Where Is Your Hand?

Jesus with his hand on a gun or on our shoulder? I am not easily offended, but when I saw the clip from Saturday Night Lives February 16th TV show, I was shocked. I encourage you to take a look, but be warned: it is graphic and disturbing.

Saturday Night Live – DJesus Uncrossed

Christoph Waltz hosted SNL that night. He is the star of the two recent Quentin Tarantino movie hits Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained and winner of an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor in last night’s Academy Awards. Both movies are what could be called historical fantasy, movies that fancifully right historical wrongs. Tarantino avenges the Holocaust in Inglourious Basterds, and in Django Unchained he corrects the grave injustice of slavery.

The SNL crew decided to film a “trailer” for a third movie in this “rewriting of history,” calling it DJesus Uncrossed.

In the trailer Jesus is pictured as bursting out of his grave on Easter Sunday with the cross strapped to his back, the crown of thorns on his head, and a double barreled assault rifle in his hands. The difference is that it’s not soldiers or former slaves who are exacting vengeance. It’s Jesus.

DJesus Uncrossed SNL

“He’s risen from the dead…and he’s preaching anything but forgiveness,” says the announcer as Christoph Waltz, dressed as Jesus, kills a number of Romans with a sword.

The “movie” also features “Brad Pitt” as St. Peter, who recruits apostles to help Jesus in the violent effort. “I need me eleven apostles. We’re going to be doing one thing, and one thing only: killing Romans,” says Peter in imitation of Pitt’s speech from Inglourious Basterds. “The Roman will be disgusted by us, the Roman will talk about us, and the Roman will fear us. Each one of you owes me 100 Roman scalps!”

“Samuel L. Jackson” appears as Judas Iscariot, along with “Ving Rhames” as Pontius Pilate.

At the end of the clip Jesus (Waltz) says to Judas while pointing a large gun at him, “When you get to heaven, say hi to my Dad.”

After riddling Judas with bullets he proclaims, “No more Mr. Nice Jesus.”

Of course, if you haven’t seen the other two movies and know nothing about Tarantino’s historical fantasies, seeing this “movie trailer” out of context seems sacrilegious and makes little sense. The very thought of someone making a movie about the resurrected Jesus seeking divine retribution on those who killed him is contrary to everything that Christianity is about.

If anything, DJesus Uncrossed prompts us to think about how we live out our faith. DJesus Uncrossed is actually a fascinating parody about Lent and Easter as well as about the teachings of Jesus, because everything shown in this two minute trailer is antithetical to who Jesus was and who we are called to be. Jesus’ hand is not on a gun, it’s on our shoulder. Where is your hand?

When I spent a week at the ecumenical Christian community of Taize, France, twelve years ago, I found the large Church of Reconciliation filled with icons. Meditating on an icon became a helpful tool to connect with God.

The word for “icon” in Greek is eikon, which means “image.” In Colossians 1:15, Paul refers to Jesus as the image of the invisible God. In its diminutive form, eikon also means “portrait.” Jesus is the portrait of God. The earliest icons were pictorial images of Christ, portraits of God, if you will. The purpose of an icon is to represent Christ in such a way that something of the invisible God is made known to us.

Christ and Mena

One particular icon caught my attention. Christ and Mena is one of the oldest icons in the world, dating from the seventh century. Discovered buried in the sand in Egypt in the nineteenth century, Christ and Mena hangs today in the Louvre.

In the icon, Jesus is on the right standing next to Abbot Mena who was the superior of the monastery of Bawit in Egypt. After Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 313 A.D., Christians desiring to imitate Jesus left Roman society to isolate themselves in huts, tombs, caves, and holes. Egypt became the cradle of Christian monasticism

At Taize, this icon is called Christ and the Believer because it is easy to imagine that Abbot Mena represents any disciple. Jesus has his right arm around Mena’s shoulder in a simple gesture of love and friendship. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “I’m with you, friend. I love you. You can do it. I have your back. Go for it!”

Jesus holds the scriptures and Mena grasps a small scroll, perhaps demonstrating that a little bit of understanding is enough to go forward with Christ. Jesus and Mena both have halos, signifying that Jesus communicates holiness to the disciples, but Jesus’ halo has a cross. While Jesus’ mouth is closed, Mena’s mouth is open. Perhaps he is bearing witness to Christ.

Most interesting is that both Jesus and the believer are facing the same direction. They are not looking at each other. At Taize, the brothers and the congregation also face in the same direction. This is intentional. It’s a statement that we are all looking in a common direction – inward into the mystery of God and outward in service to the world. A replica of Christ and the Believer sits next to my meditation chair at home. It’s a reminder that Jesus walks beside me every day with his hand on my shoulder. But it also asks the question, “Where is your hand?”

