Guns as Idolatry

gunsI have to admit, I grew up loving all types of guns. I was the typical full-blooded American boy. I could turn anything into a gun. Give me a stick, it’s a gun. Give me a pile of Lego’s and guess what I would always create . . . a gun! And then Star Wars came out and I wanted to be Han Solo with a laser gun strapped to my waist. Every young boy is fascinated with guns. But this is the realm of fantasy, whether it is imitating a cowboy, a sci-fi space pirate, a gangster or a cop. My teen years were even more influenced by the way of the gun to solve problems through the cinematic influences of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis. There are no aliens, terminators, Nazi’s, Russian’s, or bad guys that a good gun with an all-American superhero could not stop.

Unfortunately our country is in a moral quandary with the fact that we are seeing more and more actual gun violence playing out in real-life America. It is getting to the point where it seems like every week we are introduced to another news story of someone taking out their grievances by using guns on innocent victims. Whenever this happens it seems like a majority of Americans are broken by the cycle of violence that we seem to find ourselves in. And yet there seems to be a small but powerful segment of America that digs their heals in and praises the 2nd Amendment  despite all the gun violence we are experiencing as a nation. Now I have no problem if someone chooses to own a gun for the purposes of hunting or home protection. But what I am witnessing is that the gun has become a form of idolatry within our country. When the “right” to own certain types of weaponry trumps the lives of innocent victims, I have a problem with that, especially with those who claim to be apart of the community of Christians.

I will be straight up, I have never owned a weapon. I can’t justify it theologically, nor do I feel that I would want to bear the responsibility to own one. With kids in my home and working as a pastor, I see that owning a weapon would be hypocritical to what I believe. First of all, I am not a hunter. I have no problem with those who choose to do so, but this born-and-raised suburbanite could not find the will to kill any of God’s creation. I couldn’t do it. I will leave that task up to people who have a stomach for that type of thing.

Have I ever shot weapons for sport? Absolutely! I have been to gun ranges. I have shot clay pigeons. And I actually enjoy the sport of paintball in that you can actually play games against each other without death and carnage occurring. I grew up on video games with digital guns (especially Goldeneye!), and I loved movies with lots of guns, superheroes and villains.

But there is a difference between fantasy and reality. Our country has a huge obsession with weapons and we fail to see the benefit to having a conversation about how we can best protect the greater good of people and still respect responsible gun owners. We desperately need to have this conversation. Instead, we see the NRA, backed by some of its supporters, constantly raising the warning that the government is coming to take you guns away and destroy the 2nd amendment. This simply is fear-mongering at its worst. And what is the purpose of such fear mongering? To sell more weapons. The NRA played this card all throughout the Obama administration. Any suggestion to talk about gun violence and gun safety was always met with cries that they are coming for your guns! Now that our own kids who are victims of gun violence are speaking up they are being called out as terrorists and liberals.

I have heard tired and lazy arguments to blame everything else other than the easy access we have created within our culture to be able to get any type of weapon you want. It’s video games! It’s the entertainment industry! It’s medications! It’s mental health! It’s the breakdown of the family! It’s because we took God out of the schools (which actually is HORRIBLE theology of God’s omnipresence)! We want to blame everything else other than the fact that we have ridiculously easy access to weaponry that is designed to kill as many people as possible in a short amount of time.

So, being that I have never gone through the process of actually owning any type of weapon, I propose the following if it is not already law:

  1. Buying a gun should have a process that is similar to getting a driver’s license. One should have to get a license to own a weapon. I understand that this is the case but there are still loopholes in which people can buy weapons without going through this process. Recently a news story showed an underage boy trying to buy cigarettes, alcohol and pornography at a local convenient store and got denied in all three instances. But then they took him down to a gun show where within minutes he walked away with a high-powered weapon. He was a 13 year old.
  2. Which brings me to my second point, the age of owning a gun needs to go up to 21. Now that we better understand the brain development of teens, and their ability to be impulsive without thinking thorough the consequences of their actions, we should not be providing them with weapons that kill. Give them time to develop and grow. They need to earn the responsibility to own a weapon.
  3. When a teenager causes a death that was influenced by being under the influence of alcohol the parents are held responsible if the alcohol came from their home. I am tired of mindless parents of school shooters having no clue that their kid was into said violence. This is not responsible gun ownership or parenting. They need to start bearing the responsibility for the actions of their child/teen. Having high-powered weaponry easily available to their kids is the height of irresponsibility. We hear a lot about “law-abiding” gun owners but let’s talk about RESPONSIBLE gun owners instead. If your kids uses your guns to shoot up a bunch of innocents then you lost your responsibility to own guns and you should be held accountable for the consequences.
  4. There needs to be a national gun registry. We need to be able to track where weapons have come from and hold those people responsible. The government already knows what vehicles I own and apparently anyone can pull up a CarFax to know the history of my cars. Why can’t this be done within the context of weapons?
  5. The CDC needs to be able to study gun violence. Why would we not want this? And the bigger question is why would the NRA prevent this from happening? The more we know, the better equipped we will be to tackle this plague of gun violence within our country.
  6. One should have to have a certain amount of recorded training in order to own a weapon. My teens have to go through 50 hours of driving experience with a licensed adult in order to qualify to take their driving test! Why can’t we require this type of training before one can own a gun?
  7. I am tired of our politicians being owned by special-interest lobbies, in this case, the NRA. The NRA bears some of the responsibility for where we have found ourselves because they stoke the flames of fear that people are trying to eradicate the 2nd Amendment and do all they can to prevent legitimate research that would help us know more about when, where and why gun violence is happening. We need to vote out politicians who accept money from the NRA and ignore the voices of those who voted them in. I have not found one quote in which someone wants to eradicate the 2nd amendment. I want gun owners to be responsible and not cave in to the constant fear-mongering of the NRA. Is it just me, or is it not so obvious that this constant fear-mongering helps to sell more guns which benefits the gun manufacturers? Someone is becoming ridiculously rich off all this fear mongering. Why do people cave into this so easily? Is it just plain ignorance, gullibility, or naivety? There is no doubt in my mind that we have experienced a “dumbing-down” in America. Have we just become that stupid that we do not see when we are being played?

And finally, the most disappointing thing I believe in all of this is that the church is not the leading voice in wanting to stop this carnage. We as Christians need to speak up louder against gun violence. This is a BIG pro-life issue! It is the height of hypocrisy to act so sanctimonious about life in the womb but ignore lives affected by gun violence. If you believe that there is a real devil who is out to destroy God’s creation then you have to see that he is celebrating our idolatry to weapons and reveling about each loss of life. The Bible teaches that he has come to kill, steal and destroy. If you are defending the current state that we find ourselves in you can not claim to be following the way of Jesus. Jesus is the Prince of Peace who told his followers to turn the other cheek, pray for your enemies, and to bless those who curse you. He was the very one who took on all the violence directed at him on the cross and defeated all his enemies through love, self-sacrifice, non-violence and resurrection. We are encouraged to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven”. We are supposed to be ushering in a new way of life as a community that is radically different from the status-quo, yet the modern-day American church has unfortunately become a mere reflection of our culture. We have allowed empire worship to trump Christ worship and we don’t see the difference between the two.

I have been a youth pastor all my life. I am grieved beyond words for the kind of country we have created for our kids. We have been in a perpetual war ever since 9/11, we are spending ridiculous amounts on our military while Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water and Puerto Rico doesn’t have full power. I honestly believe that we have become more of a reflection of the Biblical state of Babylon than the mythical “Christian nation” that some still believe. It is time we stop hunkering down to protect our “rights” and begin to break out of our selfishness and lust for power, and start thinking about what is best for the next generation of kids growing up. It is time to take our eyes off of the idols we have created and focus back on our kids who are dying. It is easy to read the Bible and be horrified that the Israelites got to the point where they were literally sacrificing their children to the god Molech. But I fail to see the difference between that and where we are at right now. We have more innocent Americans who have been murdered by gun violence within our country than service people in the line of duty! That’s just crazy and should be a big wake-up call for our entire country but especially the Church!

