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Down by the Riverside


     No songs today.
     No joyous recounting of trips to the river. 
     Only muffled sobs and the shock of loss.
     Another mass shooting. This time Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Nineteen children and two teachers dead.
     It could have been my grandson, Emmett, going to public school this fall. Or my grandnephews, Victor, Parker, and Elliott, or their mom, Catie, who works as a para-professional at their school. Or my sister, Sharon, or my nieces, Brenda and Michelle, all teachers. Or my grandniece, Emma, just turned 16, the same age as Tate Myre, one of the four students gunned down at Oxford High School last November.
     Or, it could have been one of the children or grandchildren of members of the NRA who oppose any restriction on access to guns. They love their families as much as I love mine. Based on what I see on social media, they hope the guns they carry will protect their loved ones if they are threatened by an intruder.
     But that's a fantasy. An illusion fed by movies and video games in which the brave hero saves the world by shooting all the bad guys.
     In real life, people are more likely to be killed by their own guns than protected by them, whether from accidental injury, homicide, or suicide. A 2015 study by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center reported that ordinary citizens are more likely to be injured after threatening attackers with guns than if they'd called the police or run away.*
     Nor do I want a well-meaning civilian shooting up a public place in response to a real or perceived threat. Leave that to law enforcement, who are trained and accountable.

     This madness of mass shootings must stop.
     In the 7th century BCE, the Israelite prophet Jeremiah stood at a site in the Hinnom Valley outside Jerusalem where human sacrifice was practiced. While some of the details are unclear, it appears that children were burned there as an offering to the Canaanite gods of Baal and Molech. Jeremiah condemned the site and prophesied that it would become a mass grave for inhabitants of Jerusalem during the coming invasion of the city. "Because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent," he said.**

       My neck prickles with horror.
      What would Jeremiah tell us, whose schoolrooms and supermarkets and churches have become places of sacrifice? Would he say that we are as much in thrall to the gun lobby as the ancient Israelites were to the pagan god Baal? Would he say that we, like worshippers of Molech, are making our children "pass through fire"?
     It sickens me that the curriculum in schools across the country must include active shooter drills. That teachers are told to bring belts to their classrooms to help construct barricades. That supply cabinets contain materials to quickly staunch the flow of blood.
     We sacrificed our children to the great god Gun.

     Understand, I have no argument with hunters. We walk through the same woods in the autumn, breathing the crisp air, rustling through fallen leaves. In winter, we look for deer tracks in the same snow. We love many of the same things.
     And I know that many responsible gun owners teach gun safety, and make sure their weapons are secure.
     But no one—apart from the military and law enforcement—should have legal access to assault rifles. We cannot know for sure whether every person who enters a school, supermarket, church, synagogue, university, concert venue, or dance club is not suffering from a mental illness. But we can try to make sure they are not armed with military-style weapons.

     Yesterday, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who represents the Sandy Hook community where 26 elementary school students and educators were killed in December 2012, pleaded with his colleagues for a compromise on reasonable gun control.
     Today I am writing my representative, Elissa Slotkin, to ask if the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bi-partisan group that championed her Lend-Lease Act to help Ukraine, could do something about this war in our streets. I will ask her for universal background checks, an age limit of 21 for the purchase of any gun, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault-style rifles for everyone except the military and law enforcement.
     Tomorrow I will write to those who represent me in the Senate, where gun control legislation favored by a majority of Americans has repeatedly been blocked by a filibuster of Republican legislators.
     It's hard not to feel hopeless. But I will keep trying.
     And I will join others at the Capitol Building in Lansing for "Woke Wednesdays" simply to stand and pray and write letters. "No talking, no demonstrating," the carpool organizer said. "Just standing against the violence."
     I will stand in grief and mute fury like the ancient Israelites in exile who hung up their harps in the willow trees rather than sing for their captors.
     There's a place on the Huron River in Island Lake Recreation Area where the remains of three huge willow trees stand by the water's edge. I will go there and weep. 

     When Ed and I were walking at Hudson Mills Metropark this morning, we heard the voices of children in the distance. "Maybe toddlers at the playground?" I said to Ed. Then we came upon a group of six schoolchildren walking with an adult chaperone who was carrying a clipboard while the kids were peering into the vegetation along the trail. It looked to be a scavenger hunt.
     "Hello, fellow hikers," one cheerful kid called out to Ed and me.
     "We have to find a potato," another kid confided.
     I could have told him that both skunk cabbage and cattails have fleshy, tuber-like roots. But the only way this kid would find a potato along the trail would be if the teacher who created this fun science activity had placed it there ahead of time.
     May we show the same creativity and foresight as this teacher to protect our children's lives.
     May all children walk in the woods, in their classrooms, in their neighborhoods, in our nation—wherever their feet take them—joyously and unafraid.
     It's up to us.

"On the willows there we hung up our harps." Psalm 137:2 (NRSV)
Playlist: "On the Willows," Stephen Schwartz, Godspell, 1973.

