Friday, September 8, 2017

DACA and the Family of God

DACA and the Family of God

With the recent decision by the Trump administration to bring an end to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) you have probably noticed that many Churches, (including my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) have spoken out against the decision. The Church, of course, risks criticism, because it is getting involved in the complicated politics of immigration and refugees. Yet, even at the risk of criticism, the Church is compelled to speak out against a decision that will not just divide families, but knowingly break families apart causing untold grief, but also send them “home” to countries they have never known.

It should not strike anyone as strange or unusual that the Church should speak out for the preservation of families. The story of our relationship with the Triune God is in many ways a story about families. The call of Abraham and Sarah and the promise of a great nation is built upon the family and the gift of Isaac. The story of the Jacob and Esau is not only about the building of a people, it is the story of brotherly affection, jealousy, contention, and reconciliation. The Fourth Commandment, Honor your Father and your Mother is fundamentally about the sanctity of family relationships. The sin of King David in taking Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, had grave consequences for David’s family and Israel, and throughout the prophetic books, allusions are made to the unfaithfulness of Israel (most usually as spouse).

The New Testament’s great story is built upon the foundation of the Holy Family. None of it works without Mary’s faithfulness, Joseph’s obedience, and their willingness to see Jesus not as an obligation, but as a gift. The Incarnate Savior was nurtured in a human family, and even more so, in a community that was bound together by a common faith and vision. The first great miracle in John’s Gospel revolves around the joy of marriage…the beginning of family life. The raising of Lazarus speaks powerfully to the pull that family had in Jesus’ own life. That the Church is the bride of Christ is reflective of the divine nature of family. Many of the stories and parables Jesus told were developed around family. The story we know as The Prodigal Son is a story of discovery of the self within the context of family, as well as a story of undeserved love and reconciliation. It also helps us imagine the nature of God’s grace and mercy. When the disciples grew weary of children, Jesus said, “do not hinder the children from coming to me. To such as these belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.” Even the powerless little ones have their place in Jesus heart. Jesus’ concern for the welfare of his mother is stated clearly from the cross, “Women, behold your son. Behold your mother,” as if to say at its best, at the center of human life is the family…the place where we receive our identity, where we are loved, and known. The Church recognizes in its own story that the family is the place of the greatest struggle and tension, but also the center of our greatest joys. It is also the place where, at least from a Lutheran perspective, we learn and practice what vocation is all about.

Usually, when we think of vocation, it’s all about our calling out there in the world, and indeed many of us have a work vocation. However, our first vocation is in the home. Yes, it is a vocation to be a child in the household; a brother or sister. It is a vocation to be a parent. What more important work does God call us to do than to raise children? (I know there are days when children seem more obligation than gift, and parenting a job rather than a calling, but there are also days, and I hope many more than not, when the obligations of parenting are subsumed into just how beautiful thing it is to watch children grow, and be a part of it.)
When we speak of Holy Communion as a foretaste of the feast to come, we rely on the imagery of families gathered at special times like Thanksgiving and Christmas, to express the joy of such feasting. In our weekly celebrations of the Eucharist, simple bread and wine are served, but in the eating and drinking we are drawn into and united in the body of Christ, and we speak of being united with one another, with the families who have gone before us, and people all over the world we have not met…in simplest terms the family of God…

…and family is transcendent. Family transcends time. Family transcends borders. Family transcends the notions of origin and place, which brings us to another of the Bible’s and therefore Christianity’s great themes. The Bible is filled with the movement of people as God’s plan for humanity unfolds. Adam and Eve left the garden of Eden, Noah built an arc, Sarah and Abraham left their home and were called to a new home far away from the old, the Hebrews were called out of Egypt and promised a new home. During the Babylonian exile the Israelites wrote of their desire to return to their homes, but many labored to build new lives in their new land.

