Thursday, November 12, 2015

and then I saw the gun...

I live in Texas, but, as others were quick to tell me after I joyfully waltzed into the office with my brand new Texas driver license – it takes more than that to be a Texan. I’m not native and I know, that for however long we may call the Lone Star State home, there are things about it I will never understand.

One of those things is the relationship it seems that my state of residence has with guns. I struggle with it, and here is why:

When I was a teenager, I thought I’d get a job at the local water park for the summer. It seemed glamorous – all of those beautiful, tanned bodies up on lifeguard stands, like summer angels hovering over us mere mortals. I wanted it.

So I went to the local lifeguard class in the early spring, when getting into a bathing suit made no sense with the outdoor temperature, to learn the skills I would need. Now, I’m not a great swimmer. I had never learned real strokes before that day; I basically just moved around enough in the water to keep my head above the water and get where I wanted to go. And don’t ask me about going under water – even now I like to hold my nose rather than attempt the subtle coordination of blowing air out to prevent water from coming in.

But the allure of the lifeguard stand, and the admiration of hundreds of mere swimmers, drew me on.

So I learned the breaststroke and the sidestroke and how to properly kick. It was exhausting. And then came our big test – saving a swimmer struggling in the water. I watched my classmates go one by one – jump in the water, swim quickly to the person, loop your arm under one of their arms, swim with strong, sure strokes back to the side of the pool.

I had it. I knew what to do. I was 16 years old and completely confident in my skills and abilities.

And then it was my turn. My possible drowning victim was a large man; I don’t know how the pairing was determined. I swam to him quickly as he thrashed wildly in the water. I instructed him to be calm. I reassured him that I had him. I attempted to loop my arm under his and across his chest. And then something unexpected happened – in his assumed “panic,” he clung to me like I was a life preserver.

Which I was. But it also meant that he tangled up my arms and legs to the point that I couldn’t swim either. And we both started to go down. I coughed and struggled and tried to shout for him to calm down, but it was over.

I realized I was not a lifeguard. I never wanted to have that terrible responsibility of life or death for another person.

“How does that have anything to do with guns?” you might ask. Well, let me tell you this story then:

When I was in the Air Force Reserve, as a chaplain candidate, we learned about the Geneva Conventions, not that many of our current combat partners abide by these rules of civil warfare, if such a thing has ever existed. One of the provisions that we were taught, especially as chaplains-to-be, was that we were noncombatants, prohibited from bearing arms. This prohibition was meant to ensure us safe passage as representatives of the holy in the midst of horror, so that we could fulfill our commitment to minister to combatants.

To pick up a weapon was to forfeit the possible protection that the international community had established for us.

And I was completely comfortable with that. Now, I’ve never been deployed, sent to the front lines alongside those who bear arms. But, in that moment of training, I was much more content to let my life be possibly taken than to be the one with the horrible decision to make – whether or not to take the life of another.

Blame it on my theology.

God loves all people. We are unutterably precious to God. So much so that God – God’s own self – took on flesh and blood to teach us, show us, feed us, love us, and redeem us. 

Maybe this doesn’t seem as scandalous to us as it once did. After all, we’ve become numb to the Jesus on the cross we see in churches and around some folk’s necks. We can’t fathom the blasphemy it was to suggest that GOD – the all-powerful creator of all, who stands beyond the touch of time and space – would consent to die.

But God did experience death, if only to show us that death is nothing to fear, that even that great mystery is nothing compared with the mystery and majesty of God.

So, if God went to all the trouble for me and for you and for everyone – even the folks who are really nasty and horrible and make really bad choices – who am I to say when they should die?

And that’s what it would feel like to me if I owned a gun. I’m no hunter, although my father was. When he passed away, my uncle took great pains to make sure that all of the children could select a gun from his cabinet for their inheritance. I chose one after looking for my sister’s signals, then gave it to my brother-in-law, who is a hunter.

Since I don’t know guns, I would be a danger to my self and others if I tried to use one. And I honestly believe that trying to fire back in the case of many of these incidents of gun violence we’ve experienced in our country recently would only make matters worse. To tell the baseline truth for me, which I hope you realize doesn’t diminish your truth, I would be perfectly content to surrender all of my rights to own a gun – especially the potently lethal, semi-automatic kind – if we enforced that rule for everyone.