So if you are a Christian and a gun owner, I would encourage you to advocate for sensible gun laws and consider what is best for the greater good of humanity. Think about your own children, think about your local schools, think about your communities. Every mass shooting has the same response: “I never thought it would happen here!” Why do we have to defend our rights until the violence comes to our own communities? Let’s come together as the body of Christ and be the kingdom that we are called to be and shake off the dirt of the Empire that we are entangled in.

Lord have mercy on this nation.

Scott Russ

Stories of Homelessness throughout America

I just finished Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski. This book details a journey that lead Mike to spend several months of his life living on the streets of major cities throughout the country. Mike states that according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the United States has more than 3.5 million homeless people at any given year.

Mike began his journey by first finding a traveling companion. Sam signed up for the challenge and off they went to their first big city, Denver. They spend about a month in each city they travel to. This gives them time to acclimate themselves, and figure out how to find basic resources for themselves. They go from Denver, to Washington DC, Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix, and San Diego. These two catalogue their journey as they panhandle for food, make friends with other homeless people, encounter danger, dehydration, hunger, and rejection from others. They both come to terms with the safety and security that we all try to strive for so that we would not normally ever have to come in contact with homelessness. Their experience helped to humanize those that we typically ignore or dehumanize.

Scripture became real to them as they were reminded that Jesus led by example in caring for the poor, the sick, the diseased and the sinner. They also realized the importance of taking care of peoples’ basic needs instead of just preaching at them. They understood that they needed to see the image of God through the homeless just as much as anyone else they would encounter.

Mike and Sam had quite the experiences with different types of churches and missions. Some where positive and some where not. It was hard to read some of the stories of churches behaving badly toward the homeless. But it was also a reminder that of all the places that a homeless person ought to find help it should be a church or mission that claims the name of Jesus.

The final chapter of the book details Mike and Sam’s assimilation back into their “normal” lives. They soon realized that their experience changed them forever. They quickly became uncomfortable with comfort. They began to see how many in the church have an easy time enjoying the blessings that they have but forget to share their resources with others. When you lack nothing and have just about everything you want, that in itself becomes a trap that can close ourselves off to the needs of the world and our ability to help. Also, they realized that on the streets they learned what it meant to really depend on God to help meet their basic needs. And finally, they discovered that if you truly understand how much God loves us while we were still sinners, we would be more intentional about sharing his love with others, even in the little things: a smile, a drink, some food, recognizing someone’s own humanity and dignity. We are not supposed to be about our own feel-good, warm-fuzzy religiousity but instead we are supposed to go out of our comfort zones and love others just as Christ has loved us.

Another great resource to help understand poverty is A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne.

Mike Erre and the VOX Podcast

I guess you could say that I am a Mike Erre fan when I admit that I have listened, to date, to all 119 episodes including his 9 part series on sex and marriage. Mike used to be a pastor of several churches in California up until he believed that he needed to come back to the great state of Ohio to care for his mom. He currently resides in Columbus. A bonus would be that he is a big Buckeye’s fan! In fact his 119th podcast I thought was morphing into a sports podcast, which, either way is fine with me.

I love Mike’s take on modern day Christianity and his willingness to ask questions, wrestle with topics and the way he gets you to consider other angles. He is never afraid to wade into touchy topics, nor is he not afraid to call out someone else’s poor theology and choices, but always in a gracious and kind way.

Now for the negative: 1) why do you hate on us coffee people, Mike? You are missing out on God’s beverage given to us with grace and love. 2) All you drink is Coors Lite? GROSS! That’s like preferring your water from the toilet. Expand your palette and try a hearty IPA or Lager! You would have so much more respect if you broadened your horizons with your morning and evening beverages!