For the family of Jesus, it seems that moving, and transcending borders meant survival. Obediently, Joseph kept his little family together, first by marrying Mary, and then by fleeing with her and Jesus to Egypt; eventually returning to Nazareth where Jesus was raised. Interestingly, when Jesus healed people, he didn’t send them on missionary journeys to trumpet their new life…he sent them home. Even Lazarus was sent back to his home to live with his sisters. As the apostles journeyed they stayed at the homes of those willing to receive them…and that reception was a sign of the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the spread of the Gospel itself is the story of movement from one place to the next. Paul and Luke crossed dozens of borders to share the good news.

As the Church understands its own story, as it envisions Joseph doing his utmost to save his family, as it is reminded of Abraham and Sarah on their way to a new land, as it sees Jesus’ attention to the mother of Peter when she had fallen ill, along with the myriad of other stories centered on familial reconciliation and restoration, it understands the importance of family at the center of our relationship with God.

The church has also witnessed with the rest of the world the horrors of families broken apart and forcibly separated. Here in the U.S. we are only now beginning to come to terms with our own role in the destruction of Native American Families and the long term and devastating problems that are the result. Even today many of our fellow citizens have difficulty in even admitting, much less coming to terms with the forced separation of African American families in ante bellum America. Certainly we are not so far removed from the devastation of Jewish families caused by the Holocaust, that the pain is abated.

So it is, that the Church is compelled to stand with families and oppose the end of the DACA program. There simply is no compelling reason to send the children of illegal immigrants to nations they have never known as home, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to be neighbor to those in need and welcome the sojourner among us. Most surely, as Christians, if we want each and every human being to know that they are a child of God, we need to welcome them as beloved brothers and sisters. In doing so, we make the Gospel story our own.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, when the son who had left returned home, the brother who remained was resentful and would not go into the house and join the celebration. The father had a different perspective, “you brother who was dead is alive, we had to celebrate.”  Would that all of our hearts were changed to be like that of the father, recognizing that there is a place for everyone at the table and the presence of each is a cause for celebration.


Pastor Peter

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lent 2017

The Season of Lent offers many possibilities for those who wish to delve a little more deeply into the life of faith. As I have said in other forums, in recent years the Church has endeavored to recover the season as a time of catechetical teaching. (As an aside, “catechetical” has its roots in verbal repetition, and through the centuries involved baptismal candidates repeating, or reciting what they had been told. With a paucity of written material and with limited reading and writing skills, most everything was learned by repeating what had been heard. When Luther developed his Small Catechism, he intentionally chose the word “Catechism” for this very reason.) In the early church, those preparing for baptism (there was no such thing as Confirmation) learned the basic teaching of the church from the elders, while engaging in both fasting and prayer throughout the season. At the end of the season, often times during the Easter Vigil Liturgy, they were baptized and brought forward as new members of the church, who could now participate fully in the church’s life, and most particularly, receive the Eucharist.

However, in our own time, in what is unarguably a more individualistic society, people ask why they should “join” a church, or what is the “value” of being a member.  The use of the latter word by some is not surprising given our consumer culture which is always asking the question of value. We often hear from people who say that they can worship alone and don’t need a church community to do it. In some cases, they say that membership is nothing more than the church’s way of asking for a financial commitment…and of course some say that the church represents values that are either archaic or in some cases repugnant.

First, while one can certainly do many things at home, one cannot be “the church” alone. The very word church, from the Greek EKKLESIA means assembly. The church is the gathered people of God. Jesus made this abundantly clear when he said, “If two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be, in the midst of them.” The Lutheran reformers were very clear and succinct regarding this. In the Augsburg Confession, they stated that the church is where the people of God are gathered, the Gospel is rightly preached, and the Sacraments are administered.

