This is the sermon on guns you probably won’t hear

There is a sermon you probably won’t hear in church tomorrow, and that’s a shame, because it’s a sermon that needs to be preached from every pulpit in this nation, from coast to coast, from North to South, from city to city, from the highest mountain to the lowest valley, until we understand and our leaders finally listen.

It’s the sermon that says that a society that claims to value life and freedom but brushes off death as casually as it puts on a new coat, is a society that has shaken off all semblance of morality and justice, and values nothing but power. It’s the sermon that says that our nation has come unmoored. It’s the sermon that says our guns have become an idol, the NRA has become the priesthood of a false religion, and our government has been bought lock, stock and barrel.

It’s the sermon that says “In Christ’s name, enough.”

Seventeen students died at Parkland school in Florida earlier this week. Add those to the 58 murdered at the Las Vegas Strip last October, to the 49 mowed down at the Pulse Night Club, the 20 first- and second-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Remember the 33 college students killed at Virginia Tech in 2007? How about the 15 killed at Columbine High School in 1999? That number seemed so large at the time; now it almost seems like it’s barely worth mentioning. There have been so many mass shootings in America that it’s almost impossible to remember a time when they weren’t routine, when Aurora, Colo. (2012, 12 dead); Jonesboro, Ark. (1998, 5 dead); and Erie, Pa. (1998, 1 dead), would be burned into our psyches forever.

Why do we tolerate this?

A long time ago the Phonecians worshiped a god name Moloch. Moloch wasn’t a genteel god who liked to collect baubles, hear a few rhyming prayers and let people go about their business. He was a god of power. His priests promised the people wealth and good crops, military might and protection from their enemies. If you followed Moloch, you didn’t have anything to worry about when other people came into your country and tried to take your place, they promised. You didn’t need to be afraid of thieves, or home intruders or any threat to your well-being. If you worshiped Moloch, he had your back. All he wanted was your children.

Moloch was a right bastard of a god, but the Phonecians trusted him. There are remnants of their architecture, their literature and their art. The Israelites, when they came to the land, were appalled at what they found, and did their best to eradicate all trace of Moloch and the other gods of his ilk. The ruins we’ve found indicate that he had a tremendous appetite for the blood of humans, especially children.

The stories that his priests told are the same ones the NRA tells today about guns. There’s a lot to be afraid of, but if you have a gun, you’ll be safe. There’s no need to worry about immigrants, inner-city gangs or even your own elected officials if you’re armed enough. The bigger the gun, the better off you are, so why not own the kind of hardware professional troops use in combat zones? And if someone comes to town and massacres a dozen or more children? Well, that’s just the price of being free. Anyone who opposes the exaltation of firearms is someone who hates freedom.

The Israelites didn’t get rid of Moloch. He just hung around a while and opened shop under a new name with a new priesthood.

Our national religion makes a big deal about guns, and it’s managed to convince a number of people that our embrace of gun culture is something that squares well with Christianity.

It does not.

The NRA and its acolytes spread an atmosphere of fear. There are bad people out there, and no one is coming to help you. The only way to stop them is if you are armed yourself. If they are armed, you need to be too. Put guns into every church, into every store, into every school. Fire first, and don’t back down. When everyone is afraid and everyone has guns, and everyone is on edge, then we will know peace.

Jesus warns that those who live by violence will die violently, and he tells his disciples to put away weapons of violence. Rater than fearing the alien, the outsider or the stranger, he encourages us to take the risk, welcome them, and befriend them.

This is a message the church needs to shout, and that it needs to live out as loudly as it can. I don’t expect to hear it.

This Sunday, most churches are going to offer noting more than an anodyne prayer for the latest victims of the latest horror show. Some will offer even less. There may be a few churches that collect an offering, but that’s as far as it will go.

Six years ago, Trayvon Marin was murdered by a vigilante who stalked the teen to the point that he feared for his life and felt the only chance he had was to fight back. (Zimmerman, who was armed, shot Martin and killed him.) Few churches said anything about it that Sunday; my own pastor made a throwaway comment about it in the beginning of the sermon where pastors usually use their bad one-liners as warm-up material, and seemed surprised that anyone responded negatively.

The truth is, we live in times that are marked right now by profound spiritual darkness. Our federal government has embarked on a relentless campaign against immigrants of color, it has placed abusive and racist men in positions of power, and it is led by a man of vulgar appetites with no regard for the truth, nor for justice. The church in America can choose either to embrace this darkness and call it “light”; to focus on “”spiritual things” like truth, morality and principles of clean living; or it can call out evil in high places.

The NRA’s tireless advocacy to sell more guns is one place we can start. The casual acquiescence of our leaders to the NRA’s culture of death is a second.