Overall I love this podcast. My son learned about Mike at college and encouraged me to give his podcast a try. I did, and with the first few episodes I was hooked. I was especially excited when Mike turned out to be a keynote speaker, via Skype, at a conference I attended out in California this past Fall. When you are listening to Mike you can tell he knows his stuff and he isn’t afraid to challenge different views with wisdom and grace. I don’t necessarily agree with him on everything, especially beer and coffee, but he is enjoyable to listen to and he gets you to think and consider different ways of looking at topics that impact the Christian faith. The fact that he records his podcast in his house means that, every once in a while, you have the added bonus of family interruptions which are awesome.

The Very Worst Missionary

This was a fascinating memoir written by Jamie Wright who shares her life’s journey that led her to becoming a missionary. What is captivating about her story is how she deconstructs the idea of what it means to be a missionary and the reality of what is actually happening. Evangelical Christianity has a tendency to put those called to be missionaries on a very high pedestal. But through her own experiences and her honesty, Jamie recalls the dichotomy of what she could portray of herself on the internet as a missionary and the reality of what the experience was actually like. She is honest about her own experiences, her own shortcomings and mistakes, and what she observed about the missionary culture in Costa Rica. She pulls back the covers on the evangelical church’s culture and how it emulates missionaries. Jamie describes how she went with great expectations to change the world but instead found out that the reality of her experience did not match up. With brutal honesty she started a blog titled Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, where she doesn’t hold anything back but begins to critique herself and her experiences with missions. Anybody involved in any type of mission work needs to read this book but be ready for some hilarious stories, “salty” language and some harsh truths that critique our modern day concept of missions. If the rose-colored glasses of your Christian faith are smudged and cracked from your experiences with church or missions then this book helps us to be honest with ourselves and the reality of our brokenness, individually and as a church.

Still Christian

I just recently read a great book by David P. Gushee entitled “Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism”. It is a story that details the authors’ personal journey through modern day evangelicalism as a leading Christian ethicist. This book details the story of a educator who found his roots in the conservative church but over the course of time found himself on the outskirts of the evangelical world. The book details the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist denomination as well as the evangelical quest for political power through the election of Trump. Eventually the author comes to terms with supporting the LGBT community through his essays detailed in his book “Changing Our Minds”. Gushee also highlights the negative reactions he got from his tribe over this change of heart.

I really enjoyed reading this book because many of Gushee’s insights into modern day American evangelicalism resonated with me and the journey I have been on since I was a child. I would highly recommend “Still Christian” to anyone who has journeyed through conservative American evangelicalism and finds themselves asking questions, having doubts about what they are seeing from their church or denomination, and struggling to keep the faith. As a side, I would also highly recommend “Changing Our Mind” for anyone interested in following the steps that led one of the leading Christian ethicists of our time to have a better understanding about LGBT people and how the church should respond to them.

Reflections on My 40’s

Every time a new decade of life comes and goes it causes me to reflect on how the past 10 years have gone in relation to previous decades and what I have to look forward to in the decade ahead.

As I look back on the last 10 years I would have to say that this was one of the best. I absolutely enjoyed watching my kids grow into their teenage years and go through the youth group. I was nervous with my first-born when he entered into the youth group in 7th grade but he got involved and seemed to enjoy it most of the time! Same with my other three kids when the time came for them to enter into youth group.

Now that is not to say that Shelly and I didn’t have some difficult moments trying to raise teenagers. Oh we have some stories to tell. It just wouldn’t be fair to my kids to detail those moments in a blog. But the fact is, I think that, in my own fallenness and dysfunction, my choice of parenting did more good than harm. I am proud of how my kids are turning out and how they are thinking and perceiving their world and their faith. I really enjoyed watching Zach play football, the girls play lacrosse and cross county, and Ben being in show choir, cross country, volleyball and being an all around theatre geek like I was in high school. I also have had the pleasure of leading all four of them on some amazing mission trips which I believe have really impacted their lives. And finally all four of them went through Confirmation and were baptized here at our church.