Yet, the call to church membership is even more. People are invited to live in the covenant of baptism, to live among the people of faith, to hear the word and share in the supper, to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to serve all people and to strive for peace and justice (from the Affirmation of Baptism); and the promise to do these things is what membership is about. It is a promise to do all of these things even when you don’t feel like it, even when you disagree with something in your local congregation, it is a promise to do these things whether they are popular or unpopular, and the promise is to do them together, as the ecclesia, the community of Christ. The question of value, or “what is in it for me,” is answered in that all of these responsibilities are yours only as a matter of Christ’s grace, - you are already a member of the body of Christ, and part of the Kingdom of Heaven. There is no other promise, there is no greater promise.

Of course, there is a commitment, and part of it is financial. From the beginning those who had more, shared with those who had less, and continually aided the church’s mission. St. Paul writes of the patrons and patronesses of his missionary work, as well as those who supported the local community churches. Giving out of one’s abundance was the church’s answer to the paucity of the Roman system, and it remains the church’s counter cultural message. The Ten Commandments themselves, as interpreted by Luther are not moralistic rules, but are a statement of how to organize social power and social goods for the common benefit of the entire community. In the words of Jesus, they are “a new commandment” in stark contrast to the tenets of an individualistic capitalist society.

As for the those who claim the message of the church is repugnant to their values, I would ask “what church are you looking at?”. Somewhat facetiously, I would ask those who can discern the differences between the various lattes offered by Starbucks to spend some time discerning the differences between and among churches. Anything less is sheer spiritual laziness.

Indeed, there are churches that are o.k. with racism, sexism, and that preach a gospel of prosperity that is the worst sort of heresy (and I do not use the word lightly). There are also churches, and I believe the ELCA is one of them, that have a deep commitment to the Gospel out of which grows a commitment to environmental, social, and economic justice, as well as a devotion to finding peaceful solutions and helping our neighbors here and abroad who are in need.

Well, some of you may remember the old American Express marketing slogan, “Membership has its Privileges.” In the life of the church, membership also has its privileges, as well as some responsibilities, and becoming a member is a commitment, not taken lightly, that we will each do our best, given the gifts God has given us, to be a truly Holy people. We take on these responsibilities, because having received the gift of justification by grace through faith, we are free to help others, in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

Lenten Blessings,


Pastor Peter


Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Beautiful Life

     A couple of days ago, Bryan Lord, our Council Vice President, and President of New Venture Advisors, posted an article on Facebook by Frank Bruni in the New York Times addressing some of the challenges of youth suicide in the city of Palo Alto, California. httpp:// 
     That same morning another parishioner, Heidi Erdahl, a mental health nurse at Concord Hospital (Concord, New Hampshire), also posted an article on Facebook from that looked more closely at a killer that is taking the lives of over 41,000 people per year in the U.S.  

     I've worked with Heidi for a number of years here in New Hampshire, on the Youth Suicide Prevention Assembly.  Each month a group of incredibly talented and dedicated mental health professionals and interested people gather to bring their expertise to bear on decreasing the suicide rate among young people. The difficult work includes looking at individual suicides to glean what might have been done differently, what was missed (if anything); we look for systemic problems in the treatment system, etc., all in order to prevent, as many suicides as possible. It is emotionally and spiritually taxing work, but the dedication of this group and others like it, have had a lasting impact on many lives.

     However, while this group works within the mental health system, and the various support systems in our communities and schools, it cannot address some of the larger societal messaging that, I believe, plays a role in so many young people contemplating suicide. The Bruni article does a good job bringing to the front the pressure that is placed upon our youth in regard to achieving academic success, but it doesn't delve into the suicide crisis among youth who have been bullied, or youth who are challenged by their sexual identity. Nor can it begin to address the larger question of societal messaging to our children and young adults, as to what constitutes a beautiful and meaningful life.

