Photo by the Rev. David V. Valera
By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications, Young People’s Ministries
I was on an elliptical at my local YMCA when I needed to change the channel. It was a week or so after the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and CNN was on the small screen in front of me. Anderson Cooper was sharing some of the stories of lives cut too short and those they left behind. It was too easy to relate, to empathize. No one should ever cry while watching Anderson Cooper, especially not at the gym, so I quickly changed the channel to ESPN.
While there have been several occasions over the past year where I’ve questioned why I call myself United Methodist, the church’s response to the situation at Sandy Hook – by and large, was not one of them. Our denomination’s news agency was there almost immediately covering the tragedy from a United Methodist angle and giving us all another avenue to relate. Many of our episcopal leaders offered thoughtful words of hope, often in sharp contrast to theologically harmful words offered by some other “religious” leaders (1). We were reminded by other church leaders of former resolutions passed to advance gun safety and Social Principles held to shape our response to some of the underlying root issues.
I was also impressed by the immediate response on social media as United Methodist clergy and laity turned to each other to try to understand and support one another – just as so many others in the nation did the same. Some churches held vigils while many others discarded weeks of deliberate advent planning in order to respond to the grief present in our communities. I witnessed collaboration and quick sharing of resources in these circles, as they worked to respond, and the beginnings of conversations that one might hope will continue down the road.
All that being said, there are some words of Jesus that I was already struggling with that only grew in resonance as I consumed the relentless coverage. Preceding this tragedy our national attention, and a good deal of the church’s focus, had been on the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the eastern part of the USA and our collective United Methodist response. What was bothering me was the comparative lack of attention our global church was giving to the typhoons that were ripping through southeast Asia. The Philippines, with its significant United Methodist presence, had suffered through Typhoon Bopha with a death count surpassing 1,000 but you could hardly be faulted if you didn’t notice(2).
But what really bothers me about this all isn’t the church’s less than impartial response, it’s that when I am honest, I don’t seem to care as much about those lives either.
Enter those disturbing words of Jesus:
“If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.” -Luke 6:32-36
Jesus calls us to love as God loves. That is so hard to do.
Our United Methodist sisters and brothers in the Philippines are hardly our enemies, yet why is it so hard to create the same room in our hearts? And closer to home, the many deaths that occur due to gun violence in more urban areas, even those involving children, don’t seem to raise our national interest much. Is it nationality, ethnicity, social status, or geographical location that dictates our affection? Do we only grieve the young, the innocent, those whose deaths were somehow determined to be buzz-worthy by the media? Do I have to be able to imagine it happening to me, or to those I love, in order for my empathy to be fully engaged? And if this is the case, are we truly incarnating God’s love or simply loving the reflection of ourselves imposed on the other?
As United Methodists, we believe in a God who distributes her love without regard to the divisions we see when we look at the world. As Christians we understand that we are called out by Jesus to embody that way of divinely indiscriminate love – even to our enemies. Yet, in the face of a seemingly endless series of calamities, exhaustion and a resigned indifference are our companions too often on the journey.
The crazy thing is this, I want to care more.
I want the horrible things in the world to make me cry without white-haired Anderson Cooper needing to interrupt my workout. I want a faith community that equips me to see the world that is really there, as God sees it. I want help to feel without feeling powerless. I want to belong to a group of people who are empowered to respond with hope for those who suffer and to change the underlying systems that perpetuate injustice with them. I don’t think that I am alone.
In this information age where so much suffering is literally at our fingertips, perhaps the church’s primary task should be something grander than pumping up worship attendance stats. What if we redoubled our efforts to tell the stories that need to be told, both to ourselves and to the world, seriously investing in the best practices of today and tomorrow? What if we committed to transforming our faith communities into places that help people to listen, feel, and respond by making the best use of inherited and innovative spiritual practices? What if our online collaboration moved beyond the incidental and accidental toward a reenvisioned connectionalism; allowing the cloud to collate and redistribute the best we collectively do and freeing us to act without needlessly duplicating efforts?
The sad events of recent months does convince me of one thing. The world needs God’s church as much as ever and we don’t seem to be quite up to the task…yet. Paint me an optimist though, I don’t think the question is best put: Can we be the church the world needs? After all, with God all things are possible. The better question is instead: Will we be the church the world needs? Wrestling with that question is equally frightening and exciting.
1. There is an excellent post on some of the the more disappointing theological expressions on the Christian Century blog by Carol Howard Merritt. LINK
2. Please note I am commenting on the relationship between coverage and degree of tragedy; and our collective interest in those stories. The United Methodist Church is responding to communities impacted by Hurricane Bopha through UMCOR and local faith communities. I do not mean to belittle in any way the work of those on the ground and communicators like UM photo journalist Paul Jeffrey who have been engaged in telling the story. LINK