Jesus with his hand on a gun or Jesus with a hand on our shoulder? Both Jesuses are touching objects with their hands, but one carries a weapon of death and the other offers a healing touch. Both Jesuses carry crosses, but one uses the cross as an opportunity for revenge and the other bears the cross as a symbol of a suffering servant. Both Jesuses harken back to historical wrongs, but one models violence while the other shows only mercy. Both are icons, one deliberately portraying a “No More Mr. Nice Jesus” who lives and dies by the sword and the other revealing the true character of the God who fights injustice with love. And both Jesuses teach us, asking us to look into our own hearts and wrestle with our faith.

In the end, DJesus Uncrossed and Christ and the Believer reveal a portrait of ourselves as much as they reveal or parody the living God. Where is your hand? Which Jesus will we follow? Do our hands hold the guns of destroying community, holding on to bitterness, clutching our golden calves, or taking out those who “cross us”? Or are our hands gently touching the spirits of the very least of God’s children with encouragement, hope, grace, and servanthood?

The truth is that every day you and I struggle with our thoughts, words, and actions. Some days we are icons, portraits of God. Other days we are “No More Mr. Nice Jesus” and do violence to others. During this Lenten season my prayer is that as Jesus walks beside us, hand on our shoulder, he will empower us to go the extra mile, forgive the unforgivable, witness to the unending love of God in Jesus Christ, and place our hand on the shoulders of others.

Lord, come be near us today.
Lord, keep your hand on our shoulders.
Lord, when we are tested, stay beside us.
Lord, may we be your portraits of love.
Lord, place our hands on the shoulders of others.



Bless all the Dear Children

Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Every Christmas Eve we sing “Away in a Manger,” and for the past 30 years I’ve cried whenever we get to stanza 3.  I can’t get through it.  There is nothing more important in our world than the nurture, care, and security of children.

That’s why I’m grieving, I’m sad, I’m angry, and I’m determined.  Like the rest of our country, I am grieving the deaths of 20 first-graders and 7 adults from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, who were gunned down by 20-year-old Adam Lanza.  Lanza’s own mother was the first victim.  I can’t comprehend how such a horrific tragedy could happen in an ordinary town that has always been a safe place for children and families to live.

Millions of people the world over have gathered to pray for the families of the victims, those who survived, and first-responders.  This is the worst mass murder since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and is the latest in a string of multiple killings this year.

Since we are in the season of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, the Massacre of the Innocents comes to mind.  King Herod ordered all the boy babies under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed in the hope of snuffing out the life of the child Jesus, a competing “King of the Jews.”  Matthew’s quotation of the prophet Jeremiah, referencing the killing of these babies, rings true today, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

I still remember the Bible story book my mother read to me as a child.  Every Christmas story about Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ birth in a manger, the wise men, and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is fresh in my mind.  I remember nothing, however, about the Massacre of the Innocents and am grateful that my mother spared me that gruesome story, which I didn’t need to hear as a little kid.

I’m also blessed that my mother and father were able to give me a safe childhood.  They were excellent parents, and I wish that same kind of secure upbringing for all children in this world.  But I now know there was also a lot of luck involved, for the world can be a scary place, and even the best of parents cannot always protect their children.  That’s why I grieve.  I grieve for the lives that could have been and for those who are suffering through this unthinkable tragedy.  Be near them, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay.

I’m not just grieving, I’m sad.  I’m sad because of the destructive ways in which human beings choose to abuse and hurt other people.  God created each one of us with free will, which means that God will not stand in the way of the decisions we make.  Because we are not robots we can choose evil over good, but we also bear the responsibility for our decision-making.

Sometimes I wish God would just intervene and stop this madness, but that is not God’s way.  God wants us to follow the ways of Jesus, to do good rather than harm.  How God must suffer, then, when we freely choose to hurt and kill one another.

God yearns for us to imitate Christ in our thoughts, words, and actions, but God will never force the heart.  God goes so far as to invite us to be God’s representatives on this earth.  It’s up to us to create a world of peace, mutual understanding, respect, and inclusivity.  I am awestruck by the millions of acts of kindness that take place every day in our world.  They far overshadow the mass killings.

I am also sad for Adam Lanza, for his tortuous life that prompted him to inflict such evil.  I am sad when people with mental illnesses don’t receive the help they need to live with joy and fulfillment, and I’m sad when we label other people and don’t reach out to those on the fringes.  God loved Adam Lanza, too.  Close by them forever, and love them I pray.

I am not just grieving and sad, I am angry.  It’s a righteous indignation that some Christians are using this mass killing as an opportunity to promote a religious/political agenda that has nothing to do with the tragedy and defies God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was asked on Fox Live how God could let this tragedy happen, and he responded, “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools.  Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? …  Maybe we ought to let Him in on the front end, and we wouldn’t have to call Him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.”