     I believe that as a society, we have so narrowed the definition of what a beautiful and meaningful life is, and put so much pressure on young people to live out that definition, that when some of them realize the vision is beyond their reach, they cannot cope with the loss.
I remember as a high school student, that there was a good deal of pressure to attend college, but it was also clear that there were other options. When my own children attended high school the landscape had changed dramatically. The high school they attended lay within the shadow of an elite college and the pressure to produce college worthy graduates was enormous. The entire curriculum was focussed on getting high schoolers ready for college. The attitude of the administration, despite the fact that this was a public high school,  was that students not interested in going to college should enroll in the regional technical school. Students who weren't ready for the rigors of the program were treated with a remarkable lack of caring. Yet, even for students who may be able succeed academically and get into college, as Bryan so aptly pointed out, many will be faced with the prospect of a mountain of college induced debt that will shackle their dreams for decades, and will limit their ability to lead the "beautiful lives" their parents expect.
      Yet, academic pressure is not the only thing our young adults must grapple with. Because our society has so narrowly defined success, too often, when young adults think about what it is to lead a beautiful life, the role models of pop culture are front and center. The altogether superficial lives of the Kardashians are paraded hourly before them on website after website, sending the message that wealth, the right clothing, the perfect friends, daily shopping sprees, unbounded conspicuous consumption, and a perfect body, makeup and hair, are what constitute a beautiful and meaningful life. The Kardashians are just one family in a cavalcade of celebrities whose lives are the yardstick by which our young people are asked to measure themselves; and often they are found wanting.  Alongside the celebrity culture is Madison Avenue, which foists on the whole public a standard of living which is beyond the reach of most people. Despite the unrealistic expectations set by modern advertisers, young people with little life experience, see these expectations as the norm for daily life, and again they are found wanting. Without a bottomless pit of money, they cannot hope to achieve this lifestyle. Yet the message remains: the beautiful life is one of constant consumption and self indulgence. The meaningful life is one in which self-centeredness is a virtue. What does one do, when thousand dollar handbags and five hundred dollar lunches are not even a remote possibility? What does one do when the perfect body is unattainable naturally or financially? It may sound absurd to the emotionally and spiritually mature individual, but this is the kind of stuff that is being thrust on our young people every day and it is crushing their spirits.
     When I look at the bigger picture, I see a society that has so narrowly defined what it is to lead a beautiful and meaningful life, that few can possibly attain it. The question needs to be raised as to whether such a narrow vision is healthy for our society as a whole, and our young people in particular. As a pastor, I believe that churches could have a critical role in helping young people move beyond the narrow definitions imposed by pop culture and Madison Avenue. However, we suffer from a credibility gap and a history of being concerned with the wrong things. First, is our credibility gap with millennials who have watched churches fight the culture wars; banishing one group after another from what should be the expanding circle of Christ's love. Church cultural warriors won many battles, but they lost a generation who refused to participate in the constant condemnation and refused to be condemned. Then, historically, as Bryan noted, "churches of yesteryear were about teaching the 'thou shalt nots' and my hope for the future of the church is that it could be a place,one source, of helping (especially its youth) figure out the lifelong puzzle of what 'thou shall' do with one's gifts and one's life."
     Yes, in many instances historically, churches have forgotten the Gospel and used the Bible as a cudgel to enforce selective morality. However, what if we could be a resource for helping youth "figure out the life long puzzle" of what "thou shall" do with one's gifts and life, as well as being the community that communicates that life is beautiful because we are each created in God's image, and that life can derive its meaning from our spiritual relationship with the Triune God?
      From my perspective, helping with that puzzle means first, offering the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ which has so often been obscured by our own agendas. Imagine what might happen if churches gave up the cultural wars and simply took on the role of Jesus to the world by living his words, "Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Mathew 11:28-34) Envision the freedom that young people might experience if they knew that their lives aren't justified by material success, achievement, or being part of the latest trend, but are justified because God created them out of great love, and they are beautiful and holy in God's sight. Think how lives might be changed, and both anxiety and depression mitigated, if you and I, who believe that grace has been poured out upon us, and that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us "with sighs too deep for words" begin to share the grace we have received, and begin helping young people to receive the gift of the Spirit in their lives. What if we help young people see that their lives are much more than vessels to be filled with the illusions of Madison Avenue or merely jealous observers of pop culture icons by helping them discover the deep satisfaction that comes with sacrifice, caring, loving, building real friendships, being actually involved in life instead of observing virtually? What if we help them fill the spiritual emptiness left in the wake of conspicuous consumption and self indulgence, by sharing the joy of living for others? Can we help them reaffirm the essential value of their lives by being Jesus to them; welcoming them and sharing without judgment?
     We are facing a huge challenge, and there are no easy answers; no panaceas,  but by bitter experience,  I am aware that too many of our young people, unable to see themselves as living a beautiful and meaningful life, are giving up and contemplating taking their own lives. Suicide is a crisis of epidemic proportions, and while the mental health community can treat the symptoms, the more fundamental cause lies at the heart of our culture's messaging. How we change that messaging is a conversation that must take place. Many beautiful lives are depending on it.

