Drones and Collateral Damage

Since September 11, 2001 the United States has conducted a War on Terror. This war is fueled by the fear that our homeland and all we hold dear is under relentless assault. This fear led to the invasion in Afghanistan (our nation’s longest running war); invasion of Iraq and the use of Drones. President Obama has dramatically increased the use of Drones to attack those deemed a threat.

In the seven years of his presidency (as of February 2016) Mr. Obama has authorized 423 drone attacks (according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism), resulting in an estimated total kill of 2498 – 3999 persons. Of this total it is estimated that 423 – 968 were civilians of which 172 – 207 were children. Estimates for injured 1161 – 1744. It is impossible to get exact numbers as there are no U.S combatants on the ground. This past week another drone attack in Somalia is estimated to have killed 150 al Shabab terrorist fighters.

photo of Drone warfare

Proponents argue that Drone warfare does not put U.S personnel in harm’s way. They also point out that a strict protocol is in place to minimize collateral damage to non combatants. It is further argued that we live in a dangerous world and that war while ‘messy’ is necessary to keep our nation and our allies safe.

Yet, some in the military point to the innocents killed (such as a large wedding party in Afghanistan mistaken as combatants) as a recruiting tool for terrorist groups. I wonder too about the emotional distancing that happens when U.S military are making the determination from their computer screen, whether or not to bomb a target half way around the world. It is one thing to see an explosion on a computer screen and another to see and smell the carnage in person.

I am also deeply troubled by the term ‘collateral damage’, to reflect the killing of innocents. Surely such killing isn’t intentional yet the use of a the term ‘collateral damage’ is a profound insult to the lives that have been lost in the midst of our nation’s war on terror. Drone warfare is an inexact form of violence. It is the responsibility of those in our government and military to wrestle with the ethics. And, it is the responsibility of we as citizens to debate the ethics of just how far we will allow our government to go in this so-called war.

As a person of faith I believe that each person is created in the image of God. In believing this I have a responsibility to insert myself in our national debate. And, if a serious debate doesn’t seems to be taking place, then it is incumbent upon us to get it started. Drone warfare should trouble us all. Since 9/11 our nation and much of the world has been led by fear. Are there values that we hold dear that not even fear can take from us?

From Scarcity to Abundance: Refugee Crisis, Part 2

In the previous blog we explored how our world is governed by the Economy of Scarcity. A scarcity mindset constricts the mind, imagination and heart. Scarcity teaches that there is only so much to go around and we must protect what is yours.

Desperate refugees fleeing civil war and grinding poverty in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and northern Africa are fleeing in record numbers to the gates of Europe. The response of the Hungarian government is a grim example of the scarcity mindset at work. That government has set up razor wire barriers and passed a law criminalizing any refugee who seeks to pass through.


Is there an alternative to scarcity thinking? Yes. The answer is found in an ancient story. Whether you take the story literally or metaphorically there are lessons to be had.

2000 years ago a healer and prophet named Jesus brought about a miracle. A crowd of 5000 had gathered to hear him. Late in the day his disciples urged Jesus to disperse the crowd so they could forage for food. Instead, Jesus had the crowd break into companies of 50 and 100. Then Jesus took his disciples scarce provisions, 5 loaves and two fish and offered everything he had to the crowd.

At first glance this seems like a hopeless and reckless gesture. How do you feed so many with so little?

Parker Palmer the theologian suggests that this intentional act of vulnerability led to the miracle. Moved by the generosity and selflessness of Jesus and his disciples, the crowd which had hidden away food of their own, began to share with others.

The miracle was that those who had nothing now had enough. Those who had much and a little had enough. And, points out Palmer, by breaking the vast crowd into companies of 50 and 100 it was no longer as easy to ignore or refuse to help. Now the person in need had a name, a story.

This is called the Gospel of Abundance. Translated to today’s refugee crisis, nations of the world have the capacity to solve this crisis. We have the resources to feed and place those who are fleeing war and poverty. We have the resources and capacity to solve the conditions that have led to the wars and poverty.

