Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Winning the war on terrorists: the good, bad, and ugly ways

I have spent some time pondering how to win a war against terrorists. I think there are three possible strategies, that conveniently fall into line with a good way, a bad way, and an ugly way.

One brief note of clarification. This is a war on terrorists, not terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic used by groups fighting from an ideology. You cannot fight terrorism. It has been used from the beginning of warfare and will be used until war has been ended. This is a fight against people, human beings. They are not monsters. They are not inhuman. They do deeds that are considered monstrous and inhumane, but they themselves are flesh and blood.

One brief disclaimer. The bad and ugly strategies will be grounded in historical use. I am not claiming them to be "the best" way. I am just stating how similar tactics have been used in the past.

The Ugly
I will start with the ugliest tactic: the U.S. war against the Plains tribes. When westward expansion brought American and immigrant settlers into the Plains of what would become the central United States, those people encountered the indigenous people groups.

There were multiple tribes that did not possess that land but called it home. The tribes migrated north and south, following herds of bison. The tribes moved among one another. Sometimes it was peaceful. Sometimes it was not. Inter-tribal fighting was common. Raids and attacks were common. Times of peace would be negotiated but it was usually less peaceful than it sounds. But they also could understand the greater good. They knew when fighting was necessary and when it was pointless.

When these tribes encountered new people settled on the lands they were used to having unlimited access to, they treated the settlers the same way they treated other tribes. If it was pointless to fight, they left in peace. If they felt threatened or felt that their resources were threatened, they would raid or attack a homestead.

After enough attacks, the government saw that future interests in the region needed to be protected. The Plains Indian War began. This effort to pacify the region relied on three tactics: take away the greatest resource (bison), take away the freedom (reservations), and take away their culture (enculturalization). These tactics were carried out over the second half of the 19th century. It was a brutal effort to eradicate the lifestyle of the tribes (hostile and friendly) that lived in the central Plains of the territories of the U.S.

And the ugly truth is that it worked.

In a war against terrorists, this is an ugly tactic that could work. But for it to be effective, the nations that are declaring this war would have to diminish their humanity to accomplish it. They would not be able to separate combatants and non-combatants. All the people would have to be sequestered into designated lands with no resources. They would have to be committed to raids on population centers where there would be innocent women, children, elderly, and infirm with terrorists among them. The way of life and culture of these people would have to be completely subjugated to another culture. Native language would have to be replaced by an agreed upon common language. History and religion would have to be re-educated. Family structures would be required to disband and follow what is legislated. Don't allow people to keep their names, especially if it had any connection to their ancestors or their way of life.

The Bad

The bad tactic could be seen as viable since it is what is popular right now: indiscriminate bombing. A technological advance of the 20th century warfare was the use of aircraft to offer support to ground troops. But what became a support role was used to great effect in World War II, bombing of population centers and prime resource targets. In Germany and England, bombing raids were used to "soften" the opposition. It was used to remove potential stockpiling of weapons or personnel. It was used to destroy infrastructure. It was used to strike terror into the hearts and minds of the population. On both sides.

Bombing of large areas of jungle was also a tactic of the U.S. in Vietnam. The destruction of foliage was necessary to eliminate cover for the movement of enemy forces and resources.

Allied forces have used it to great extent against the militants in the Middle East. From the caves in the mountains of Afghanistan to the plains of northern Iraq, bombing has been used in similar fashion to what was done in the 20th century.

But this has proven ineffective.

Sure, it shows immediate results. We bomb a terrorist training camp and those are fewer trained terrorists we have to deal with down the road. We bomb a command post and we disrupt the communication lines connected to that post. We bomb a caravan of vehicles that are carrying supplies and this week they don't have what they need. But what are the long term results?

In Germany, bombing raids demoralized the citizens, but they also bonded together to watch over and take care of one another. In England, the Nazi bombing raids of Southern England developed a stronger bond among the people.

Bombing has an immediate effect on people: fear. But it has another effect: unity. And we have seen that continued bombing of prime targets has produced little effect in stopping terrorist attacks on larger targets. It, in fact, seems to accompany the increase of attacks.

The Good

The good tactic is one that is important to the military today: winning hearts and minds. I think this is the path to winning this. But it is one that very few people want to take. Stop and consider how many peace-loving people there are in the world. People who want to improve the quality of life for all people in the world. Terrorists win by convincing potential converts of the evil ways of their enemy. Terrorists win by drawing attacks against them and saying, "This is how they treat us." If we want to win this, it is time to change tactics.

What would happen if every church, every mosque, every synagogue, every ashram, every temple sent teams of "missionaries" into the places terrorists have the loudest voice, the biggest audience? What if we sent those people there to improve the quality of life of those who live there? What if we sent them there to build peaceful relationships, breaking down stereotypes, removing walls of distrust and alienation? What would happen if we started to treat people like people and not as potential enemies?

This is a way that can make a difference. But it would take too much effort to do this. We would have to overcome fear of injury, death, and the unknown. We would have to lay aside our own ideologies in order to partner with people who are vastly different. We would have to renounce any claim to superiority or success when someone else's method worked better. We would have to be humble and self-giving when we it is too natural to seek our own glory and needs.

We would have to follow a path that demands too much of us. It's just too easy to be bad and ugly when being good would win the war.

Monday, November 16, 2015

My sadness. My worry. My interpretation.

This weekend, the world turned its attention to Paris after multiple terrorist attacks killed about 130 people in separate venues. ISIS has been identified as the group responsible. This makes the third attack in 2 weeks that ISIS claims responsibility for perpetrating. It began with the downing of a Russian passenger plane. Then, in practically back to back events, locations in Beirut and Paris were attacked.

My sadness is not as much with the loss of lives in Paris. I am saddened by that. What saddens me more than anything is that Beirut has disappeared from public consciousness. It gets a passing mention, as if we were well passed the pain and power of that attack. The Beirut attack, a double bombing by ISIS, was just one day before the Paris attacks. 43 people were killed in that attack. But the world did not leap to the defense of Palestine or the people of Beirut. There were no showers of support for the people of that nation.

I am saddened that those who were attacked in Beirut do not seem as important as the people in Paris. I am saddened that those who lost their lives are practically forgotten in the world arena. I am saddened that we may be so biased to an "us/them" mentality that has decided that we are more "us" with Europeans than with Middle Eastern people.

I am sad that we are a broken world.

I am also worried that ignorance, fear, and anger will cloud the forward progress of finding justice. Justice is not "let's pay them back for the harm they have done." Justice is not "bomb them into submission." Justice is treating all people according to the same level of humane treatment. Justice is insuring that we are making an effort to narrow the focus of actions only against those who have perpetrated the crime.

I am worried that people of any Middle Eastern ethnicity will be victimized by efforts to find the villain. I am worried that fear of the growing threat will be countered with overreaching, overreacting efforts to eliminate that threat. I heard one analyst say, "We have to decide what level of collateral is acceptable." If you know the language and read appropriately between the lines, that is the question of how many innocent people and the resources they need for life can be destroyed in order to get the villain. That is not justice.

I am worried that those in Syria will be turned back to the chaos and violence they are escaping by asking for refuge in Europe. The villains are using the masses to hide their infiltration into target areas. But not all of the people fleeing Syria are terrorists. In fact, the terrorists can't afford to insert that many into the refugees. Thousands of those who are fleeing Syria are just trying protect their families, their own lives. But in an effort to bolster an appearance of safety, I am worried that good people will either be turned back into a place of violence, a battleground in fact, or they will have to turn to underground, illegal means of finding security. In other words, the victims of violence will become an epidemic of trafficked humanity.

My interpretation of the events will be unsettling. It is only because what I am about to say will seem doomsaying. But there is a reality that people of this age will have to come to grips with: the world is changed.

There will be organized terrorist attacks closer to home. We will see more attacks across Europe. We will see more violence, increasing violence. This is terrorist war.