Huckabee’s pronouncement mocks the amazing effort and skills of our public school educators and administrators to teach character as well as academics.  It also disregards the reality that government-mandated school prayer is unconstitutional for good reason.  But the greatest travesty is that Huckabee assumes God was not present during the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.  God is always there in the moments of our greatest need.

Equally distressing were the comments made by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association on his radio program last Friday, “You know, the question is going to come up, where was God? …  God is not going to go where He’s not wanted…  No, we have spent 50 years telling God to get lost…  ‘We don’t want You in our schools’…  We’ve kicked God out of our public school system.  And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect children, but you gotta invite me back into your world first.  I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted.  I am a gentleman.’”

Such declarations remake God into the image of a small, mean, and vindictive deity who refuses to protect children, and that image has nothing to do with what we know about God in Jesus Christ.  God does not duck out because God is “not wanted” or “offended.”  Rather, we see in our scriptures a God who never causes brokenness and evil and comes to us even when we turn away.  Moreover, in Jesus’ crucifixion we see God’s willingness to suffer the very pain and evil that afflict us.  For God is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Our Christian beliefs affirm that God was there with the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings.  Jesus was the very first responder last Friday, giving courage and comfort to the children and teachers and cradling those who were shot in God’s eternal arms.  Bless all the dear children in thy tender care.     

I am not just grieving, sad, and angry.  I am determined.  Enough is enough.  We must put an end to our love affair with guns in this country.  Why is it that my daughter’s friends who live in other countries tell her, “We don’t want to live in the United States because everyone has access to guns.  Why is everyone allowed to have a gun?”  At a Taize prayer service on Saturday night, someone mentioned that a friend stationed in Afghanistan posted on Facebook, “Why is it that I am safer in Afghanistan than you are in the United States?”

In many parts of the country the predominant culture is not sports, music, or technology, but guns.  There are an estimated 300 million guns in our country.  Connecticut’s “Gun Valley” is the birthplace of the U.S. firearms industry.  Ironically, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the second largest gun lobby in the U.S. after the National Rifle Association, is located in Newtown, just 3 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In another odd twist, the Michigan legislature approved Senate Bill 59 last Thursday, the day before the mass shooting.  This bill would allow concealed weapons in formerly off-limit places such as schools, day care centers, stadiums, hospitals, and churches.  The bill is waiting for Governor Rick Snyder’s signature.

Many churches have declared themselves gun-free zones, including the West Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church.  If our churches are indeed sanctuaries, what place do guns have in our buildings?  Are there any sacred and safe places left?  We are called to bring in the kingdom of God not with violence but with shalom, grace, hope, and forgiveness.  And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Could this be the tipping point?  What are we willing to give up in our country so that all people can live in safety?  I am determined to advocate not only for gun-free churches and schools but for common sense regulations that do not permit ordinary citizens to own assault weapons that can kill dozens of people in a few minutes.

We have just one world, just as 20 sets of parents in Newtown, Connecticut had just one first-grade child.  Do we have the courage and the will to put our children above our guns?  Are we fit for heaven – and for earth?


P.S. The next “Leading from the Heart” will be published on December 31.  May the angel’s song be yours as well this Christmas and always.


Forty Years Later, Still Living in Hope

“Happy 40th anniversary!  This date in 1972 was a Thursday.  You gave the valedictory address at 7:30 in the evening, and I have a picture of you in the line as we walked out to the chairs on the football field.  You were looking pensive.  I was goofing around behind you.”  I received that email on June 8 from a high school friend while I was sitting in a plenary session at the West Michigan Annual Conference.  I was taken aback, having completely forgotten the anniversary.

A week ago I was rearranging the basement when I stumbled upon a box labeled “Laurie senior year in high school.”  Intrigued, I removed the tape from a box that hadn’t been touched in 40 years and began reliving my past.  It was fascinating to discover that what I chose to keep reflects interests and values that continue to shape and form me today.

  • Dozens of newspaper clippings and box scores, many related to the field hockey and basketball teams in which I participated
  • My hockey cleats
  • A letter from the local bank, giving me a $25 scholarship
  • Report cards (my biggest regret: why didn’t anyone require me to take typing?)
  • Church bulletins and concerts where I played the organ
  • The worship service from a 24 hour prayer vigil for the Vietnam War
  • Clippings from a life-changing experience with Mennonite Disaster Service, assisting flood victims in Wilkesbarre, PA after Hurricane Agnes
  • A pin that said “War is not healthy for children and other living things”
  • Information from several colleges that I visited in the fall of my senior year

My passions as a teenager were sports, books, writing, music, church, and peace and justice.  Not much has changed over the years.  My biggest find, however, was four handwritten rough drafts and a final manual typewriter copy of my speech on graduation night, “Living in Hope.”