The Gospel of Abundance tells us that there is an alternative to fear which fuels scarcity thinking. When we act abundantly we make a series of choices: We choose to not give in to fear. We choose to take a risk and share what we have. We choose to open our hearts, minds and imagination to new ways of thinking, new ways of partnering to solve seemingly intractable problems.

Do we see examples of abundance at work? Greece, Italy, Macedonia, Jordan, Turkey have been on the front lines for many months and in some cases for years in housing and rescuing refugees. Germany has committed to receiving and housing up to 800,000 refugees in 2015 at a cost of 6.6 billion dollars.

Welcoming refugees

Such examples of abundance offers an example to the United States. My country has stood largely on the side lines and only recently agreed to receive 10,000 Syrians at an undetermined rate. We are capable of doing so much more.

As a pastor I see local communities of faith being capable of getting involved and making a difference. A committee in the church I serve is researching ways to lobby our elected officials to make our nation more generous. One step is to lobby for ‘The Protecting Religious Minorities Persecuted by ISIS Act’, now before Congress. We’re also looking into ways to partner and help house refugee families.

Imagine what happens when every church, synagogue, mosque, temple, tribe, city and nation is led by the Gospel of Abundance. 2000 years ago a prophet and healer named Jesus made a choice not to be governed by fear or scarcity. The result was a miracle. That same capacity for the miraculous is found within you and me and the communities we belong to. Don’t you think its time for another miracle?

Wounded Warrior

Afghanistan photoToday I attended a conference for mental health providers serving our Veterans. This conference focused on the emotional and spiritual cost of war. With soldiers returning from multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan we find that many of our veteran’s carry wounds that may be physical but also of the mind, heart and soul. The VA estimates that 31% of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan war suffer from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

How can it be otherwise? Since Sept. 11, 2001 our nation has placed an incredible strain on our men and women in uniform. Many have served multiple deployments in often brutal conditions, while placing a strain on marriages and families. A friend who served as a chaplain in Iraq, speaks of the human cost to families as they struggle to find a new normal for life after the war.

The conference focused on the need to get services to our warriors who deserve our very best effort. A speaker from the Veterans Health Administration (VA) offered these disturbing statistics: Veterans dealing with depression wait on average 8 years before seeking help; those with substance abuse average 22 years before seeking treatment. And, only 50% will seek treatment. Imagine the pain that these wounded warriors carry.

The challenge said the speaker, is for the VA and community partners, secular and religious, to strive to grow the number of those who do seek help and to shorten the time in which they receive services.

The poet William Stafford wrote: “Every war has two losers”. People of good will can debate whether a particular war or any war is justified. But what should never be debated, is our nation’s commitment to honor and take care of our warrior’s (and their families) who have sacrificed so much. They deserve our very best effort.

Israel and Palestine: Revenge Begets Revenge

Recently three Jewish Israeli teenagers living in the West Bank were kidnapped and murdered. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of ordering the murders. Prime Minister Netanyahu said: They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by beasts.” Hamas denied any involvement.

A few days after the three boys bodies were found, three Jewish Israeli’s intent on revenge, kidnapped a Palestinian Israeli teenager living in East Jerusalem. They tortured the boy and then set him on fire while still alive.

Incensed members of Hamas living in the Gaza Strip unleashed missals into Israel. Israel responded with devastating military might. As I write 500 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have died. 3000 Palestinians have been injured in bombings by Israeli artillery and jets.

Gaza Photo

What we are seeing is a seemingly endless cycle of violence fueled by a mindset of revenge. Is there any hope?

Our answer was voiced 2000 years ago as Jesus wept over Jerusalem and said: ‘If now even now, you knew that which makes for peace.’

Jesus also lived in a time of great violence as Israel lived under the heel of the Roman Empire. Jesus realized that the path to a true and lasting peace comes only through the spiritual practice of forgiveness and the hard work of seeking reconciliation.