It’s a sermon our country needs to hear. Let’s start preaching it.

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A plea for life without fear

Curiously, this plea about cops wanting not to be killed is one I’ve heard from black civilians.

Eric Garner, choked to death by police
Tamir Rice, 12, shot to death by police over a toy gun
Walter Scott, shot in the back over a brake light
Alton Sterling, shot to death while lying face down
Philando Castille, shot to death while following orders
Sandra Bland
Michael Brown
Freddie Gray
Laquann MacDonald
John Crawford
Aiyana Jones
Terence Crutcher
Ezell Ford

… do I need to go on?

Black men constitute a disproportionately high percentage of victims of police shootings. Despite representing only 6 percent of the U.S. population, nearly 25 percent of all victims of police shootings are black men.

Cops want to live without fear. So do the people they’re sworn to protect.

Black lives matter.

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The moral failure of the Trump federal budget

Budgets are moral documents, and the morals behind this one are reprehensible.

For starters, this budget follows a tax reform measure that included a massive giveaway to the wealthiest Americans, the ones who least need federal assistance. With government revenues now falling, the government is now seeking to cut aid to the most vulnerable among us. After all, with less money coming in, the government can’t afford to provide handouts.

Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall failTo justify cutting the social contract, the administration is relying on stereotypes of lower-income families as lazy or fiscally irresponsible, and therefore undeserving of assistance; or accuses them of wasting the money on frills like healthy food, a decent car, or even a phone. That lower-income America is disproportionately African or Hispanic American is what gives these budgets a racial impact; choosing not to see race does not excuse us from that evil.

Poverty is not a moral failure; the accumulation of wealth is. And yet the Trump administration, like previous Republican administrations, is taking the side of the wealthy against the working poor.

“Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers,” Jesus says, “you do to me.”

Our country is failing in its duty. It needs a moral and a spiritual revival.

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‘What Would Jesus Do?’ and other things Jesus wouldn’t say

Back when I was in college, there was a trend in the church toward pithy sayings that sounded deeper than they really were.

The big daddy of these was “What would Jesus do?” or “WWJD?” It works like this. Post a question with serious moral overtones, like “Should we deport law-abiding people who entered the country without documentation?” or “Is it all right to vote for a vulgar, adulterous conman with no integrity?” Now ask, “What would Jesus do?” and follow accordingly.

Unfortunately, there are limits. “My girlfriend is pregnant!” one might share with a confidant. “What should I do?”

“Well, what would Jesus do?” comes the helpful rejoinder.

Not get her pregnant in the first place, would come one answer. Not much help there.

Other people tried to overapply it on the grounds that every area of life should be surrendered to God. (Waffles or an omelette — which would Jesus order?) Given the earnestness with which such questions were asked, they soon became incredibly fraught ethical and spiritual quandaries and led to people no longer inviting Ted to join them for breakfast.

As bad as those were, I remember one particularly bad time to ask the question. It was on a trip to LaSource, Lagonav, and it involved a disabled man who had withered legs and could not walk.

What would Jesus do? I leave it to the reader to ask that question, determine the answer and then guess how things went from there.

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On respecting the pronouns a person prefers

Two years ago, someone asked me if I preferred to be called Dave, or David It’s not a big deal to me, but it was thoughtful of her to ask, and I appreciated it.*

I have a couple friends who prefer to be “they,” and not one of the other pronouns.

Seems like a pretty basic courtesy to me. Call a person what they want to be known as.

* As I recall, my answer was, “Well, all my friends call me Dave, so I guess you’d better call me Robert.”

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Freddie Mercury on French horn

The concert hall is full, and more than a thousand sets of eyes are upon me as I take to the stage. To my left is tonight’s star, who will perform a solo rendition of “Hit the Road Jack,” followed by the greatest hits of Freddie Mercury, entirely on French horn.
 
But for now, all eyes are on me, It’s my job to introduce him and each number. I’m the conductor
 
I have such weird dreams.
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Our indifference to one another makes me question our humanity

More than 40 years ago, nearly 45, as my dad drove the car through the parking lot of the Foodtown supermarket on summer day in Forest Hills, I looked out the driver’s side window of the back seat. There was a ramp that led down a steep slope in the parking lot, that ended against wall.

I think there was a bank in this area, but I can’t swear to it.

A man was hanging from the top of that wall by his two hands, while a crowd of perhaps 20 people watched from below, or standing on the driveway that ran down that slope.

“What’s that man doing?” I asked my father. I don’t remember his answer, but I wondered then and still do, if he even knew what I was talking about.