I wish this were not the case, but it is most likely what we will see.

But it doesn't have to undo us. It doesn't have to be a reason to lose hope. It doesn't have to be a reason to become divided or de-humanizing. The response to terror is "be not afraid." Terrorism tries to create panic and drive people out of the normal routines of life. It is a tactic to disrupt the lives they live. The way to disarm this tactic is increasing the unity of a people. The way to take away the terror is to find hope in the connections we share with our neighbor, our community, our nation, and the nations of the world.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Is it time to give up the Swiss Army?

This is my Swiss Army knife. I have carried it since college (over 20 years). It is in my pocket almost every day. If it isn't, I probably switched jeans/shorts in a hurry.

It isn't a fancy one. It has a couple of blades, a couple of screwdrivers, a pair of small pliers, and a punch. I carry it because of MacGyver. I loved that show. But I also carry it because it offers me tools to use in a pinch. I love my Swiss Army knife. But I wonder if it is time to retire it?

I would really like to have a Leatherman. In fact, I really want one of these:
I like it because it has more tools. The pliers are a little stronger. There are more blade varieties. The screwdriver has interchangeable bits to fit different sizes. It seems like it has more tools and better tools. It would be nice to have a multi-tool that can do everything I need it to. So I wonder if it is time to give up the Swiss Army to better serve my needs.

Swiss Army Pastor

As I wonder that, I am sitting at the computer in the church office. It is the time of year when Oklahoma United Methodists fill out the annual reports that are needed for our annual organizing Charge Conference. I am sitting here frustrated out of my mind over the time it takes to fill these out every year (many times without changing that many details). I am sitting here frustrated out of my mind over the lack of detailed information that I have available to fill them out. I am sitting here frustrated out of my mind because I am not a person gifted in administration or clerical order. I am sitting here with my back to my office desk because the clutter and disorganization of it emphasizes that last point.

And I wonder..... is it time to give up the idea of a Swiss Army pastor.

Churches love the idea of a Swiss Army pastor. The Conference staff loves the idea of a Swiss Army pastor. District Superintendents love the idea of a Swiss Army pastor. Even the Book of Discipline for the United Methodist Church loves the idea of a Swiss Army pastor.

By a Swiss Army pastor, I mean a person who can:
  • preach meaningful sermons every Sunday,
  • lead in depth Bible study,
  • lead engaging meetings,
  • fill out paperwork,
  • travel to multiple hospitals or care facilities to provide a caring presence,
  • go to the homes of the members and listen to their worries,
  • attend to Conference standards of continuing education and meetings that call for the loss of office time,
  • raise the funds necessary to provide for the financial needs of the functioning of the congregation,
  • be the visionary missional leader in the local context,
  • deal with the requests for financial aid or utility assistance or travel interruptions like running out of gas for people who don't attend the church but live in the community (or maybe don't),
  • reach every age group, every social group, every type of person living in the community in relevant/relatable ways,
  • attend all of the social functions in a community,
  • be emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy at all times,
  • be available at all times for those who aren't emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy,
  • be able to bring non-church going people into the church;
  • be able to keep church going people from leaving the church;
  • be available for every ministry function the church is doing;
  • and on, and on, and on.
One day I was reading the spiritual gifts lists in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 12, it states very clearly that everyone in the body has gifts. No one person has all of the gifts is the implication. It takes a collaborative effort to really make a church body move. But I consider the model of ministry that many denominations, congregations, and churches employ, and it is not biblical.

A pastor has a set number of gifts supplied by the Holy Spirit, just the same as anyone else in a body of believers. Those gifts will equip a pastor to serve in some capacity well. But the limited supply of those gifts means that the pastor is NOT equipped to do other things well.

In churches across the country, pastors are relied upon to carry the burden of a congregation in areas they are not equipped well to do. And I don't mean trained. I mean that the Holy Spirit has enabled them to do those things. Training for those areas are always available. But just because you train in an area, it doesn't mean it will be done well.

There is a common lament that pastors utter soon after entering the ministry. "I didn't learn to do that in seminary." Pastors step into their function in a local church and realize that there is a learning curve. And sometimes that curve is quite steep. The idealism of being the visionary, the shepherd, the proclaimer, is quickly diminished by the clerical, the janitorial, the demoralized.

I have been a pastor for 17 years. I have served in 11 ministry settings. And in all of those settings, in all of these years, I have rarely been noticed for my gifts. I get the usual "Good sermon, Preacher" or "Wow, you really made me think". And those are important to me. Preaching and teaching are gifts I have in a fair amount. But those aren't enough. When evaluations happen, I am evaluated on all of the tools that I am supposed to possess. Regardless of strength or ability or giftedness.

Maybe I didn't understand what I was getting into when I entered the ministry. Maybe I am still an idealist who is having a rough day because of paperwork. Maybe I ought to just suck it up, do my job, and get over myself.

But how many good pastors have we lost because they didn't have enough tools to be a good enough Swiss Army knife?

Friday, September 18, 2015

What counts as an apology?

I am interrupting my string of game notes from Dungeons and Dragons to write something that seems to be relevant to a broader cultural issue.

This week there is has been a couple of public incidents where apologies were issued.

  1. Joy Behar on The View, made comments about Miss America contestant, and nurse, Kelley Johnson. The next couple of days were filled with the retractions, re-framing, and re-positioning necessary to smooth the waters.
  2. Stephen Amell (currently one of my favorite actors on television), made a comment that was leaped upon by his social media followers. His response was to vacate his very active social media presence for a time.
  3. Ahmed Mohammed, a 14 year old high school student, made a clock from scratch and took it to school. The school misunderstood it's nature and declared a bomb threat. He was removed from class, detained in a room, interrogated without representation or parental presence, and branded as a terrorist. This got nation-wide media attention but there has not been a public apology or making amends from the school or local law enforcement to offset the stigma that they placed upon a young person.
These are three cases were something happened and another was harmed in some way (mostly emotionally or with regard to reputation). But each of them was handled in different ways. Which one of these involves a true apology?

But maybe the bigger question should be, how should a follower of Christ handle a similar situation?

The majority of Christ-followers is not a media star. It may be easy to think, "I would never be in one of those situations." But what if we reframed the situation?

  1. Have you made a mistake and when confronted with it you used justifications or explanations without getting to a heart-felt or appropriate apology?
  2. Have you done something to offend another person and chose to follow the path of least resistance? By that I mean, you chose to avoid them for a while until things smoothed over.
  3. Have you ever been justified in doing something to another person because circumstances allowed you to do whatever it was?
We don't have to be media stars. We run into enough opportunities to be in a place to offer an apology. I do it fairly regularly. Usually with those people who live under the same roof as I do. How should Christians be truly apologetic?

How about we don't apologize.

Followers of the way are not about offering words of apology. They are about offering words of healing, of reconciliation. Apologies don't get close to that sometimes. It takes a special effort to go beyond saying, "I am sorry."

I teach in sermons and pastoral counseling that the six most powerful words we can use are "Please, forgive me," and "I forgive you." Those six words are not used enough. But they are words of healing and reconciliation when they are applied correctly.

In Christian love, we are to be forgiving and grace-led. When we have hurt or offended another, we should use these qualities. Grace should motivate us to see that how we harmed another person is not right. We broke the relationship and should move to heal it. Grace asks that other person, "You are the one who has the power, you are the own who has the authority to make this right. I am the one who broke what we had. Will you extend forgiveness toward me?"

Forgiveness is not our right. We are not entitled to be forgiven. It is a gift the other person extends to us. It is theirs to offer. We only have the right to ask. And if they choose not to forgive us, that is their choice.

In Christian love, we are to be forgiving and grace-led. When we have been hurt or offended, and that person comes to us asking for forgiveness, then we are in the place to follow God's example. God offers forgiveness and grace to any and all who come, seeking forgiveness, and repenting of that harm that they did. God chooses to forgive. And according to the New Testament, God expects us to offer the same that was shown to us.