Pastor Peter

If you are having difficulty coping
the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Experiment with Worship Continues

For several months now our congregation has been engaged in an experiment with Sunday morning worship. It's been exciting, frustrating, rewarding and interesting. Our hope is that at some point we will have developed worship that still lies within the context of a deeply spiritual liturgical experience (liturgy is the work of the people gathered for worship; it is also seen as the order in which worship happens), a worship experience that makes worship more accessible, and one that has integrity. Since many of our liturgical rituals have been learned over many lifetimes, it is challenging to sort through them to determine what is essential for the purpose of experimentation.
Early on, we decided that our basic framework would fall within the classic definition of Christian worship. Worship that included both Word and Sacrament was a must. Everything else in this experiment is still being determined. Weekly public confession, the Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy), the Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), and a number of other parts of the worship ordo (ordo is the order in which the components of worship happen)  continue to get careful scrutiny in the context of what is happening in any given week.
What has been most interesting and challenging from my perspective is the way this experiment has changed both the way I preach and preside at the Eucharist. Gone is a pulpit or reading desk. Gone (most of the time) are preaching notes. Since we're not using the worship hymnal, the Eucharistic prayer (Anaphora) is modeled on Justin Martyr's Apology (When Christians were accused of being disloyal to the Roman Emperor it was Justin who wrote a long treatise or apology to the Emperor laying out what Christians believed and how those beliefs were practiced. This took place in the middle of the second century.), "There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine ..., and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands." (Apology, Ch. LXV) This has been a remarkable experience in that while I model the Eucharistic prayers upon the ancient prayers of the Church Fathers (Hippolytus, John Chrysostom, "Apostle Peter"), having to really think about the prayer each week, and relating it to the theme, the gospel, and the needs of the people, requires a fresh look at salvation history and its meaning for our own lives. And I have learned that Gordon Lathrop (one of my liturgical mentors) was correct when he said that freelancing the Eucharistic prayer must be approached with some fear and trepidation. After all, the Aanphora and anamnesis, as they have come down to us, are definitely inspired prayers. (Anaphora is a name for the Eucharistic prayer or the prayer over the bread and the wine, and the anamnesis is a form of bringing into the present the blessing of the bread and wine given by Jesus at the last supper.)
One of the goals we set for ourselves is that we will do our best to get away from asking people to handle a lot of paper, and we're not sure that having big screens is the answer either. Going down the big screen path makes us even more reliant on technology in order to worship. Somehow that seems counter intuitive. Our small worship team of Dave Kane, Diane Destrempe, Gretchen Lord, Alex Krantz, Karen Anderson and Russell Boynton, have worked hard to both bring new music to us (that is musically and theologically sound) and given new life to the some of the beautiful hymnody in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book. I've come to appreciate what wonderful musicians Diane and Dave are. What I've discovered is that when Diane is given a little musical freedom, she really brings the music to life, and I've given Dave the moniker "Guitar Savant." Both are excellent musicians and they help all of us to be better than we are.  Although we are just beginning, it's been fun to see how Thursday evening rehearsals are expanding to include more people as enthusiasm and participation grow.
Another goal is to develop a worship experience that is user friendly, and welcoming to those with little experience of Christian worship. We try not to use what might be considered insider language, and even things as fundamental as the sharing of the peace are given a context. This is an elusive goal, because it is sometimes difficult to put oneself in the place of someone who has just begun attending worship in order to discern how worship is perceived, and while we do ask people, they tend to be overly kind. Within the goal is providing refreshment and fellowship prior to, and after worship. It is an attempt to make it easier for people to be with us. Marty Sink, our council president, and Marcia Journay, our council secretary do extra duty on Sunday mornings, arriving early to prepare. Yet, Jesus himself taught just how important hospitality is from inviting Zacchaeus to dine with him, to the feeding of the five thousand.
All in all, we're making progress and we're open to new ideas. If you would like to participate in any way, you are more than welcome. There is a place for everyone.