To a 4-year-old, the drop from that ledge was forever, down onto concrete. Even to my young mind, it seemed he would die if his hands slipped and he fell. I still don’t know what that man was doing, hanging on the ledge like that, nor if he even survived.

The memory sticks with me. So does this one:

Almost 25 years ago, I was renting an apartment on North Second Street in Easton. Late one summer night, or early one summer morning — I was younger then and it was hard to tell the difference — I heard a woman scream.

It was the sort of scream that belongs in a horror movie, loud and piercing, the sort a person makes when there is no way out. She screamed three times, and then stopped and suddenly as she had started.

I never found out why she screamed, nor even what happened to her. What makes this memory stick so sharply in my recall is how I reacted to her screams. I was alarmed, and then when they stopped, I relaxed. About ten minutes later, the police stopped me outside my apartment building where I was preparing to take my dog for a walk, and I realized I not only hadn’t called 9-1-1, I had become completely nonchalant about the entire thing. This was months before Alan Moore introduced me to Kitty Genovese.

Now that was chilling.

What is it about us that lets us be so aware of another’s suffering and torment, and the danger they face, and yet be so completely indifferent and unfazed by it? What is it that allows us to see someone at risk of dying and watch it like those people near the bank, or to hear a woman’s fearful screams, and decide, “Not my problem”?

There’s something seriously wrong with us.

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‘A Viking Christmas’ preview

The setting is Asgard. The place is the giant hall where the Norse gods meet and hold their celebrations. Various gods and their children are gathered around the Christmas tree, which they are in the final stages of decorating. Gunnilde and Fafnir are playing a clapping game while Sigurd and Agnar help to decorate the tree.

GUNNHILDE. It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas Eve.

FAFNIR. Santa is coming, what will he bring?

GUNNHILDE. A dolly!

FAFNIR. A yo-yo.

GUNNHILDE. Figgy pudding.

FAFNIR. A polar bear.

GUNNHILDE. A drum.

FAFNIR. A puppy.

GUNNHILDE. A spaceship.

FAFNIR. Wait, what? (Pause.) A dress.

GUNNHILDE. Chocolate.

FAFNIR. A rocking-horse!

GUNNHILDE. A stick-horse!

FAFNIR. A real horse!

GUNNHILDE. Loki, will you give me a horse like the one you gave Grandfather Odin?

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‘War Games’: generational watermark

Several years ago, we were at a “Destination Imagination” competition in East Windsor. As I was walking the hall, I heard a group of students from another school disbelieving a parent as he shared how popular a movie “War Games” had been with our generation, even though they had never heard of it.

“Strange game,” I said as I passed. “The only winning move seems to be not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”

Somewhere out there is a guy in his late 40s who owes me.

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The outcast reindeer of the North Pole

Though we may never know exactly how many reindeer Santa keeps, there are no fewer than 12 whose names we know.

The heavy lifters in Santa lore are familiar to all of us, having been named in Clement St. Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” They include Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen. For more than a century these were all the reindeer known to the public.

That changed in 1939, when an advertising campaign by Montgomery Ward brought us the song of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, whose story came to us in 1964. As told in the classic Rankin-Bass Christmas special, Rudolph was ostracized for having an ungainly and glowing red honker but ultimately was accepted into the fold when his nose saved Christmas by allowing Santa to see through a heavy snowstorm.

Overlooked in this tale are the three other reindeer the song mentions: Olive, Hal and Glee.

There’s a lot we don’t know about Olive, except that she was considered “the other reindeer,” and that she used to laugh and call Rudolph names. Was Olive gay? An immigrant? Did Olive practice a different reindeer religion? We simply don’t know; all we can tell is that she was a social outcast from the standard reindeer crowds and joined in the taunting and exclusion of Rudolph.

Rudolph seems also to have been on the outs with Hal, who the song suggests withheld his approval from Rudolph until Santa gave him the thumbs-up. As the song tells us, “then Hal the reindeer loved him.”

Given that Hal prefers the personal pronoun “they,” it is reasonable to assume that they are gender-nonconforming”; and this may in fact be our biggest clue to the fraught nature of their relationship with Rudolph. However Hal identifies, it’s apparent from the rest of the song that the North Pole has been a place where reindeer have been bullied for their differences. They probably considered it safer to mock and demean Rudolph than to risk being singled out for abuse by the other reindeer as well.

When it comes to Glee, all we have is a name and that Glee joined with Hal in predicting that Rudolph would be remembered for saving Christmas. Where did Glee stand on the issue of the reindeer games? Was Glee one of Hal’s friends?  There is so much to discover.

All we know is this: There a total 12 reindeer mentioned in the song, including four who apparently were bullied and excluded by the main team.

We need to hear their stories.

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