We are not required to forgive. But there seems to be heavy statements in the New Testament that withholding forgiveness negates our own ability to know or understand the forgiveness shown to us by God. In choosing to say, "I forgive you," there is no requirement to forget the wrong done. There is no assumption that all things will be done away with.

Instead, it is because we can't let go of the past that constant forgiveness is necessary. Giving that gift of forgiveness has to happen every time the thought of that wrong doing comes up. We may have to do it mentally. We may have to do it face-to-face with the person. But forgiveness doesn't happen once-for-all in the human experience. It is a practice, a discipline, that takes time and repetition to make stick.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Dungeons and Dragons: Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Episode 3 - Here There Be Dragons - ish

The scene setting was done here.

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.
Part 4 is here.
This is a playthrough of the game as our table played it. You may not get the same experience, but there are spoilers if you plan to play.

Berrian was able to sneak his way down to the opening of the cavern. From his vantage point, he saw guards standing just inside. They appeared to be more than he could handle. Signaling his comrades on the rim of the canyon to his intentions, Berrian slipped into the tent where he could continue to watch the opening for activity.

D'Akath and Elroar waited for Toril to rejoin them. Upon his arrival, they bring their comrade up to speed on the doings. Toril is quick to introduce the two to a new companion, a sleek panther that Toril developed a rapport with on his last hunting excursion. The four then move to rejoin Berrian and develop their plan of attack.

Along the path to enter the canyon, the four members of the party encounter another team of adventurers. These were sent by Leosin to support the heroes. Together, they slip into the canyon, and meet with Berrian in the tent. After introductions, and a brief scuffle between the dragonborn D'Akath and a gnome barbarian with a bad opinion, the plan was conceived to approach the cavern as if they belonged in the camp. Leodithis, a member of the support team Leosin had sent and a bard by trade, decided to join with our party that was entering the cavern. The rest of Leosin's support team would remain in the tent to assist if needed.

As the team enters the cavern, the two guards that Berrian spotted are not at their posts. The party begins to sneak farther into the cavern. The two guards then spring their ambush. They had retreated a little deeper into the cavern and had taken up positions to attack. Overwhelmed by the number in the party, the guards were swiftly and quietly dealt with.

The cavern continued deeper, but our party found a set of rooms and chose to explore those. One of the rooms was a guard barracks filled with guards and cultist. D'Akath, using his overwhelming charisma, shocks and convinces the occupants that he is an officer and orders them to a physical endurance test of running 10 miles. His charm didn't last when four of the cultists saw the dead guards in the antechamber. They turned upon the party and attacked. Bottlenecked by the narrow tunnels, Berrian and D'Akath fight the cultists. At the same time Toril and Elroar investigate an emptied treasure room and Leodithis helps himself to some treasure in the barracks.

After mowing through the four cultists, the party continues to examine the rooms they have discovered. Berrian sneaks forward into the next chamber and discovers Frulam Mondath's private chambers. She has moved from the tent outside and is now sitting at her desk examining some documents. Berrian moves to attack and opens the way for an assault on the cleric. She is overwhelmed by 4 of the party and the panther, Shadowrazor. D'Akath stalks up to her, lying prone on the floor from Shadowrazor's attack, and drives his sword directly into her heart. With her dying breath, she declares the pain she felt for losing D'Akath.

Berrian investigates the room and discovers that the treasure has been moved. It's destination is to the north. This information was exactly what Leosin sent them to discover. But Berrian also finds within the documents on Frulam's desk poetic writings seeming to declare her affection for D'Akath. Berrian withholds that information.

Shadowrazor had nearly fallen into a shaft in the rear of the room upon his initial entry to the room. Now that the party has time to investigate, they find a rope that leads down to a lower floor. Berrian and Toril investigate. They discover a temple to Tiamat. And in that temple, seemingly at prayer, was Longdedrosa Cyanwrath, the half-dragon that fought D'Akath at Greenest.

They swiftly decide to attack. Moving quietly down the shaft, the party enters the temple chamber and surprises the occupants. Cyanwrath has two guards watching over him. The initial attack wounds Cyanwrath. But upon seeing D'Akath, Cyanwrath asks if they should continue their contest from Greenest. D'Akath is willing and eager.

They agree to a fight between the two and all other companions are to stay back. Cyanwrath leads with his lightening breath to soften D'Akath. But after that initial onslaught, D'Akath resolves himself and lands blow upon blow upon the injured Cyanwrath. The final blow sends him to the ground, defeated.

With the half-dragon defeated, the companions swiftly strike down the bezerker companions of Cyanwrath. They retreat to the barracks to tend their wounds and plan for the continuation of their mission.

Will they save Jake from the farm of State?
Will they discover greater treasurer in the cavern?
Will they make it out alive?

Tune in next time for......

Friday, September 04, 2015

Dungeons and Dragons: Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Episode 2 - A Kiss Is But a Kiss...

The scene setting was done here.

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.
This is a playthrough of the game as our table played it. You may not get the same experience, but there are spoilers if you plan to play.

When we left our heroes, the party had been split. Much of it was not of their own choosing. But as you may recall, Berrian, Toril, Elroar, and Jake were tied to a stake in the enemy camp. Their execution was set for the following day. With them was another prisoner (whose fate you shall soon learn). D'Akath had been consigned to a tent with other members of the raiding party and Cult of the Dragon.

Berrian and the prisoner tied with them, strike up a conversation. This is none other than Leosin Erlathar, the one they were sent to deliver a message. Leosin has been tortured and is weak, but he has not given up on his plan to get as much information as possible. He works with Berrian and the others to plan their escape and rescue D'Akath.

D'Akath, meanwhile, is being watched by guards who escorted him to one of the tents of cult members. He listens to the conversation and is able to gain some information about the raiders and their camp. But his effort is interrupted when he is summoned to the tent of Frulam Mondath. Upon his arrival, he anticipates another interrogation. Frulam begins that way, but the conversation takes a turn, a very seductive turn. D'Akath is more than willing to be seduced.

The rest of the party witnesses D'Akath being led into the main tent and believe it is time to act. They were able to untie themselves and attack their guards. Dressing the uniforms of the guards, Berrian moves through the camp to locate their weapons and armor and other belongings. Jake moves through some of the tents looking for their belongings, also, but finds captives from Greenest and other communities captured by the raiders. He brings them back in the effort to rescue them.

In order to move toward their escape, Berrian and Elroar move to the farthest guard tower and set it on fire. Toril and Leosin set a watch over the escape route, up the ladder to the guard tower they attacked before. With the tasks complete, the party moves to "rescue" D'Akath. Hearing sounds of a "struggle" inside, Toril moves swiftly to cut his way into the tent. He finds Frulam and D'Akath engaged in something less violent. But still needing to recover D'Akath, he knocks Frulam unconscious. Comrades almost come to blows, but they quickly recover and depart.

The party is able to escape the encampment and return to Greenest without being accosted. Leosin invites the party to return to his own inn to discuss the next phase of the operation. D'Akath returns to the keep to collect their fee and report their findings. Instead of finding Escobert, D'Akath is greeted by a thankful Governor Nighthill, who gladly pays for the work of the party.

Leosin waits for D'Akath to return before discussing his needs. His initial plan was to uncover the plans of the Cult of the Dragon. The message that Berrian brought changes his plan. He must move toward Elturel and meet with others in the work against the cult. But Leosin needs to know what the Cult will continue to do. He asks the party if they would be willing to return to the encampment and observe their movements then report of changes.

The party is willing and return the encampment the next morning. Thinking that the encampment would be the same, they are surprised to see the camp nearly abandoned. The camp is partially burned and the majority of guards are gone. Jake and Toril infiltrate a party of hunters to discover more about what has happened. Berrian, D'Akath, and Elroar observe from the plateau. The observation is that the activity has moved from the camp into a cavern in the back of the canyon.