*"Will a Gun Keep Your Family Safe? Here's What the Evidence Says," https://www.thetrace.org/2020/04/gun-safety-research-coronavirus-gun-sales/ ** Jeremiah 19:4-14, 2 Kings 23:10

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Yankee Jim Canyon, Yellowstone River, Montana

     You don't want to be following us when we're driving down a two-lane highway that goes alongside a whitewater river. Ed and I will be craning our necks to look at the rapids and plotting how we would paddle through each one. Then, when a bridge over the river appears, we will slam on the brakes and pull off to the shoulder. Walking out on the bridge, we'll look down at the bouncing water to continue our discussion of which rock to dodge and which downstream "V" to ride.
     You see, we're following in the tracks of a beat-up brown van we once saw with two equally-abused kayaks tied on top. The van sported a bumper sticker which said, "This vehicle stops at all river crossings." It was a parody of the decals you see on the rear door of busses and other service vehicles warning that—just to be safe—the driver will brake at every railroad crossing.
     So many fine miles we've spent driving alongside whitewater rivers or standing on bridges above them, looking down. The Nantahala River along Highway 19, for example, on our way to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in Bryson City, North Carolina. The New River along Highway 20 near Hinton, West Virginia. Or, the Yellowstone River along Highway 89 in Montana through Yankee Jim Canyon. Now, at this stage in our lives, we'd have no business paddling Yankee Jim—we'd get trashed in the Class III-IV stacked rapids.
     But it's still fun to look.
     During one visit to North Carolina, we stood on a bridge to watch some Olympic kayakers weave back and forth through the training gates set up in a slalom over a rapids on the property of NOC. The helmeted and spray-skirted young men and women were like demi-gods to me. I used to pore over whitewater guidebooks like I studied Bible commentaries, hoping to find some secret knowledge, some key to success that would allow me to ferry my canoe through gnarly rapids with the same insouciant ease. Such skill, to me, was a taste of immortality.
     Our car stops at all river crossings.
     In some camp songs and gospel hymns, crossing a river is a metaphor for entering the afterlife. Going to heaven. Receiving eternal life. Whatever phrase you want to use. "The Jordan River is chilly and cold," one song goes, "chills the body, but not the soul." Michael, row the boat ashore. The image is that of crossing over to the other side, that unknown place after death.
     We have to use metaphors because no one really knows what happens when you die. In recent decades, advances in medical technology have allowed us to hear reports about tunnels and bright lights from people who've had near-death experiences, but for most of human history, poetry has had to suffice.
     When we first started hearing about COVID-19 deaths, when horrifying reports came from Italy that bodies were piling up because the morgues were full, I told myself, "You, too, could die anytime." But the reality of that truism didn't really sink in until last summer when my good friend, Barbara Lewis-Lakin, died at 67—not of COVID, but of cancer. Since then, I've been thinking a lot about death. The death of my loved ones. My death.
     Perhaps these obsessive thoughts are an attempt to inoculate myself against the bare fact that death comes. If I worry enough about it, maybe it won't happen.
     As a pastor, I'm no novice at death. I've sat in hospitals and nursing facilities and hospice units and family homes with people who are dying. One man, unmarried, middle-aged, who had hidden his cancer from his parents until it was too late for treatment, took his last breath at the very moment that I spoke the words from the 23rd Psalm, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." Though I finished gamely with the rest of the verse, "I will fear no evil, for thou art with me," we all were spooked. His mother reached forward and gently closed the eyes in his yellowed face.
     I remember sitting with another man, Dan Brown, a stout, square-faced beer salesman who'd served on a Navy destroyer in World War II. Dan told me about a great sea battle in October 1944 that they called "The Battle of the Tin Cans" because a few U.S. destroyers held off five Japanese battleships. Dan had a large, elaborate anchor tattooed in blue on his right forearm. He told me proudly that nowadays young men with spiky hair wearing chains and studs would come up and admire his tattoos.
     Once when Dan was at home on leave from the Navy, a hostile neighbor was speaking belligerently and strutting around his front porch showing off his muscles. Dan said to him, "You want a piece of me?" The neighbor backed down. Dan was a fighter.

     Underneath his tough exterior, though, Dan was also a lover. He'd been married twice, first to Nora, then to Ruth, and at age 85, still had an eye for pretty women. One of the first things that people in the church told me about Dan was how faithfully he had cared for Ruth when she got dementia. Every day he went to the nursing home and ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with her—for three years—until she died.
     In his last week of his life, Dan told me that he kept seeing Nora, Ruth, his parents, and his deceased sister Louise, standing in the corner of the room. "They're waiting for me," he said. I'd heard something similar from other parishioners—that their loved ones had come to help them make their passage into the next life.
     When my mother, Mary Smith, died in April of 2019, the last word I heard her speak was "Ma." She, too, was staring off into the distance at something or someone I could not see. I first assumed she was calling out for her mother, Rosalie Inwood. But she also could also have been speaking to Ma Peterson, a woman she'd met at a religious camp meeting and who'd been a significant spiritual mentor when she was young. It comforted me, anyway, to think that my mother was being welcomed into heaven by people she had loved.
     So, maybe it's safe to follow Ed and me after all. Though I'm in no hurry to cross over, I hope to be greeted by those who've gone before me. Likewise, I hope to be among those who welcome my loved ones when it's their time to go to the other side of the river.
     And you, when you need it most, may you hear someone calling to you, "Come on over. The water's fine."