I would also say that this was a great decade for our marriage. I feel like a lot of rough edges I had have definitely softened. Either that or Shelly has learned to put up with me. But I think that the both of us have grown closer to each other through the process of raising kids. And this is a good thing because as a youth minister, I have seen way to many marriages break up once the kids left the house and the couple realized they really didn’t have much of a relationship. That’s not true of us. I have also seen pastors’ kids completely walk away from the faith. In God’s mercy and grace, my kids seem to still maintain a strong faith.

Another thing that made this decade special is the fact that I have been at the same church through it all. Once again though, we as a church family have certainly had our up’s and down’s. I have had the opportunity to work for one of the best pastor’s in my career and also for one of the most “challenging”. The church has had some really great moments and some that where just bad, but through it all we stuck together, learned from our mistakes, and through all of our ecclesiastical dysfunction we are still being used by God in incredible ways. We have had a handful of senior pastors go through our church and just about everyone of them seem to think it is a great idea to get the youth pastor to act like an idiot in front of a camera to promote their next event or sermon series. I am beginning to wonder if I need an agent. In all the video’s I have been in I have had the honor of being Donald Trump (Apprentice skit), the Mayhem guy from Allstate, Superman, among many other skits, videos and special appearances. One of the best moments was when I was supposed to be a disciple at the last supper with the senior pastor being Jesus. Congregation members would come into the room and they would be served communion once we did a little “Jesus talking with his disciples” drama. The only thing was that, after doing this so many times the pastor started to break character when he would make eye contact with me and I could tell he was getting a case of the giggles. I know, not the right context for that to happen, but it happened. We pulled it together and finished the night.

And how many times can I say that I love what I do! To be able to be at the same church for over 13 years now and see a youth ministry grow and develop has been awesome. I owe a lot of what I have become here at this church to the senior pastor who hired me. He found me when I was ready to give up on church ministry as a career and he helped me rediscover who God created me to be. In the process I became an official United Methodist youth pastor. I have really enjoyed the opportunities I have had to work with teens and the best adult volunteers to raise up the next generation of Christians. Every year I mourn the loss of another great Senior class but get equally excited when my new batch of 7th graders come into the ministry!

This was also the decade of dogs! I never grew up with pets so this was a new experience for me. While my kids where going through their teen years dad was not as cool as he was when they were little ones. But with dogs all that changed! I felt like the superhero coming home again! The dogs always celebrate loudly whenever any of us come home, but to this fragile dad ego, it took on a more special meaning. I have one big, lazy dog named Abby who would sprint out the door if no one was paying attention. My little dog named Buckeye thinks he is a tough guy. Whenever I take them out for walks, Buckeye would always bite the leash and hold it as if he was walking me. He would also fight against the leach demanding his emancipation. I think that is why he tried so hard to act like he was walking me instead of me walking him.

Throughout this decade I feel like I finally got the edge on my depression. I really wrestled with this quite a bit until my doctor got the right combination of meds that have helped me feel completely normal. But it wasn’t until my mid-40’s that we figured this out. Funny story: we found the right type of medication to work but a certain side effect that we discovered was that I started to put on a few pounds. So I just stopped taking the medication cold turkey. It was a very small dosage so I didn’t think stopping would make much of a difference other than bringing my weight back under control. Uncharacteristically, after a few days had passed and the effects of the medication wore off, I spent four very melancholy days crying about anything and everything. At a certain point my reasonable wife said to call my doctor back and get back on that medicine. Wouldn’t you know, I have felt great every since.

This is also the decade of watching my kids grow with excellent grandparents on both sides of the family. Shelly and I are blessed to both have parents who, through good and bad times, are still together and are healthy. They have all been a real positive influence on my kids. I never knew my biological grandfathers so it means a lot to me that at least these old Boomers have had a wonderful impact on my kids growing up.

Overall it has been a great decade. I am especially glad that there was so many positive influences in helping me and my wife to raise our kids. As I look to my next decade, God willing, I hope to see what kinds of careers my kids will fall into and how God will use them. This decade Shelly and I will become empty nesters. We have two more years of high school with Ben then he will head out. Of course college students have a way of coming back home for some time so the empty nest may not be just two years away, I know. I am really looking forward to the next decade to see what God has in store.