The hunting party returns and Toril joins another party. Jake remains in the hunters camp. But he was dressed in the armor of a cult guard. A superior officer discovers Jake, assumes he is a guard slacking on his duties, and drags him back into the cavern. Berrian begins to move down the plateau and sneak into the cavern. D'Akath and Elroar wait for Toril's return.

Next time....Into the Depths

Dungeons and Dragons: Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Episode 2 - When the Wheel Turns

The scene setting was done here.

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
This is a playthrough of the game as our table played it. You may not get the same experience, but there are spoilers if you plan to play.

 After the shaming way they were dismissed by the governor, our heroes find themselves torn between the task of continuing the search and the desire to help the citizens of this place. The local healers bring restoration to their bodies, but not their minds. They still need to find a way to go forward. Out of the crowds of villagers, a young monk steps forward. He approaches the trio plus Jake to seek their aid. The raiders have left Greenest with valuables of the villagers. The monk, Nesim, was a companion to Leosin Erlanthar. He was the one the party was to meet in Greenest. Now, it seems that Leosin is missing. He was there at the beginning of the attack. His original purpose was to infiltrate the raiders. He is gone now.The party agrees to seek him out and, if need be, return him.

Berrian and Toril choose to investigate the missing monk. They begin by searching his room at the inn. They find nothing that provides more information. D'Akath has returned to the keep for supplies. He believes he may be the only member of the party who the governor won't have slapped in prison on sight. As he arrives at the gate, a guard recognizes him and informs D'Akath that the captain of the keep would like to see him. D'Akath reports to the Escobert the Red and seeks assistance in the way of supplies. Escobert is grateful for the assistance of the party. He asks, without the blessing of the governor, if the party would be willing to pursue the raiders to find more information or recover the valuables that were taken.

D'Akath agrees on behalf of the party. But he still needs arms and supplies. He also asks for any assistance that may be able to go with them. Escobert offers the arms of fallen guards, but refuses to send any guards. He does point out, though, a wizard who has been in town as a possible candidate to join. D'Akath grabs the needed weapons and supplies and seeks out the wizard, Elroar. The wizard has been seeking an adventure and seems eager to join in hunting down the raiders. D'Akath also accepts the young Jake of the farm State as his squire and follower.

The new, expanded party sets out on the obvious trail of the bandits. Riding off into the hills south of town, the party encounters a clueless band of lagging cultists and kobolds. Sneaking upon the camp, the surpise attach catches the band unguarded, unarmed, and divided. The camp is the scene of very quick and decisive victory for our heroes.

Continuing on the trail, the heroes blunder into an ambush that had been set for them. A rear guard had placed themselves among the high walls of a canyon. After dropping rocks on the party, the enemy begins to fire arrows down upon them. The more agile among the party quickly scaled the sloped walls and put themselves among their attackers. A few wounds and a little more guarded, the party leaves the scene of the broken ambush and resumes tracking the raiders.

Berrian and Toril decide to scout ahead, and it is they who find the encampment of the raiders. They have established a semi-permanent base of operations in a horseshoe canyon. Huts and guard towers dot the protected enclave. The party decides to rest and wait for evening to make their move to infiltrate the camp.

Sneaking up the back of the plateau, Berrian and Toril believe they can convince the kobold guards in one of the guard towers to let them pass. The kobolds are not convinced and raise an alarm. Fearing that his comrades are in trouble, D'Akath leaps from the canyon rim to reach the guard tower. He fails. But he is able to save himself from serious harm by grabbing the supports of the tower legs. The guards are quickly silenced, but the damage is done.

Berrian and Toril are able to deceive the responding guards that they are members of the raiders. They send some of the responding kobolds along the rim of the canyon, away from the party, with a little help from Elroar.

Elroar and Jake retreat to the supplies in their temporary camp and await the return of the other party members. The other members are able to escape the canyon rim, but they are quickly cut off from their escape by guards coming to find the intruders. They are marched, unarmed, back into camp. They are questioned by the leader of the camp, a cleric and member of the Cult of Dragons, Frulam Mondath.

In the course of questioning, most of the party tries to hid their identity and purpose. Frulam is not impressed. But as her eyes fall upon the tall, bronze dragonborn, she sees something different. D'Akath throws caution to the wind and is honest about himself, if not the purpose of the party. Frulam puts D'Akath under guard and sends him to the tents of the cultists. The rest, she has them tied to stakes in the camp, stripped to their underclothes, and plans to execute them the following day.

Berrian, Toril, Elroar, and Jake consider their situation. They are tied up in the enemy camp. They face execution. Their strongest ally is hidden away among their enemies.

How will they escape this predicament?
What has happened to D'Akath and how will they recover their friend?
How will they get away from a camp of overwhelming numbers without weapons or clothes?
Who is this fellow silently eyeing them, tied to his own stake?

Tune in next time for Well That Could Have Gone Better.

Dungeons and Dragons: Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Episode 1 - Wherein our heroes fight for dishonor...

The scene setting was done here.

Part 1 is here.

This is a playthrough of the game as our table played it. You may not get the same experience, but there are spoilers if you plan to play.

Bloodied and battered from their first serious conflict, our tepid adventurers recover from their wounds and prepare for their return to the fray. Across the stream, they see the town still held in the clutches of the raiding parties. Screams and shouts fill the air. They hope to free as many people from the terror as possible. But they are also seeking a high-ranking officer, someone to fill in the gaps. And, of course, the mission that brought them to this quaint location - find Leosin Erlanthar.

They remembered seeing a temple on the edge of town, directly across the stream from where they were hiding...ahem....recovering. They decide that was be the place to begin their effort to save as many villagers as possible. They are able to sneak back through the stream bed and up the embankment. They are approaching the temple from its rear facing side. They see a clutch of kobolds gathered around what appears to be the rear entrance; a single door. They also can see a contingent of mixed race looters at the front of the building, perhaps trying to enter by force. Finally, the observe that a roving patrol is encircling the building.

Waiting for the right moment to strike (after the patrol has rounded the corner), the three brave adventurers leap into the attack on the kobolds at the rear entrance. These kobolds are attempting to start a fire at the rear door. The kobolds were led by two humans who wore cultist robes. But the entire group was no match for the swift and deadly strikes of the warriors three.

The party began to creep around the corner of the temple. Using skilled, precision strikes, they thinned the number of patrol members. But as they round the corner to the front of the building, they are observed by the leader of the assault force. Humans and kobolds charge swiftly at our heroes. The fighting was intense, but brief. And as they finished, the patrol makes its return from the backside, having discovered their ranks were smaller and the pile of bodies at the rear of the temple. The party, led by the charismatic and reptilian D'Akath, is allowed to enter the temple. The door is secured behind them.

Faced with the terrified (and now extremely over-cautious) villagers, D'Akath gives a rousing speech to seek defenders. He encourages them for their bravery. He consoles them in their terror. He challenges them to rise to arms. And 2 people step forward to help in the daring plan to escape. The plan: charge out of the rear entrance and get as many people as possible to the stream. The problem: the roving patrol has now split. One contingent of kobolds stands guard at the rear entrance, their chosen path to freedom. The other contingent has returned to the front. Unbeknownst to the occupants (they will know soon, though), the front door assault is preparing to bash down the doors.

D'Akath, the paladin of Denier, takes the lead. He opens the door and rushes out, using his dragonborn gift of acid breath to spray the line of kobolds, so helpfully arrayed right outside the door. Berrian steps out and begins flinging daggers. Toril swings his longsword with quiet ferocity. The kobolds fall swiftly before the onslaught.

