A Pastoral Response to the Texas Church Murders
7 November 2017
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor
West Walworth: Zion and East Rochester United Methodist Churches
We are horrified by the events of a gunman in Texas who killed 26 people attending worship on Sunday, November 5, 2017. I broke down and cried when I heard the news.
This event is a topic that quickly rises to the surface when I’m engaged in conversation with members of the parish, friends, and community members. It is the most popular trend right now in social media and network news. There is no end to the opinions of others in response to this tragic act of violence.
A pastoral response is warranted.
1. My first reaction was to think about how to protect the people I love and shepherd. Perhaps we should develop an active shooter plan and have armed guards whenever we gather?
In my experience, first reactions usually result in poor decisions and unexpected outcomes. “Step back and count to ten,” my mother wisely taught me. Subsequently I’ve learned, during that ten-count, pray to God and throw yourself completely at the Lord’s mercy and will.
Watch. Listen. Pray. Ask God for directions.
2. There is great temptation to draw conclusions before all the facts are known, especially if that information supports our own world view. Let us be cautious.
There will be an abundance of facts. Nearly anyone will be able to pick and chose selected facts to support their position. There are an abundance of information sources. We are free to choose the source that best aligns with our beliefs. Both characteristics contribute to the polarization of people and the entrenchment of opinions … in everything from politics to religion, from faith to finance.
The information we choose to believe, the information we choose to ignore, and the source of that information, all contributes to the formation and reinforcement of our subjective belief. It is wise to be humbled by the self awareness that not one of us (present company included) comes from an unbiased, objective, point of view. Each of us are victims of information bias, and contributors to information bias.
Lord, in your mercy!
3. The issue of gun control in America is a non-starter for me. I have dearly beloved family, friends, and parishioners of every opinion and on all sides of this issue. I grew up in a recreational gun culture, but later in life, I lost interest and have removed guns from my home. I’m convinced both sides are so entrenched in their positions that I do not anticipate any movement on the issue in my life time.
I’ve noticed over the years that I begin to tune out the monotone drone of entrenched positions. It is more important to me to watch, listen, and to pray; seeking God’s will for what can be done and what should be done, instead of enflaming division, dividing family and parish, and sacrificing myself in an eternal stalemate.
I see no purpose in debate; there is only an endless cycle of unnecessary pain.
4. Violence is the result of sin. Whether or not one believes in a humanlike Devil incarnate, where there is violence, there is sin.
God’s laws, covenants, and interventions in our world is consistent with a God who loves us, wants the best for us, and desires us to live in perfect peace and harmony in that love.
Sin occurs when we distance ourselves from God, choose not to follow God’s will or ways, and always results in the destruction of relationships between one another and with our God. Broken relationships shouldn’t lead to violence. When they do, it is the result of not knowing the alternatives to violence.
Mental health is often the scapegoat when violent acts are in the news. I’m told that about two thirds of Americans will experience a mental health crisis in their life, at one point or another. A mental health crisis can be a catalyst to violence, but usually is not. A lot of research has been done regarding mental health and violence, and it correlates with my experience: mental health is rarely the cause of violence.
Education is so vitally important to reducing violence in society. I firmly believe the Church has a vital role in educating the world about the ways of God: righteous living, forgiveness and grace, peace and love.
5. I place my trust in God, and make reasonable changes in my life to minimize risks. My faith is in the Lord.
I do not place my faith in a weapon, nor do I idolize it. I do not place my faith in the government hoping they will protect me. Neither do I worship the nation, party, or leaders. I only have one God. I do not place my faith in armed guards or elaborate security systems. Neither will I panic or join the chorus of frustration at partisan gridlock.
Where ever people gather – be it a church, a PTA meeting, or the county fair – there will be an opportunity for people intent on inflicting violence to do so. Life involves risks, and managing them appropriately. It is appropriate to report suspicions to police authorities. It is appropriate to avoid walking alone, at night, in a high crime neighborhood. It is appropriate to lock you doors at night.
Trust in God. Live every day prepared to die, as the Apostle Paul encourages. Take responsibility for reducing and managing the risks that you can control. Leave the rest up to God.
6. Lastly, I see great criticism directed at those who express “thoughts and prayers for those involved.” Such criticism has been especially harsh in social media. It is as if thoughts and prayers are ineffective.
I know prayer is effective! I’ve experienced the power of prayer. I often turn to prayer. And I often guide others in directing their prayers. Prayer does as much for the one targeted by the prayer as it does for the one praying. Prayer places the prayer on holy ground, in God’s presence, and wholly in God’s mercy.
Thoughts represent empathy. Wow, our world could use a lot more empathy; of attempting to place ourselves in the place of another and share their pain. After all, isn’t this what Jesus has done for us?
