perhaps accidentally) taught in my Christian upbrining.

Which brings me to the issue of the American flag and it’s place in church. Personally, I don’t need to have the American flag in church. It’s my view that we Christians show our faithfulness to our fellow Americans by being the kindest, most loving people we can be. No other expressions of patriotism are needed. Nevertheless, I take seriously the feelings some of my fellow Christians and fellow citizens have about the flag as a symbol of the sacrifice they and others have made in military service to our country. I also take seriously the feelings of those for whom the America flag is an irredeemable of symbol of colonialism and oppression. This seems to be how symbols in general function: they have the potential both to draw us together and tear us apart.

So at FCC Granby we have done a very church-like thing: strike a compromise. On Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day we will display the flag in the meetinghouse. The rest of the year it will be displayed in the narthex along with the Christian flag (which is another article for another time.)

Despite the attempts of some to weaponize the flag for culture wars, I continue to humbly respect the sacred sacrifce of those who have served while unflinchingly examining with clear eyes the full range of our past and present as a nation–from racism, slavery, and genocide to dignity, equality, and human rights. My faith tells me three things about America: 1) We are a a human creation and therefore temporary. We had a beginning in 1776, and we will have an end; 2) Like most human creations we are a mix of good and bad; 3) Like all things on this earth we are not beyond the healing power of God’s love.