D'Akath and Toril take up positions to observe and cover the fleeing villagers. Halfway through their escape, the team assaulting the front door notices the activity and rushes to attack. Toril unstrings his bow and fires with focused accuracy. D'Akath charges into a melee. Berrian, our sneaky little rogue, tries to fight from the shadows. D'Akath must face cultists and the overgrown reptilian drakes they keep as attack animals. It is a struggle as they gang up on D'Akath. But the mercy of Denier protects him. Once the enemy is finished, the party leads the other occupants of the temple back to the storm drain and into safety.

Wisdom prevailing, the party does not kill all of their enemies. Berrian has a cultist prisoner. He brings the prisoner to Governor Nighthill, who wishes to interrogate him. They discover that the raid is designed to loot as many valuables as possible. It is one of many such raids that have taken place in the region.

While Berrian is convincing the cultist to reveal deep, dark secrets through "vays of making him talk", Toril was doing what rangers are gifted at: hunting down replacements for all the arrows he shot. D'Akath, though, was drumming up support among the captive audience of the the townsfolk who were locked in the keep. His rousing speech of facing overwhelming numbers and fighting the good fight, of not fearing anything but fear itself and having a dream produced a tepid response but enlightened the eyes of one young man, Jake from the farm of State.

The captain of the keep's guards rushes in to tell the governor that the mill was under attack. The mill is where the grains for the village is stored. If the mill is burned, and grain is lost, the village will face a hard season of hunger. The party valiantly volunteers to charge forth once more and fight back against the horde.

They sneak out once more into the village. Berrian turns on his super sneaky skills and flits into the office of the mill. There he sees the office has been ransacked, but his super sneaky spy senses tell him that something isn't right. He discovers that there is an ambush prepared in the mill itself. Berrian sneaks back to the rest of the party and informs them of the potential danger. Instead of rushing into the mill, the party sets up a surgical attack to take the guards prisoners or to silently silence them. This works to large degree.

In a house facing the mill, Berrian again employs his "making you talk" skills to discover that the ambush was set specifically for the adventurers. The attack on the mill was a ruse to draw the heroes out and stop their interference. The party steps out into the street to make a plan of attack when a large contingent of town guards shows up. The party stops the guards from rushing into the ambush and informs them of the situation. They, then, leave the mill to the guards.

The party has chosen to sweep through the farther streets to find any remaining villagers who may be hiding. Sweeping through the streets, they dispatch two patrols and rescue one villager. But approaching the town square, they find an overwhelming force. The decision is to return to the keep, looking for any other villagers along the way.

As they approach the keep, they see a crowd of enemy forming along the green. They are able to re-enter the keep just as a blue half-dragon steps out onto the green. He addresses the keep by issuing a challenge. If the village would send forward a champion to fight, he would release the hostages he had taken. He produces a woman and her children. The enemy champion, Langdedrosa Cyanwrath, seeks one-on-one contest with a champion for the citizens of Greenest. D'Akath speaks to the governor and asks for that opportunity to be that champion.

D'Akath steps forward to accept the challenge. Berrian and Toril take cover outside the gates. D'Akath accepts the rules of enagagement for fighting one-on-one. The champions draw their weapons and begin the back and forth of combat. D'Akath seems to be holding his own until Cyanwrath unleashes his lightening breath. D'Akath takes a face full of lightening, but avoids the fullest amount of damage. But he is critically wounded and falls to the ground. Seeing their comrade laid low, Berrian and Toril strike at the kobolds holding the prisoners. But their violation of honor rules of the field of challenge offends Cyanwrath. He turns upon the woman and strikes her down. He then delivers a killing strike on the downed D'Akath.

As Cyanwrath walks away, kobolds rush the walls of the keep. Berrian and Toril fight through the oncoming enemy to reach their fallen companion. They are there to see D'Akath stir, his death forestalled by a miraculous constitution. But when they return to the keep, the governor is furious with them. They cost the life of hostage, caused the kobold rush on the keep, and dishonored the name of the city. He dismisses them for their lack of honor.

Stay tuned for...When the wheel turns.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Dungeons and Dragons: Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Episode 1 - Our story begins.

The Scene setting was done here. And there are spoilers if you want to play this adventure with your own group. Ye be warned!

Berrian was approached by the Harpers (a somewhat clandestine group seeking to keep Faerun safe) to deliver a coded message to a monk in the village of Greenest. The message is coded only for the recipient, Leosin Erlanthar. Berrian engages the assistance of a dragonborn paladin of the deity Denier, and a half-elf ranger. The three journey to Greenest, becoming acquainted along the way.

On the outskirts of the village, the party of travelers sees smoke rising from where the town is located. As they approach and observe, they see the village being raided by parties of human and kobolds. Citizens are fleeing or trying to avoid the raiding parties. Toril, the ranger, is able to stop a villager and ask what is happening. The escaping villager is hysterical with fear and barely able to speak coherently. The villager points to the source of fear and the reason for esacape. A blue dragon is swooping down and attacking the village.

The three adventurers decide to sneak into town to see what assistance they can provide. As they enter the populated area on the edge of the village, they encounter a family being chased by a mob of kobolds. The three heroes jump in to aid this family, the father injured and protecting his children, the mother taking up a spear and defending their escape. But when the kobolds are dispatched, the mother turns on D'Akath. Here was a dragon-faced individual in a town being attacked by kobolds (small reptilian creatures) and being struck by the lightning breath of a blue dragon.

D'Akath is able to smooth-talk her down from running him through with a spear. But she is still reluctant to trust them. They begin to move toward the keep, the only safe place in the village. Along the way, they rescue another party of children. Now with their entourage growing, they ready themselves for the last race across open ground to the waiting gate of the keep.

They take a respite in one of the shops across the green from the keep. Berrian and D'Akath take an opportunity to interrogate one of the kobolds that they captured. But the interrogation is cut short as Linan Swift, the mother protector of her family and the children, rushes to make the short run across the green. As they all move across the open field, a contingent of kobolds run out from the buildings down the street. The adventurers move to provide the defensive front while the family escapes.

They kobolds are quickly eliminated and party is able to get inside the keep just as the gates are closed and secured. But again, instead of the heroes welcome, because of the dragonborn among them, they are met with hostility and distrust. They are led under guard to the governor of Greenest.

The governor is concerned about the safety of his people more than the business of the party in the town. When the party commits themselves to assisting the town, the governor presents them to the master of the keep. He leads the party to a tunnel that passes under the walls of the keep, into a small stream. He provides them a key that will allow them to unlock the gate at the end. If they keep themselves hidden, it will provide a convenient place of entry and exit to the keep.

The three heroes want to return to speak to the governor before heading into the village. The governor has taken their kobold captive for his own interrogation. D'Akath, who has formed an attachment to the kobold, asks only that it be unharmed. The governor allows that the creature will not be harmed. And satisfied, the party exits the keep through the tunnel. Along the path, they are attacked by rats, but they are easily eliminated.

At the end of the tunnel, they find the gate and are able to open it quietly. But no sooner do they exit the tunnel than they find a patrol moving through the stream bed leading to their egress. The three take a savage beating at the hands of the patrol before the heroes are able to get the upper hand. Bloodied and needing to regroup, the party hides in one of the abandoned homes opposite the village along the stream.

Next time.....Champion of Greenest

Dungeons and Dragons: Hoard of the Dragon Queen. The prequel.

This is of no interest to most people that follow me. This will only be of interest to persons who find the stories of Dungeons & Dragons, RPGs, or grown men playing pretend fantasy characters, interesting. Some day I will return to subject matter that no one find interesting.

{For anyone not interested in this but still reading, allow me to put this into context. I like Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games (RPGs). I played in college and had a blast. I was part of a weekly group. We played mostly GURPS. And that in itself was amazingly fun. We played a different world or scenario almost every time we played.

That experience led me to playing the same type of games on computer. But the computer never replaced the experience of gathering with a group of people and talking/imagining through a narrative.