“Are you living in hope?  Are you looking to the future with anticipation or dread?  Are you able to endure the trials of the present because of a confidence in the future, or are you so weighed down by earthly problems that life promises nothing anymore?” 

Could have been written today.                                                    

“Unfortunately, life has no meaning for many people, for they have nothing left to believe in; nothing to comfort and reassure them; no life preserver to cling to.  They see no reason to continue their struggle in life because they are sure that the future will bring nothing but more problems.  For other people, however, hope sustains life, for hope is a faith in the future.  The kind of hope I am talking about is not a craving for material possessions, nor is it a blind optimism which sees only a world of roses.”

I’ve always been a serious person.  No humor in this speech!

“Hope recognizes the inevitable suffering of man but elevates him to a level where he can realistically cope with life and at the same time eagerly await the future.  Hope provides a foothold to grasp for many people who are poor, sick, and lonely.  Hope is, in fact, a will to live….”

Clearly, I had not yet been exposed to inclusive language.

“Hope is naturally directed toward God, for He is the ultimate source of hope.  Only through faith and trust in God can we look to the future with confidence and anticipation.  Hope can give us security in times of loneliness and faith in times of despair.  Hope can free us from the life that binds us and lead us into a new kind of freedom, a freedom in which we know that the future is in God’s hands.” 

Even as a teenager, I took advantage of times when I could witness to my faith.  Probably wouldn’t be allowed at today’s graduations.

“But what do we graduates, who are the future of the world, have to hope for?  The future looks very dim when we talk about the senseless of Vietnam, the tensions in the Middle East, the growing arsenal of nuclear arms, the pollution of our environment, the overwhelming number of college graduates out of work, or such issues as poverty, ignorance, dissension, and prejudice.  It seems that we are living in a sick society for which there is no hope.”

Forty years later, and we’re still lamenting the same problems.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.   

“Many young people, even your own sons and daughters, are speaking out against the corruption and hypocrisy in America.  Contrary to the opinions of many Americans, however, we are demonstrating and protesting out of a genuine concern for America.  The popular folk song, ‘We shall overcome,’ reflects this hope and confidence that we still have in America and the world.…  Although the words do seem a bit idealistic, our hope and willingness to work toward a better life for every man can become a reality.”

Protesting injustice and oppression wherever they present themselves is the responsibility of every Christian as we work together to bring in God’s kingdom of shalom.  

Near the end of the speech, I quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  “I don’t know what will happen to me….  We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it doesn’t matter to me now….  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” 

I graduated from high school just four years after King’s death.  I still remember the pit in my stomach when I heard the news that day.

     “What Martin Luther King Jr. said applies to me as well as to all of you.  Like Mr. King, I don’t know what will happen to me after tonight.  I know that my life will not be all happiness and that I will have to suffer endure much (I changed words at the last minute), but I am able to look beyond today toward a joyous future.  I am not afraid because I am living in hope.”

How could I have ever imagined the truth of this paragraph?  I was just 17 years old: out of the mouths of babes. 

     “We all have great hopes for the future, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the present.  Everyone must do whatever he can to make hope for the future a reality so that all people can live in happiness and peace.”

I had no inkling at the time that this just might have been my first sermon.

The primary difference between the five drafts was the beginning.  Even though I had not received any coaching or help with the speech, I evidently realized how important it was to get off to a good start.

I was also curious that the fourth draft included this sentence, “The old proverb, ‘Where there is life there is hope’ has a much deeper meaning to me if it were turned around and it read, ‘Where there is hope there is life.’”  For some unknown reason it didn’t make the final cut.  I should have kept it in.

I am much older and a little wiser than I was in 1972.  I now know what it is like to feel utterly helpless and subject to circumstances beyond my control.  I know what it is like to offer up my life and my loved ones to God because there is no other option.  I have known deep suffering, intense fear, and existential sadness.

I have also seen the fruit of intense prayer for individuals, nations, and our world.  I know what it is like to ride the crest of the Holy Spirit as it makes all things new.  I’ve seen great and lasting change take place because of the persistent outcry of faithful people who imitate Christ.  Like Martin Luther King Jr., I’ve been to the mountaintop and the thin places and have seen the glory of the Lord.

     Forty years later, I am still living in hope, especially as we enter the season of Advent, for the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  I am still looking beyond today to a joyous future as I do my part to prepare the way of the Lord.  And I still vow to make hope for the future a reality so that all people can live in happiness and peace.  Come, Lord Jesus, come.



P.S.  My 40th high school reunion was last Friday night in Souderton, Pennsylvania.  I chose instead to spend a few days in Florida with my four year old grandson, Ezra, who inspires me by living every second of every day in hope, wonder, and joy.