Is such a path possible? In the past two decades South Africa, Nicaragua and Ireland by choosing the path of reconciliation have found their way to a lasting peace.

What we need are leaders in Israel and Palestine with the wisdom and courage to say ‘no’ to revenge. In the United States we can lobby that our tax dollars support only those who support the path towards reconciliation.

In the 1960’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s house was bombed while his children were sleeping. Soon supporters intent on revenge gathered outside the King home. Dr. King spoke these words to the crowd:

“Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky. Don’t get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”

By refusing the way of revenge, Dr. King set our nation on the path towards ultimate justice and reconciliation. The path isn’t easy nor is it quick. But in the long run it is the only way that we as the human family will find our way to a lasting peace.

My Mentor in the Christian Life

Don Hutchinson 2For twenty years I’ve been mentored in the Christian life by Don Hutchinson.  During this time I’ve had the great privilege of being Don’s pastor.

Don is a gentle soul who has been a prophetic voice for the full inclusion of our gay sisters and brothers into the life of the church and as full citizens in society.

Don and his life partner Lee Swantek worked to bring down walls of division and prejudice within the church and wider community.  Don and Lee were the ‘go to guys’ within the congregation and wider community when anyone had a need.  They regularly volunteered to drive people to medical appointments in Salem and Portland.  Through their generosity of spirit they showed us what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

 Don and Lee were committed spouses for 42 years until Lee’s death from cancer several years ago.  The depth of their love was evident during Lee’s long illness.  When Lee died, his funeral was held at First Baptist McMinnville, Oregon and it was my honor to officiate.  Don was surrounded in love by the congregation.  Because Don and Lee taught us well, we their church were not closeted in our grief. We were able to fully honor Lee and Don as a couple, as one of our own.

Said Don:  “Our goal was to wear down people with kindness. To wear down people’s resistance and fear.  To show that we are simply normal people like everyone else with the same needs and dreams as anyone else.  God made each of us the way we are, some of us are gay and some are straight.  Each one of us is perfect.”

Since Lee’s passing, Don who is nearing 80,  continues his gentle and persistent witness.   He understands that by helping to take down walls, he is freeing us all.

To Don, I say:  “Thanks to you and Lee for teaching me how to be a better pastor and follower of Jesus.  Thank you for expanding the hearts and minds of so many of us at First Baptist and in the wider community.  The good you and Lee have done will live on in each life you have touched.”

For Don and Lee, I echo the words of scripture:  ‘Well done good and faithful servants, well done.’

I’m Just Livin

photo of graffitiThis past Sunday before worship I noticed graffiti on an exterior door of the church. The graffiti read:  “Forgive me for my sins.  I’m just livin.”  A message from a neighbor. The church I serve is a downtown church, which means that there is no boundary between ‘church life’ and ‘real life’.

On any given day of the week, this church is home to neighbors who are homeless, recovery groups, a preschool, parenting classes for fragile families, a relief nursery with an amazing record of preventing child abuse, a free medical clinic, a place to rest and reflect, an office staff that seeks to provide a listening ear and help with emergencies, meeting space for community groups, and a wide variety of church programs.

There is no boundary between ‘church life’ and ‘real life’.  By intentionally offering hospitality to our neighbors, this particular congregation has chosen to be in a dynamic relationship with our neighborhood.  There is the clear sense that our building is not a gated community, designed to keep the right people in and the wrong people out. Rather our building strives to be a place where dialogue and relationships are fostered.

Does life get messy at times?  Do we sometimes struggle to get along and make room for one another?  Yes.  Such is the price of being human.  The price of being faithful.

This past Sunday, someone with a blue marker left a message on the glass of the church door:  “Forgive me for my sins.  I’m just livin.”  I don’t know who wrote this but I’d enjoy having a conversation, to hear their story, their struggles, pain and hope.  I’d speak of a God who loves and forgives.  I’d talk about our God who seeks to restore and bless.