I know that many conservative/fundamentalist Christians have a super- and hyper-negative opinion of Dungeons and Dragons. Nothing I say will ever change their minds. But there is nothing demonic or satanist or mind controlling about playing the game. There is nothing cultist about it.....Well, I should rephrase that. It does get cultist. But don't tell me it is any different than some of the kool-aid drinkers I see on the sidelines at football or basketball games.

I have always wanted to get back to playing D&D or any other rpg. I have amassed a collection of resources to play. The opportunity has not been present until recently. Through a couple of fits and starts, I found a group of folks to play. And we have jumped into the game with both feet. If anyone would like to learn about D&D or even start a game, let me know. I could use another outlet. End of history}

We are playing 5th Edition rules. That is the newest set of rules for Dungeons and Dragons. The really great thing is that the basic rules (everything you need to start playing as a beginner) is available for free at the link I posted above.

We chose to use a published adventure to get our feet wet. We skipped the basic, introductory adventure that is available in the Starter Kit. Instead, we chose Hoard of the Dragon Queen as our adventure. It involves a little bit of previous knowledge. But nothing that is so complicated you can't get into the story.

We began with 4 people. And of the 4, I was the odd man out. The others knew each other. I was the stranger. The unknown element. And I was the DM, dungeon master.

{For those still following who have no clue about D&D or the role of DMs, allow me to interpret. D&D is Dungeons and Dragons. DM is the dungeon master. The dungeon master brings the story to life so the player characters can interact, make decisions, and play their roles.}

I had never DM'd before. It was a new, and intimidating task. And has been a blast. I don't play the game in such a way to defeat the characters. I don't want to destroy the group or kill them off. If they aren't having fun, the game will lose its appeal. If they don't want to play, because it isn't any fun, then I lose.

Our three other characters are the principle actors in the story. Allow me to introduce them:

Berrian is a spymaster. He has learned to be unobtrusive. He learned to find his ways into locked rooms and discover secrets early in life. He became a knowledge broker and important in the city of Waterdeep. As an elf, he has been involved in the spy business for a long time. He was itching to get out of town and find adventure.

D'Akath is a paladin, a righteous warrior. He is also a dragonborn, meaning there was dragon blood in his family line. He was born into a noble family. He began to defend the weak early, by standing up to the bullies his brother faced. Having faced the death of his brother and blaming his father, D'Akath has gone into the world to protect those who could not protect themselves.

Toril Swordspell is a half-elf ranger. He is at home in nature. Orphaned by Orcs, Toril has moved out into the world to discover more about how his parents died and to take his revenge on the Orcs who cross his path.

You will hear about other characters that have joined along the way in this adventure. For now, I will let you wait to hear about them in the context of the story as it unfolds.

Our story begins.....

Monday, April 13, 2015

Culture Wars....postscript

After last weeks posts, there have been a few comments and conversations of substance outside of the blog. I want to share some of my responses in those conversations. I haven't asked the others I have spoken to in these conversations to share their comments. I will only give the framing question and my response.

I was asked by one dear friend: What is the United Methodist churches stance on same-sex marriage?

My response:

We are in a state of quiet disagreement. There are plenty of voices on both sides of the issue stating clearly their opinion. The quiet part of the disagreement is two-fold. 

First, we have put a moratorium on clergy trials for clergy who perform same-sex weddings. There are clergy who feel it is their Christian duty to perform weddings in states where it is legal. There are clergy who believe that, since our Book of Discipline has clear rules against it, no one within the UMC is legally/ecclesiastically eligible to do those. (That brings up an interesting precedence argument: if the book of rules does not allow a clergy to perform a wedding, does that invalidate the marriage license since they are not acting within their scope.) The trials were sapping resources and not moving the issue, so a moratorium was placed on clergy trials. 

Second, our quadrennial meeting of the entire UMC, General Conference, is convening next year. Any changes to the Book of Discipline must be enacted by the General Conference. There are always discussions and prognostications of how the rules regarding the subject of same-sex relationships will go. The UMC will not make any big moves until the General Conference is completed.

The UMC is divided. There is no clear majority. Some want to retain the language of the Discipline as our official way forward. No clergy or facilities of the UMC can be used in the performance of a same-sex marriage. We have clergy who feel the language should be changed to allow them to occur within the sphere of United Methodism. If the language stays the same, the UMC will continue to have periods of loud disagreement. If the language changes, there will most likely be a division of the UMC. 
I was also asked, by the same friend, what my stance is on the issue. I admit that I didn't clearly state that in the previous writings. What follows is how I feel at this time.

Where am I? Torn. I cannot in good conscience go against the rule that binds me. I agreed by ordination vow to uphold the Book of Discipline. I cannot simply cast that aside. I try to maintain a faithful obedience to the rule of law. My livelihood depends upon it. To go against the rule that I have sworn an oath to uphold is very serious to me. 

But I believe that same-sex couples deserve recognition under the law to gain the same privileges as mixed-sex couples take for granted. I support the idea that all people should be treated equally under the law. I feel that civil rights are not universal or "God-given", but that all members of a given people within the boundaries of the government establishing those laws have the right to them without regard to status, race, or other discriminating factors.

I believe that RFRA's are being enacted or reinforced without clear, logical thinking. And I feel that the discrimination that is being ballyhooed at the present is fear mongering more than foresight. That isn't to say that discrimination wouldn't happen. But religious rights/freedoms (I consider them privileges) can be discriminated against just as easily as civil rights/freedoms. There have been many cases of discriminatory backlash on those businesses that were the spark of the cases. This is not as easy as one clear cut set of rights being infringed upon.

I do feel that there is a messed up set of priorities in this current battle. Marriage is not about weddings. The current crop of "rights" being argued is not about marriage issues. Every case that is pending that spawned a RFRA discussion in the last month have only had to the do with wedding preparations. I feel that is a horrible place to argue rights. I feel that if same-sex couples want to solidify the right of marriage, it should be in the realm of fighting for those protections and privileges gained by marriage status.

But that brings another issue to light: are we talking about civil marriage or religious marriage? Those are two separate states of being. As a minister, the church grants me the authority to bless a union between two people. But in order for that marriage to be "legal", I have to act as an officer of the State. I can tell couples (and have told couples) to go to a judge and seek the civil relationship to guarantee their status. Then, after that has been completed, I would perform a blessing of their relationship (it had to do with immigration issues, immigration status, and other related time sensitive matters). If a couple is desiring recognition under the law, then a wedding is unnecessary. If a couple wants to celebrate their relationship status, then the arrangements for that celebration is not a rights issue. It is a preference issue.
Finally, another friend asked me about my stance on homosexuality. It is complicated.

I stand by the verses that say that it is incompatible with a Christian lifestyle. When Paul was writing, it was a specific setting. But the act of sex between same genders was not acceptable within the Christian communities. [insert comment here: Whether you say that it only referred to temple prostitution, or it doesn't apply to committed, monogamous relationships, Paul was saying that the act was not acceptable in a Christian community]
Now, I don't think that it is any worse or damning than any other lifestyle sin that people choose. As Americans, we ignore that there are thousands of children who die every year from a lack of food, yet our churches are filled with obese persons. Yep, I am a hypocrite in this regard. I hear a lot of good Jesus loving Christians still gossiping every day of the week, including in Sunday Schools. We don't share our resources or protect our environment or fight injustice or forgive family members (much less our enemies). And church [inserted: members]  are just fine with those lifestyle sins because those are matters of privacy.

I see homosexuality as a sin but not one to be raised up above any others. And if we aren't going to hold ourselves accountable for our private sins then shut the trap on others.

Friday, April 10, 2015

No Winners In This War

Part One: Religious Freedom In the Midst of the Culture Wars
Part Two: Culture Wars...and Politicians and the Media
Part Three: Onward Christian Soldiers...

Before I begin this post, let me lay out my biases first. I am an Evangelical (putting much authority on what Scripture says). I am a traditional Wesleyan Methodist (I gain my theological perspective from the theology of John Wesley and the Methodist movement of the 18th century). I believe in the Church's creedal statements from the middle of the first millennium.  That means I look at the world through a biblical, orthodox, Wesleyan lens.

