Thursday, December 18, 2014

Another Slaughter of the Innocents

My heart has been hurting since I heard the news of the recent slaughter of school children by the Taliban in Pakistan. I cannot wrap my mind around that kind of hate. I can vaguely comprehend a mentally ill person doing such a thing. But to gun down more than a hundred children and their teachers in the name of some twisted, self-created god is beyond me. Echoes of Herod’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus echo in this Christmas season. And I weep for the parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and all those who are grieving because of this horrific act.  Even the survivors’ scars will last a lifetime. I close my eyes and see kids the same age as my grandchildren, and I grieve for those who have lost the future promise of those young lives.

I spoke this week for the first time in several years about the Institute for Civility in Government, and its work to encourage civility in the process of government. Two Presbyterian pastor friends founded the Institute. I helped them write the story of the Institute in the book, Reclaiming Civility in the Public Square: Ten Rules that Work. I told those who came to hear my talk that as I was writing the book, I was coincidentally also teaching an adult Sunday school class on religious violence. Because of that juxtaposition, I reached the conclusion that the opposite of civility is not incivility. The opposite of civility is the violence that comes with the breakdown of civil society—the kind of violence exhibited by the Taliban in their bloody massacre. I told the audience that the Institute defines civility as: “Claiming and caring for one’s own identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”

In the discussion that followed my presentation, I was struck by one man’s suggestion that the Institute’s definition of civility sounds like grace. I’m still thinking about that, but I like that idea. It’s not exactly how my theological dictionary defines grace, but favor and kindness, the definitions for the Greek and Latin words from which our theological term grace is derived, do sound like another way to define civility. That is we stand up for our own beliefs, but we extend favor and kindness to others as they do the same. If all of us practiced that kind of civility, we might have a bit less violence in this weary world.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Gift of Presence

Fermin’s dad, Jesus, the patriarch of a large extended family that included 33 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren, was 92 years old when he died recently. I attended his funeral to honor Fermin, and Fermin’s wife, Maria, who have worked at our church for many years, quietly cleaning, moving furniture, and doing what has been asked of them without complaint. Church sextons are underappreciated saints.

In addition to their regular work at our church, a number of years ago, Fermin and Maria graciously helped me lead a Spanish Bible study, so our small adult mission team could prepare for our church’s first adult mission trip, a visit to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. They patiently listened and gently corrected our attempts to speak Spanish as we laughed and learned together. Their assistance helped us better connect with our hosts at the church in Nuevo Laredo and provided a boost to my ongoing efforts to learn to speak Spanish.

I followed Jesus’s family into the sanctuary at one of the local Catholic Churches, not far from my own Presbyterian one, and walked into a different world than the one I inhabit on Sunday mornings at my own church. But also a familiar one because of time spent in worship in Mexico and Cuba and Nicaragua on mission trips. The Catholic worship service was unfamiliar, but the sadness that hung over the gathering was all too familiar from my attendance at similar services in other places. It is hard to say goodbye to a loved one, no matter how long they have lived.

Humbled by their gratitude for my presence at the funeral, all I could do was express my condolences. And remember again how important human presence is, especially when we are hurting. Much as I enjoy being connected with family and friends via the Internet, it’s not the same as being with others in person. God created us for community, for that place where we can share joys and sorrows and laughter and tears and hugs.

Grace and Peace,