"I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you… I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." John 14:18,3 (NRSV).
Playlist: "Moon River," Peter Mayer, Elements, 2001.

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Blown Down

     Ten years ago, on March 15, 2012, Ed and I heard a news report that a tornado had gone through Dexter, Michigan, twenty miles from where we lived in South Lyon. We knew many people in that area. But we didn't fully comprehend the extent of the damage until three months later on June 24 when we went canoeing on the Huron River through Dexter.   
     We saw large tree trunks snapped in half twenty feet up. We saw other trees blown down entirely, their upturned root wads lining the river with walls of dirt and twisted sticks.
     The slow-moving tornado had produced winds of 120-140 mph, touching down within sight of Hudson Mills Metropark (the place where we'd just launched), and moving parallel to Huron River Drive. One hundred homes had been damaged, in some places the roof joists strewn like straw.  
     Fortunately, no one had been killed.
     Money and donations had poured into Faith in Action, a local social service agency. Our friend, Nancy, the director of Faith in Action, had scrambled to set up a disaster relief fund with oversight by a local bank. She was putting in twelve-hour days to help coordinate relief efforts and to distribute funds and supplies.
     "What can I do to help?" I'd asked her over the phone. "I'm no good with a chain saw."
     "Not much right now," she said wearily. "I've got piles of used clothing I don't know what to do with. The trick is getting everyone and everything to the right place." Another call buzzed in at her end. "I've got to go," she said.
     "I'll pray for you," I'd said.
     Ed and I canoed through another corridor of root wads from overturned trees. What would it be like to be out on the river, unprotected, when such a storm came through? You'd be lucky to survive.
     We passed the wreckage in silence.
     A chain saw fired up in the distance. I felt vaguely guilty to be out playing when others were working so hard to clean up, even three months after the storm. It was like being tourists in a war zone. But this canoe trip wasn't only for pleasure. We were scouting the river before we took a young family on a guided trip they'd won at our church auction.
     I pushed my paddle hard into the current.
     When I hear news coverage about the war in Ukraine today, I feel some of the same helpless guilt I felt while canoeing after the Dexter tornado. There seems to be so little I can do. I can pray for the people of Ukraine, and give money for disaster relief. As so many others are doing. But how long can the Ukrainian army hold out against the Russian juggernaut?
     The war in Ukraine is not a natural disaster—this disaster has been caused by human beings. In particular, by a powerful, ego-driven leader who has been systemically silencing any who oppose him. What do we do when something terrible is happening and our efforts to make things better feel inconsequential?
     Our pastor said we should pray for Vladimir Putin, that his heart will be changed.
     I have prayed for Putin. I've prayed for God to strike him dead.
     I know—it's not a very Christian sentiment. But I'm not the first or only person to feel this way. I join my voice with the psalmist who prayed that God would "break the teeth of the wicked." (Psalm 3:7) In another part of the Bible, the prophet Jeremiah said to God in bewildered pain, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" Jeremiah wanted the wicked to be culled "like sheep for the slaughter." (Jeremiah 12:1,3)
     Take that, you scum.

     When I called our friend Nancy to check the facts for this blog, she and I talked about Ukraine and about the polarized political situation in the United States. Nancy said that we're being "lazy" when we pray for God to take down our enemies. "It's a quest for easy answers," she said. As always, she is so wise. I would add, though, that we also pray this way because we're frightened and exhausted. Of course we want help from a higher power if we believe that corrupt and self-serving leaders have thrown down the timbers of the house of democracy and sent them whirling in a violent storm.
     I guess I can pray that God will give me the strength to see the suffering of others and to do what is in my power to do. I saw on Facebook that some enterprising souls started buying nights at Ukrainian Airbnbs as a way of donating money directly to the Ukrainian people. Most religious denominations have disaster relief organizations already in place. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has already sent almost a million dollars worth of medical supplies. I can pray for these organizations and for the pilots who fly the planes bringing aid and for the brave relief workers on the ground. I can pray for those U.S. and world leaders who are creating strategies to oppose Putin without starting World War III.
     And here at home, when a storm of whatever size or cause comes through, I can hearken to the point-of-view espoused by Mary, the mother of Jesus, who praised God for having "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." (Luke 1:52). If this is God's plan, I, too, can oppose the proud and help the humble.
     As for Putin, I leave him in God's hands. Which is where he is anyway.
     Lord, have mercy.
     On us all.

Scripture: Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Do Something," Matthew West, Into the Light, Sparrow Records, 2012. 

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