Thoughts and prayers are powerful, faithful responses to acts of violence. May our thoughts and prayers unite us during difficult times in life, when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. May our thoughts and prayers unite us in faith, to bring strength to all, that no one may falter. May our thoughts and prayers bring comfort to those who mourn. May our thoughts and prayers bring us all closer to God.
Dearly beloved members and friends of my parish, know that God loves you and so do I. Let us be tempered and disciplined in our response to violence. Watch and listen for God’s way forward. Stop and pray for those who suffer. Know that God knows our pain. And know that it is only God in whom we may place our trust.
Let me know if you have any thoughts or concerns.
Ceasing to Be
Colleagues, friends, and acquaintances who have not seen me recently look directly at my face and fail to recognize me. This happens at annual church meetings. My own brother who hadn't seen me in six months walked right past me and failed to recognize me. A friend's wife look at me and asked me directly if anyone had seen Todd. I told her, "I think I'm still me."
I had not forgotten the world. But it feels like much of the world has forgotten me. There is much here for additional reflection.
What happened, and why have I been forgotten?
(Twelve month update)
On June 22, 2016 I underwent an operation that has forever changed my life and faith.
I was morbidly obese, weighing in at 356 pounds, and having lost and regained the same one hundred pounds three times in my life (each time adding an additional 5% to satisfy my primordial metabolism to not starve myself again). My primary care physician had the "come to Jesus" talk with me. I had avoided cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes. I was hypertensive, being treated for sleep apnea, asthma was more frequently flaring, and my frame was crumbling in pain from osteoarthritis. At age 55, my time for dodging the bullet was running out.
The risk of having surgery was now less than the risk of continuing on without doing a thing.
After attending an informational seminar in December 2015, I began in earnest, working with a dietitian in February. The goal was never to lose weight, rather, it was to modify my diet in such a way that my post surgery transition would be much smoother. I followed directions without exception. After an upper G.I. in May and surgical clearance from my primary care physician in June, my surgery date for June 22nd was set. The morning of my surgery, I weighed in at an even 300 pounds.
The day before my surgery I planned my funeral, recognizing the risk that I was taking and grounding my faith with the reality of my physical mortality. My faith is rooted in Jesus Christ, and I was, and remain to this day, prepared for my death.
The surgery was the most difficult experience of my life. The majority of my stomach was removed (https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007435.htm). My intestinal tract was significantly shortened (https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/19500.htm), from approximately 9 meters to about one.
This is not the conventional gastric bipass surgery. My procedure is slowly becoming the gold-standard for bariatric weight loss surgery. I often have to explain the difference.
What this means is that the quantity of food that I ingest is significantly reduced, and, my caloric absorption is greatly limited. Of equal importance, when the stomach was removed, essential nerves were severed that caused my sense of appetite to be erased and my metabolism to be reset. I liken it to my body and my brain having a complete re-boot.
The surgery was like eating a plate of glass shards. It felt like I had thrown my life away. My 5 day hospital stay was agonizing. It took all of my energy to drink one ounce of water every fifteen minutes. There was not enough pain medication.
After getting home, obtaining my goal of drinking 64 ounces of water each day slowly got easier. The surgeon met with me 2 weeks, 4 weeks, and 8 weeks post-op. He and his team have shepherded me though complications that, once, ended me up in the emergency room, but each time has set me back on track to success. I learned that non-compliance is immediate and devastating.
I will always have to focus on getting my fluids in, In addition I now have to ingest 90 or more grams of protein a day and limit my net carbs (Total carbs minus fiber and sugar) to less than 50% of my protein intake. I also have to take numerous vitamins, nutrients, and digestive supplements, which will continue for the rest of my life. Every day feels like a race to meet my goals.
After about two weeks off I slowly returned back to full time work. A year later I tire in the afternoon and often retreat to home or deck to conserve my energy. I've been taken off my blood pressure medication, successfully avoided an asthma attack, and reduced my sleep apnea from 80 episodes/hour down to 12. I endure chronic constipation. 12 months out and my abdomn is still tender. I am very cold and had to wear long underwear throughout the fall, winter, and early spring. Skin hangs on my bones, making me look like a cast member of "The Walking Dead"!
People ask all the time if I've achieved my weight loss goal. I never had a goal, other than to lead a healthy lifestyle and extend my lifespan. My surgeon informed me that, based on his experience, he expected me to progressively lose weight and bottom out between 180 and 200 pounds. I have no control over my weight. I can't absorb more calories to gain weight. The weight loss was completely out of my control. I tell people it was like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, placing my trust entirely in my doctor. The first 7 months the weight loss was quite linear, and filled with anxiety. The last four months of the year after surgery began to show a slowing of weight loss, which greatly eased my fears. If I elect, and receive the appropriate referrals and approvals for skin removal surgeries, I expect an addition amount of weight will come off. In the 12 months following surgery, I went from a size 54 waist to a 36. My entire wardrobe has been turned over and my favorite thrift store has greatly benefited.