Here at the corner of First Street and Cowls Street, there is no boundary between ‘church life’ and ‘real life.’  That’s a good thing.  Thanks be to God.

Aliens Among Us

Our nation is gearing up for a debate on immigration reform. The question is:  What do we  do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in our country?  Do we forcibly deport?  What about Miriam, the  22-year-old woman I met who came to this nation illegally as a 9 month old baby held in her mother’s arms?  Her 17-year-old brother and 9-year-old sister were born in the USA.  Should she be deported and separated from her siblings?

This past Sunday to honor Dr. King’s legacy the church I serve hosted a panel discussion and sermon on immigration.   Sally Godard our guest preacher chose a text from Leviticus 19:  33,34:  ‘When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.’

This morning I had a phone call from a neighbor who had heard about the church’s immigration event.  He was concerned that we were  ‘diluting that which makes this nation great’.  He said:  “We are Americans, when we talk about Latino Americans and Anglo Americans, we are focusing on what divides us, not on what unites us.” 

I understand his argument but I don’t agree.  We’ve always been a nation of immigrants.  We’ve been able to honor our diversity while also being able to focus on that which unites us.   I think our ability to make room for diversity,  while claiming our unity, provides the creative energy that makes this nation such a special place.

The writer of Leviticus reflects God’s heart for the alien, the outsider, the other, ‘for once you too were an alien’.  Listen to my story:  In 1867 my Great, Great, Grandmother, Sarah gave birth to my Great Grandfather, John.  Sarah was a single mother and gave birth to her son in a ‘work house’ in Manchester, England.  A work house was where the poorest of the poor lived, the indigent.   For reasons lost to history, Sarah’s family would not take her in.  She gave birth in the most humble of settings.  Alone.

Two years later, Sarah made up a story, she changed her last name, said she was a widow, and brought her child to America, where Sarah found work as a textile worker in the mills of New England.   Sarah was an alien, an outsider, trying like so many other immigrants to make a better future for herself and her family.

When I look at the immigrant debate today, I don’t think of ‘them’ and ‘us’.  I simply think of ‘us’.  With the Biblical writer, I too seek to welcome the immigrant.  As a citizen, I will do my part to advocate for immigration reform.  For not so long ago, my people were aliens in a distant land.

A Christmas Wish: 26 Acts of Kindness

In the last few weeks we’ve been inundated with images of random violence.  From the shootings at Clackamas Town Center Mall in Portland, to the murder of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on December 14th.  We are shaken by violence in places normally thought to be safe.

What can we do?  How can we honor the lives of those lost and reaffirm all that is good?  With gratitude to the resiliency of the human spirit, people are responding in the most imaginative of ways.   One movement is 26 Acts of Kindness Campaign, which encourages individuals and communities to offer 26 expressions of kindness.  Imagine what happens when people throughout this nation and around the world respond to the challenge to grace others with kindness.  Each act in honor of those who lost their lives at Sandy Hook.

The website www.RandomActsOfKindness.org offers wonderful ideas for gifting neighbors and strangers with expressions of kindness.   It can be as simple as giving someone a prime parking spot, or deeply listening to someone, or buying a homeless neighbor lunch, or volunteering at school or serving others through your church.  The only limitation is our imagination.

In Judaism there is the hebrew word khesed, which means loving kindness.  The challenge is to offer each day at least one khesed, without drawing attention to oneself. 

Jesus said, “be compassionate as God is compassionate to you.”  The word compassion means to ‘suffer with’.  To be compassionate, is to enter into the pain of the other, to respond with loving kindness, in word and in deed.

In response to the needs and challenges of our time, Jim Wallis, the Christian activist writes:  “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”  We are the ones who can reclaim our society from violence and indifference.  We are the ones who make this world a more loving, just and hopeful place. 