I also have some confessions to make. I struggle with the issue of same-sex marriage. I don't like weddings, period. I don't feel that gays deserve any more special treatment (positive or negative) than any other citizen of the United States. I do not judge another person's sins as greater than mine and I try not to let those sins diminish that person as a human being. Sometimes I mess up on that last part. My greatest fears are not grounded in my flavor of religious faith losing ground in American culture. In truth, I am afraid that my religious faith tradition has lost itself because of its prominence in the American culture.

With all of that said, I believe that there are just as many faults on the part of supporters of same-sex marriage as there are in religious corners. The demonizing language is just as present. The rhetorical fear-mongering is just as loud. The hopeless division is just as stridently maintained. Is it a reaction to the tactics of the Religious Right? Yes. Is it justifiable? Possibly. Is it right? No.

I have heard that the fight for gay rights is this generation's civil rights movement akin to the fight for blacks in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. While I disagree with that (it's one of my confessions I didn't make above), I will accept that claim for the purpose of this discussion. So, if this is a civil rights movement, whose example are you following?

As I look back on the civil rights movement, there is one person who is lifted out as the shining example of leadership for the movement: Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was an amazing man to lead our nation in seeing people of different races as equal. He led with words of wisdom and grace. He lived that example as he led the movement. He faced opposition with grace. He led his followers in rejecting the status quo with a style that has marked our nation.

But as I look at the current battle for the civil rights of gays in this issue of marriage, I don't see Dr. King. Supporters of the awareness of marriage are not staging peaceful demonstrations. I don't see words of wisdom and grace toward those who are the opposition. I see demonizing and hate.

So I have to wonder if those who are supporting marriage for same-sex couples are following in the civil rights tradition of Dr. King. Or perhaps they have chosen to follow in the path of another leader of the movement: Malcolm X. The tactics of demonizing the other side, the declarations of superiority of non-religious points of view, and the prophetic calls that religious people will be destroyed are all present. And while I don't hear physical violence and attacks on religious institutions, the spirit of the words rings more true with the message of Malcolm than Martin.

If that is the case, and this is just my opinion, then this is not a civil civil rights movement. There is no effort at civil discourse. Of the incidences that have been published in the newspapers and are making the rounds on the internet, there has been few examples of civil discussion, mediation outside of courts, or reconciliation among the parties involved. There have been "civil" lawsuits brought (which I feel may be one of the great oxymoron's of modernity) in order to make a point or claim damage, not to bring about what is wanted. There have been demonstrations that have blocked businesses from operating or defamation attacks that do not focus on the services but on the owners.

If this is going to be a civil rights movement, then I feel the greatest movement and success will be found in the civil discourse of sitting down with opponents and finding the ground of what is common and good between. The greatest success comes when we work together to find a way forward. The legacy of Dr. King has brought greater movement than the legacy, as necessary as it was, of Malcolm X.

If we are going to make this a civil rights issue, then we have to also accept that civil rights are also equal rights. Civil rights are the privileges granted to all of the people under a government. Once in a while a new perspective on how those rights need to be adjusted. The founding government found that the original laws of the land (the Constitution) were not completely adequate to understand what rights were allowed to people. The Bill of Rights were written, and codified, to  clarify those rights in certain circumstances. And the amendments that have been added to address the awareness that rights were being overlooked. But every time an amendment was added, it had to go through the fires of proving itself.

In our current civil rights issue, and in light of our current concerns, this is not a simple adjustment. The new frontier of gay rights is challenging because in cultural terms, gays have not been overlooked (as blacks were for so many decades). They have been hidden. I'm not saying that was right. I am only speaking to the reality. This is a "new people group" for our culture.

It is also challenging because blacks had an obvious wrong that needed to be corrected. There were two centuries of ill treatment that needed to be righted. Gays, while they have suffered in recent history, do not have the same sympathy quotient. I'm sorry to be brutal about this but it is true. I'm not saying it is right but it is a reality based on long held perceptions. If gays are going to gain equal rights, then it will take time and changing perceptions.

But in the fight for equal rights there is the conflict between rights that we, as a nation, have to find balance. The growing need for gay civil rights is running headlong into the established rights of speech and religious expression. Those rights have been fought over and established. There is precedence to carry into forward conflicts. The opinions and legal struggles that have gone before will shape and guide future rights arguments. Unless we undo the Constitutional rights established regarding speech and religious expression, then any further rights that are secured will need to be balanced to those previous established.

But I want to make one final argument. None of the current round of battles has anything to do with gay marriage. They have to do with weddings. And those two are not the same thing. Marriage is an institution that guarantees certain things for those joined. I believe that the legal guarantees that marriage offers to spouses should be offered to same-sex couples. I feel that same sex relationships are not going away. The need to protect each other in those relationships will be a necessity. If the legal guarantees that the marriage relationship offer are not present, then there will be future burdens on the civil systems (healthcare because insurance doesn't offer coverage, legal as property matters are decided, etc). There is a need for some civil guarantees in these relationships.

But the fights that are happening right now have to do with flowers and cakes and venues. And I feel that those are not civil rights issues. No one has a right to the kind of flowers or the florist. No one has a right to a cake. No one has a right to the venue. Those perceived rights are benefits of a free market society. We have convinced ourselves in this consumer society we have created that if someone doesn't have what I want when I want it, then I am the victim.

And that is what I have seen in these current battles. The rights of a couple to have insurance coverage is a necessity. The rights of a couple to have a particular florist do their arrangements is trivial. As a pastor, I have seen too many instances where weddings are of higher priority than the marriage that will follow. I have had to fight against cultural standards of what a wedding is about to clearly inform the couple what a wedding accomplishes in a church setting. When the bride is more important than God who has institutionalized marriage (for Christians), then I have a problem with weddings. It is my bias.

I want to believe that good will come of this. I want to believe that all Americans will receive equal treatment under the laws of this land. But I cannot support cases where personal choices in a free market society are not met. I cannot argue for civil rights when civil discourse is abandoned. And if violence of word and spirit, by either side, is used and justified, then you are only damaging your cause and those you claim to support.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Onward Christian Soldiers...

Part one of the series:Religious freedom in the midst of the Culture Wars

Part two of the series:Culture Wars....and the politicians and media.

I have been a Christian since I was 7 or 8. I remember my first experience of accepting the Lordship of Jesus Christ. I remember sitting in church and Sunday School listening to the lessons of what the Bible says and is about. I remember reading the Bible, finding its messages for myself. And in all of that, I came to believe the Bible to be an authority in my life. Its words I have allowed to speak into my life. I make the best attempt possible to transform those words into a lifestyle. I don't make the best example of what the scriptures say at all times of my life. I am called to account for bad choices and I hold myself to account for bad choices. 


And to those Christians who have chosen to represent the Church in a stance against gays, I want to hold you to account for your choices.


Let me begin with a point of clarification. See the big "C" in that previous sentence? That "C" does not represent a building in a community or even the gathered members in a place in community. It does not represent a larger body of connected communities (some may call it a denomination or some other word). It doesn't even represent the groups of bodies that form faith traditions. When I use that big "C", it represents one thing: the entire body of Christ gathered under the name of Jesus the Christ. It represents anyone who calls upon the name of the one we believe to be raised from the dead and have sworn allegiance to as our king. There are no lines that separate in the big "C". Just because I happen to be (and love being) United Methodist, when I talk about being a part of the big "C" I mean people of all forms of Christian belief. 


And on behalf of a considerable number of my fellow big "C" sisters and brothers, I want to say that you do not speak for the Church when you stand against gays because of your religious beliefs or convictions. Some of us have a different understanding of how we are to treat people. And our understanding of that behavior is just as biblical as your "right" to refuse to serve them.