Pastor Peter

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas 2014

In the Gospel according to St. Luke, the birth of Jesus unfolds in three parts. First is the story of Mary and Joseph, caught up in Caesar Augustus' bid to get more accurate tax rolls; they must travel to Bethlehem, where "the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger..."
The second part of the story is the angel visitation to the shepherds in the nearby district of Bethlehem. Within the scene that unfolds before the shepherds, all of the illusory power of Rome was laid bare, and in Christ Incarnate, God shows us a new reality. From the moment the angel of the Lord appeared, the powers of the world, were  shaken and hope was born. The contrast is unavoidable.  The angel was surrounded by the glory of God, over/against the manufactured glory of the cult of Emperor Augustus. It was said of Augustus that he was divine, the son of god, the messiah of the world, and the author of peace, but this fame was safeguarded by a quarter of a million Roman soldiers. His divinity attested by a cult that had within its authority the power to remove all dissenters. The Pax Romana was not a dynamic unfolding of fellowship, but a peace enforced by a two edged sword. Augustus' power was not a divine gift, but was ripped away from every ruler Rome conquered. Obedience to Rome did not come out of loyalty to a democratic process, but was built on the fear born of tens of thousands of crucifixions.
Yet, the angel of the Lord was surrounded by glory, not a manufactured glory, but the glory of the creator of the universe, and while there is every reason to fear true divine authority, the angel immediately beckoned the shepherds to lay their fear aside. Then, the angel gave them genuine "good news" of a real messiah. This, in direct contradiction to the pretense of Augustus. And where would this messiah be found?  In Bethlehem, the House of Bread.
Born in the House of Bread, the child would become bread for the world, exposing the lie of Roman militarism and its insatiable appetite for wealth, power and prestige. Rome would try to take everything, the true Messiah would give himself away. In what kingly surroundings would this Savior be found? In bands of ordinary cloth; no kingly robes, no crown, no scepter, and his throne a manger set within a stable. His humble surroundings a reminder to the powers and principalities that even as his humble garments cannot hide his Sonship, their costly raiment cannot hide the fact that their power is a sham.
The third part of the story is the shepherds reaction to the good news.  "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."
They were not coerced or oppressed, but rather, invited to participate in the central event of human history...and that is good news. They (and we) are not bystanders, but instead are given a major role in the Incarnation. We are to be the people who share the good news, and not just in words, but in actions that demonstrate to the world that the birth of Jesus Christ changes everything.
One of the interesting things about the Christmas Carols we sing during Christmas is how so many of them are written in the present tense. "Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright,"..."Joy to the World the Lord is Come,"...What Child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary's lap is sleeping,"..."Still, Still, Still, it is the eve of our Savior's birth," all insert the birth of Jesus into the present. This is as it should be, for the Incarnation is an ongoing event, as Jesus' life death and resurrection continues to "break oppression and set the captive free."
But as our Greek Orthodox brothers and sisters remind us, "be attentive." The Messiah comes among us to challenge our preconceptions about militarism, human exploitation, environmental degradation, economic and political justice, and materialism. These are the garments which we have tended to have wrapped around us, not always by design, but enveloping  us, nevertheless. 
I suspect, that the shepherds also realized this. Their lives were not perfect, but still they returned "praising God for all they had heard and seen." Let us also praise God for all we have heard and seen, knowing that the Savior who challenges us to change, promises to be with us all along the way.