I am very thankful for those to stepped in the breech and covered for me during my absence (Lida Merrill, Carol Sierk, and Jim Coleman especially), for the congregations prayers, and for the support of my district superintendents, Ted Anderson and Vonda Fossitt. I have learned that it is okay for a congregation to care for their pastor (so long as it doesn't become chronic), to pray for their pastor, and to seek to support their pastor. Gone are the days of overeating, breads, sweets, and starches. I'm thankful that both of my churches are understanding and supportive.
"Give us this day our daily bread" has taken on a new significance in my life and faith. I am humbly reminded of my transformation every Sunday at the communion table.
Finally, it is important to recognize that this transformation initially left me very focused on myself, which is very unnatural. I'm a caring, outwardly focused individual called to the pastoral ministry. I've spent the past 31 years caring for others. Happily, God is blessing me with a gradual recovery that includes my slow transformation back into the loving, giving pastor God desires me to be.
This journey is not over; not by a long shot. Yet, God is working in grand and powerful ways through the healing of my body and the refreshing of my soul, for which I give thanks.
Got questions? Don't hesitate to ask. I'd love to hear from you.
The World is On Fire
The world is on fire
And many delight in its incineration.
Refugees fleeing war
Fill internment camps.
Mothers feed children with anything that fills a hungry belly.
Fathers fight with weapons and words
Until houses are rubble,
Trenches are filled with corpses,
And life becomes devoid of identity.
Hatred has become its own end.
Blaming others and taking pride in pain
Has become the new winning.
Some of the press have been paid off and bought out.
Others are running around with their hair on fire.
Thinking has become an afterthought
And social media has become the bellows stoking the flames.
Facts become lies
And lies are remanufactured into facts.
Money, votes, and power are the golden calf;
The road to Easy Street
Is always just over the hill or around the next bend.
The alternative is drowning;
Drowning in a sea of broken promises,
Being pulled under by terrifying leviathans
That destroy trust and break relationships.
Salvation is promised but never delivered.
There is little wonder why many feel unsafe,
Beaten, robbed, and left for dead.
When the choice is burning or drowning,
Neither do I understand the hubris of
Crowing like a chicken loaded on a truck headed to the slaughterhouse.
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
The Church is being lured into the fight.
Many Christians feel the need to take a side and dig in.
Some disciples of Jesus are committed to confrontation,
Even if it means smashing the altar,
Pouring communion wine down the drain,
And throwing away the keys to the front door.
Staking a claim for the moral high ground
And using scripture to defend it
Is a two-edge sword
That cuts both ways
Leaving behind hemorrhaging lacerations,
And bled out relics.
Meanwhile, individuals and families
Observe the enculturation of the Church to the burning world
And deem it irrelevant,
Preferring the secular over the sacred.
If making disciples for Jesus Christ is the goal,
We’ve been failing miserably for generations.
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
I feel led to hike a different trail;
To sit on my hands,
Discipline the tongue,
And tame the ego.
If ever there was a time to be still and be quiet it is now.
If ever there was a time to wear sackcloth and ashes it is now.
If ever there was a time to reject and repent it is now.
If ever there was a time to listen for the still small voice of God it is now.
If ever there was a time to be the love of Christ in the world
It is now.
- Todd R. Goddard
23 November 2016
International ministries is about making new friends.
Leading people to Christ is about making new friends.
Loving our neighbors is about making new friends.
See the connection?
I love telling stories, especially stories about making new friends. Read a few of them here, in my new blog, Breaking Yokes:http://breakingyokes.org/
Wisdom About Suffering
In the Aug/Sept/Oct 2014 edition of "Circuit Rider" magazine, Ann Joyner shared this wisdom about suffering she had found from Cornelius Remple, a hospital chaplain:
- Suffering is not given to punish us but is sometimes the consequence of sin or poor judgment.
- Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened.
- God does not depend on human suffering to achieve God's purposes, but through it God's purposes are sometimes achieved.
- Suffering is not always to be avoided at all costs but is sometimes chosen.
- Suffering can either destroy us or add meaning to life.
- The will of God has more to do with how we respond to life than with how life deals with us.
- Suffering is not God's desire for us but occurs in the process of life.
- Suffering is not given in order to teach us something, but through it we learn.
- Suffering is not given to us to teach others something, but through it they may learn.
Good words to ponder.