I know the line of "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching". It is brought up just about every 4 years. Around General Conference time for us United Methodists, it is just as common a refrain as "Happy Holidays" around November/December. I don't need anyone to point out the passages that "clearly" say that God is against homosexuals. First, because those passages are only slightly less reprinted everywhere than John 3:16 during football season. And second, if those passages were so clearly understandable, then we wouldn't have trees by the thousands being killed to "explain" them.


At the risk of being treated to the same effort to "explain" my use of scriptures, I want to present my (and I don't think I'm alone on this) biblical understanding for how I treat gays and anyone else that so many in churches consider undesirable.


1. Let's start with the Sermon on the Mountain (Matthew 5-7). I am kind of simple when it comes to some things. When the Bible says that Jesus said these things, I believe that a craftsman born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, and impelled by God's Spirit said these things to a crowd of people a little less than 2,000 years ago. And because I'm so simple, I think he meant what he said. And because, maybe I am too simple, these words are preserved, then I am supposed to take his words and try my best to be an example of them in my life today.


There are those quaint phrases that Jesus begins with that many of us call the Beattitudes. When I read them, I hear Jesus saying that the people who suffer the most, God is on their side. And in this age and in this nation, there are people who are suffering. We may want to sweep them aside with simple platitudes. We may want to give them some "charity" and forget them. But God wants something to be done for them. The prophets of the Old Testament called upon God's people to DO something about those who suffer, not BELIEVE something or DEFEND those beliefs. 


The next paragraph after those quaint sayings tells the people that they are salt to flavor the world and light for all to see. And the way that we flavor the world and shine light for others to see is through the good works that we do. Who do you suppose would benefit the most from our good works? If the prophets were faithful to God's message, then I see that those who suffer receive the benefit of what we do.


Or what about what Jesus says about reconciling ourselves to others before we worship? Or about not taking into account the harm (perceived or real) done to us by others? Or the impossible thing Jesus says about loving people who would seek to do us harm? Then Chapter 6 has Jesus telling us that we are not to do good things just to be noticed. The things that we do as a devotion to God are their own reward. Finally Jesus gets to the heart of this message for the current subject: stop judging others.


I know what some of you are thinking. "Oh, he's a liberal." Let me ask you to stop and think for one minute about that. The fundamentalist argument is that liberals don't take scripture literally. I represented quite literally what was in Matthew 5-7. I stated that I believe a real, living Jesus of Nazareth said those things. And I hope I made it clear that I believe that Jesus meant it then and it means something now. If that makes me a liberal, then you have chosen to say "Jesus really didn't say those things."


2. Did you know that Jesus didn't follow his own teaching? Going back to the Sermon on the Mountain, I want to prove that point in a couple of ways. Jesus condemns the act of adultery in 5:27-30. Jesus even goes so far as to expand it from adultery to lusting. And the judgment for those that do so: cut off the offending member. Then in 7:6, Jesus uses the phrase, "don't give the sacred to dogs." Both of these are clear. Neither of these can be misunderstood. But Jesus does.


In John chapter 4 and chapter 8, Jesus encounters a couple of women who, we may judge her as, have loose morals. One has bounced from husband to husband to husband to husband to something less than husband. The other was caught in adultery. Jesus has clearly condemned both lifestyles. But what is his reaction? He receives the woman the well in grace and teaches her. To the woman on the ground deserving of condemnation he says I do not either.


Then in Matthew 15:21-28 Jesus is entreated to heal the daughter of a woman that was not of Jesus' own people. As she gets pushy, Jesus responds to her begging by saying, "It isn't right to take food from the children and throw it to the dogs." That is clearly an echo of the saying regarding the sacred from the sermon. And it is clear that Jesus intends that statement to be the end of this interaction. But Jesus does not leave the woman with nothing. Instead he uses his power and glory to restore the daughter to health.


In all three of these cases, there is clear justification to say that Jesus could have chosen to cut those women off. He would have been completely right in ignoring the woman at the well, in allowing the woman to be stoned, or keeping his healing power for the people of God. But he chose not to. 


3. The Golden Rule. nuff said.


4. When Jesus gets into a conversation about the most important commandment, he follows in a very Jewish custom of summarizing the covenant given to Israel by Moses. His summation, I summarize as, "Love the Lord your God with everything you are." But Jesus pushed it just a little beyond just summing up the second part of the covenant. He filled it with greater meaning. "Love your neighbor as you would show that love to yourself." This is a clear statement. There is no confusing what he means here. If we would use our resources or our energy to show love to ourselves over something, then we are commanded by God to show that SAME love to others.


The way I teach the concept of who we are commanded to love follows this pattern:
We are to love those we join together with in faith community (one another).
We are to love those who are like us and share points of common traits (our neighbor).
We are to love those who are not like us; people of different race, religion, language, traditions, and sexual orientation (read the Good Samaritan story again).
We are to love those who would actively do harm to us either in word or action (our enemies).


Did I forget anyone?


Finally, for anyone who says that we are supposed to help convict sinners of their errors and get them saved, you are wrong in so many ways.


First - we are not equipped, nor called, to be judge and jury of another persons sins. There is only one who can judge the hearts and minds of humanity. And his court will not be in session until some day later when ALL will stand before his judgment seat and give an account for what they have done in this life. And the way I read Jesus' words, if we aren't doing the stuff above, then we better get used to wearing a goat hair coat for a very long time in a very bad place.


Second - it is only after someone gets to know Jesus that convincing and convicting of sin happens. The Holy Spirit works in their life to bring them to a point where they are convinced that something is wrong and there is only once source of healing for that. The Holy Spirit then works with them to bring them to Jesus Christ. We only act as the bailiff in the courtroom, so to speak. If the Judge and the Counselor want the "convicted" to know something or do something, it is our task to lead them there. But it isn't our job to step into those other roles.


Third - the only people we have a right to question their choices are people of faith with whom we have a relationship. I have no right to tell my Baptist clergy they should let women be preachers. I may disagree with that prohibition. But I do not have a right to "correct" their behavior because I disagree with it. If we follow the principle of "I don't agree with your choices therefore I won't support your action" then kiss the ministerial alliances of our communities goodbye. Because my Baptist brothers can declare that just as resolutely about us God-forsaken Methodist who ordain women. 


When we are in a covenant relationship with someone (by merit of Baptism) and we are in voluntary fellowship with one another (by merit of membership vows), we have a duty to hold each other accountable. We have a responsibility to see that we grow and develop one another into more mature Christians. No where in the New Testament instructions to the Church do we see a clear mandate that a church is to abandon holding each other accountable to spiritual development while at the same time criticizing, condemning and chastising those outside of the fellowship.


Fourth - the Church does not have permission to speak into the lives of others anymore. It used to be that the Church had authority to speak into others lives. In a previous day, Christians could change the course of communities by declaring the authority of the Church. But that day is over. The authority of the Church is diminished. We do not have the right to claim a right or wrong way in a secular world. And part of the reason for that lies at the feet of those who have made a mockery of the Church. People who have spoken loud in judgment against the "evils" of this world and then were found to be just as much a participant as those who were railed against.


Fifth  and finally - your perceived religious "rights" do not include your business. There is nothing Christian about capitalism and the free market system. If you choose to do business in the marketplace, then you have to accept that your business is open to people of all kinds of things you may not like. If you don't want to serve a certain kind of people, then close the store front and make yourself a ministry. Give your service only to those whom you feel comfortable doing business with. Keep your activity among only those who are worthy of your gifts and talents. 


Or better yet, consider yourself in ministry where you are, with your shop open. Consider that Jesus went to people who weren't like him and didn't like him and what he stood for. He healed the sick Jews and Romans. He touched the lepers and the children. Consider that maybe God has blessed you with a small (or big) business in order that you can be a witness of the grace and mercy that was shown to you (a sinner). 

Tomorrow I plunge headlong into disaster.