Merry Christmas Friends,


Friday, February 21, 2014

Still Learning to Give Ground

It has been almost fifty years since the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A great many things have changed during that time, although there are moments when many of us realize that the deep wound to our national soul that is racism, has yet to be closed and is far from full healing.

One of the privileges of ministry, is that as a pastor, people sometimes share with me the  deep grief that comes with the loss of a child. From parents who have lost infants, to parents who have lost adult children, there is a grief and sense of loss that is inexplicable. It is as if the hopes for the future are cut off and there is no way to restore them. I've witnessed the healing and the heartache close up, but still cannot know with truth, what it is to lose a child.
Thus, I cannot begin to fathom what it must be like to live in a community, or be part of a people, whose children may die, or be killed simply because of the color of their skin. Yet, as the "stand your ground" laws have played out in Florida, anecdotal evidence suggests that this is exactly what is happening. 

 As with many of you, I have been working through the George Zimmerman trial verdict and most recently the Michael Dunn trial, and trying to determine how I should respond. As part of the process I have certainly paid a good deal of attention to what others have said, both to gain insight, and in some cases, avoid making the situation worse. Yet, there is no easy response, as there are no easy answers in the wake of these unsettling trials.
I am not Trayvon Martin or Justin Davis, and I could not have been, even if I were 35 or 40  years younger. I've lived my entire life under the protective dome of white privilege. I expect that I will be waited on in banks and restaurants, that my word will be believed, and that my rights will be respected.  This simply is not true of black people in America today.

In the Spring of 2001, while working on my D. Min. program,  I was driving with Pastor Benny Smith through the streets of Philadelphia. It was well after midnight as we had attended a late evening worship service that lasted for several hours. Pastor Smith was driving because he knew the streets of the city much better than I. There was little traffic when we stopped at a red traffic light, and we continued our conversation about the sermon we had just heard. When the light changed to green we proceeded. Within a few seconds Pastor Smith was being pulled over. When the officer approached the car, Pr. Smith placed his hands on the steering wheel "in plain sight," I recall him saying. The officer, asked for license and registration, all the while holding an intensely bright flashlight on Pr. Smith's face. The officer then stated that Pr. Smith had just run the traffic light. Pastor Smith, who was wearing a suit and tie, protested that the officer was mistaken, but the officer was adamant, and haughtily declared he had "no intention of arguing" with him. The officer's tone seemed unusually surly. It was then that I, who had gone relatively unnoticed said, "Officer, I believe you are mistaken,I watched the light turn green before we proceeded through it." I immediately got the flashlight in the face treatment Pr. Smith had received, but pale white face and clerical collar changed everything. Immediately the officer's tone changed. Perhaps he said, he had "been mistaken." Then, as quickly as he had come, he let us go and retreated to his car. Pastor Smith took the encounter in stride and told me that it was fairly common when he was out late at night to be pulled over by the police. What I realized afterward was that without even realizing it, I had invoked white privilege, and it prevailed.

I have been stopped several times by police, but I never experienced the tone of voice and the attitude that the officer used that night in Philadelphia. There was an inherent tone and attitude that seemed to say Pastor Smith must be guilty of something. Indeed, he was guilty of being black.