Jesus was born into a world of violence and uncertainty.  Herod the cruel King was on the throne.  Yet the lesson of Christmas, is that the violence and uncertainty of any moment in history, will never have the last word.   And what is our role in the Christmas story?  To share God’s love, to be God’s khesed.

May you be both blessed and a blessing this Christmas.

Tipping Point on Gun Control?

This weekend was emotionally draining for our nation as we grieved with the community of Newtown, CT.  We grieved for the mass shooting of 20 children and 7 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.   For those of us in Oregon our emotions were already raw from a shooting at a crowded mall a few days prior.  Each shooting was eerily similar.  Both murders were conducted by an estranged young man, armed with body armor and military type assault weapons and magazines of bullets. 

On Sunday morning we gathered as did people of faith around the country, to find hope in our faith and comfort in the company of one another.  We prayed for those who had lost loved one’s both in Oregon and Connecticut and for all who live in fear of further violence.  

In reflecting upon all this I wonder if we as a nation have reached a tipping point related to how we seek a balance between the right to bear arms guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment and the right for our people to live in safety.  Up to this point the NRA has driven our debate suggesting that any limitation on weapons is an assault on the 2nd amendment itself.  I believe that this is a false choice. In the aftermath of the mass murders at Sandy Hook this  reasoning has crumbled.  I think reasonable people are looking for a balance between individual rights and the well-being of the wider community. 

Yesterday Senator Manchin of West Virginia, a pro NRA member, called for a “sensible nationwide dialogue on gun control , where everything, should be on the table”.  Said the senator, “I don’t know anybody in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle.”  

On Sunday night  President Obama, spoke at an interfaith service in Newtown.  He said:  “We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

We wait to see what specific steps President Obama will introduce.  Senator Diane Feinstein has indicated that she will introduce legislation on a national level to ban assault weapons, similar to the ban that was in effect up till 2004.

Here in Oregon, two bills will be presented to the legislature at their winter session.   One bill will limit the sale of ‘oversized ammunition magazines’ such as used in the Oregon and Newtown shootings.  The other bill will ban the sale of assault weapons in Oregon.   For those who want to learn more go the web site of ‘Ceasefire Oregon’.

Up to this point, the strategy for proponents of unlimited access to firearms is to wait until the emotional upheaval from a mass shooting subsides.  This strategy was successful after Thurston, Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech etc.

Will they succeed again? Or, have we as a nation reached a tipping point?  The answer rests with each one of us.  Are we ready to say ‘enough’?

I Don’t Like to Pray

I don’t like to pray.  I know that may sound odd coming from a pastor but it’s true.   As an extrovert praying doesn’t come naturally, at least in the traditional sense of folded hands, closed eyes and being quiet. 

I don’t like to pray.  I’d rather be busy doing something, anything, other than praying.  I get energy from being around people, from talking, discussing.  I like the stimulation of lots of people and lots of noise. 

I don’t like to pray.  Praying for me means giving up control….and  I like being in control.  I like being Lord of my own destiny, Captain of my own ship (fill in your own metaphor).  

But when I do pray, when I let go of trying to be in control, I often find that I am graced with a presence and a peace that is not of my own making.   I’m always surprised that I don’t get to the point of praying more quickly.   To pray seems so obvious, the benefits for me so real.

Maybe my resistance to prayer is part of the process for me.  Maybe I am so hard-headed that I need to experience the frustration that comes with trying to be a god unto myself.  Maybe I need to be worn down yet again, before I am ready to invite God to make a home in and with  me.

I’d like to think that the older I get, the more ready I am to pray.   Yet, I still like to be in control.  I still struggle to trust in God.  I still resist ‘letting go’ and ‘letting God’.

I don’t like to pray.  But I do, in spite of myself.  And when I remember to pray, I am met, I am known and I am reminded that I am not alone.

I am learning that prayer doesn’t require that I bow my head and close my eyes.  For me prayer is simply remembering to look and listen and wait upon that Great Mystery we call God.   

I don’t like to pray.  But I’m blessed when I do.