The experience of that night, and others along the way have made me acutely aware of being the beneficiary of white privilege, and yet, each episode has left me more troubled. What would have happened if I hadn't been with Pr. Smith? What if I also had been black? The way stand your ground laws are working out leaves me more troubled. Being unreasonably pulled over is injustice enough, but the taking of Trayvon Martin's and Justin Davis' lives seems the perfect storm of racial prejudice, vigilantism, and with poorly written statutes, state indemnified murder.
Listening to those who espouse the idea that race played no role in the death of Trayvon Martin or Justin Davis, I can only conclude that they are deaf to the historical undercurrents, and sometimes main current that inserted race into the bloodstream of American life. Race was the issue that the founding father's (save John Adam's and a few others) were loathe to deal with. Thomas Jefferson recognized that slavery was a blight on human freedom, but, could not move beyond his personal and total attachment to a life built on the sweat and tears of others.
Interestingly, as the issue of slavery moved steadily to the forefront of politics in the gathering storm of the 1850's, the system tended to justify itself on racial grounds, with the oft repeated mantra that black people were somehow inferior.  This view, reached its antebellum denouement in Chief Justice Roger Taney's majority opinion in the Dredd Scott case.
With the end of the Civil War, the death of Abraham Lincoln, the vindictiveness of northern radicals, as well as unrepentant south, the race question was never settled. Jim Crow became not just the law of the land in many states, but a way of life predicated on the perceived racial superiority of the white race. That perception even gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan and it was all to clear that despite the hopes of men like Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, Justice Taney's words were still a nightmare reality.  In the 1950's Brown vs. Board of Education signaled that black people could no longer accept Jim Crow as the law of the land, but it wasn't until the 1960's that civil disobedience and the foresight of Lyndon Johnson seemingly ushered in a new day.
In the years since, progress has been made, but with strides forward have come steps backward, and the election of Barak Obama set off a new round of racial demagoguery and fanned to life once again deep seated fears regarding race. (Ted Nugent's recent comment calling the President a "subhuman mongrel" is ample evidence of the continuing fear.) As a result, we have witnessed efforts to curtail voting rights, require identification to prevent non existent voting abuse,and the passing and uneven enforcement of "stand your ground" laws, which from my perspective, seem to be playing out like a modern day version of lynching. Florida's law includes the following: 

A person is justified in using force except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other's imminent use of unlawful force. However a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:
1. He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony; or
2. Under those circumstances permitted pursuant to s. 776.013.(home defense) 

In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of John having washed his disciples feet, Jesus went with his disciples across the Kidron valley to the the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. Once there, he encountered Judas, who had "brought a detachment
of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons." A dialogue ensued in which Jesus established his heavenly authority (when he said, "I am he," they "stepped back and fell to the ground"), but "Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear." In a moment Jesus told Peter, "Put your sword back into its sheath."

Some scholars believe that it was Judas' hope that Jesus would stand his ground. Not satisfied with the direction Jesus seemed to be going, Judas had hoped that in a real confrontation, Jesus would assert his full authority as the Son of God, that he would unleash the wrath of God and send the soldiers fleeing and take his rightful place on the throne most recently occupied by Herod. Standing his ground, he would confront deadly force, with a greater deadly force and triumph over all of his enemies. However, Jesus decision to give ground in the garden, and the entire Passion is Jesus rejection of the culture of violence of which "stand your ground in the latest example."  The Son of God, the one human being who had the right to stand his ground let himself be taken for the sake of humanity and all creation. Those who by faith claim the cross, have this as their heritage; a resounding no to the violent choice, and it is a heritage we must claim if the violence incited by "stand your ground" is going to be mitigated.

Yes, the laws must be changed, but it will not be by legislation that racism is purged from our national life. You and I must claim our heritage and in whatever ways present themselves, we have to set an example. As Jesus did at Gethsemane, we have to lay aside our fears and learn to embrace the future into which God is beckoning us. I'm not naive, this race virus in our bloodstream has been with us a long time, and will take time to purge; the future will not be trouble free.  I don't have the answers, but at least we can do this: claim our heritage, our baptismal birthright and take seriously Jesus words, "whatsoever you did to these the least of my brothers and sisters, you did to me." It took the death and resurrection of Jesus for his disciples to put aside their fears and embrace a new way of living. His life, death and resurrection should be enough to change our hearts as well.


Pastor Peter