Of course “bad guys” would still want to find ways to have guns, but I would hope that there would be fewer options for them and, eventually, we would be able to limit their supply altogether.

Perhaps that’s naïve of me. I prefer to think it’s hopeful. And here’s why:

Recently I was driving to my church from my home to work a shift at our pumpkin patch. It was midday on a Saturday in October. I was at a light, behind another vehicle, when the light turned green. I waited for a 5-count, but, seeing no move from the other driver that they were planning to go, I gave them a short beep from my horn.

Now, I know horns don’t really have a lot of range of expression. One honk sounds much like another. But I didn’t lay on it. I really try not to be that person. And they went, but slooooowly.

I like to go at least the speed limit, so I changed lanes, from the right lane to the left lane, in order to pass them. I did, glancing over as I passed to see a middle aged woman with a wealth of dark, curling hair driving the slow Honda minivan. And she seemed to have a full load of kids, maybe that’s what was distracting her.

After I passed her, she sped up, passing me, and giving me a clear hand sign to show that she was angry with me. That’s fine. I’m a grown up. Hand signs don’t hurt my feelings so much as tell me something about the maturity of the giver.

After she passed me, I saw her reach down, then sit back up in her seat. One hand was on the wheel….

and then I saw the gun…

It was in her other hand. She slid her hand over the barrel – I would later learn this is called “racking the slide” – and then she put it on the dashboard of her car, just above her steering wheel, within easy reach. It was shiny silver – it caught the light as my mouth dropped in disbelief. 

How many times had my mom told me, “Don’t honk at people. They might have a gun.”

Sure enough. And now the van was slowing down for no reason I could see – no red light, no traffic – so I slowed down, too. No way I was going to get next to her and give her an easy shot. And I grabbed my phone, my hand trembling as I dialed 911.

We continued like that all the way down a main thoroughfare, which has a 40-45mph speed limit. She would speed up, I would speed up. She would slow down, I would slow down. I didn’t want to pass her or get next to her. I described the vehicle to the dispatcher. I told her everything about what I knew had happened.

Finally, the van turned into a gas station and I whizzed by, taking shelter in another parking lot a distance away, to wait for the officer as instructed. Another officer found her and spoke to her.

I was trembling as I waited, tears sneaking down my cheeks as the adrenaline wavered. When I saw the welcome sight of a Frisco police car, the feeling of relief was palpable. Finally! Someone who is trained to use a gun properly, who can protect me from the wild, at-large guns of other people. (I know it’s a function of my social location to feel this way about police officers and I lament that this is the case…)

He took my story, he taught me what to call the handling of the gun, he asked a million questions, prying out details I didn’t even know I had noticed. He went back to his car, while I put my head on my own steering wheel, trying to slow by breathing and soothe my nerves.

He came back and told me these things:
  • The other driver had not committed any crime. It is legal in Texas to carry a gun in your vehicle, whether or not you have a concealed carry license, as long as the weapon is not visible. She was getting a stern talking to about putting her gun in a visible spot. 
  • She had perceived me as a threat since I had honked at her.

I was flabbergasted. I guess if she had actually shot at me, that would have been one thing. But since she had just brandished her weapon, no harm done. She said it had slid out from under her seat, where it was concealed, so she had picked it up to keep it from getting under her pedals.

I’m a pastor. I’m trained to try to understand different perspectives. And I could understand hers. I don’t know how she felt threatened by me, but I can, of course, understand wanting to protect your children and your self.

But imagine the escalation that gun could have meant.

Instead of writing this, I could have been a blip on the evening news – “Local pastor killed in road rage shooting.” Or maybe not, I don’t know if just one person dying makes the news every time. Instead of continuing on to the pumpkin patch, my family could have been receiving a horrible phone call letting them know they were now widowed and motherless.

It scared me, folks. And made me even more set in my truth. There should be civil ways we can speak our truth to one another instead of reaching for a lethal weapon.

So pray for us here in Texas. Pray for those who feel threatened when the conversation turns to changing gun access and pray for those who have experienced gun violence. Pray for the misunderstandings and the underlying fear that poisons the possibility for understanding one another and moving toward the future together. I know it’s nuanced and messy and terribly hard, but I believe it’s worth it!

After all, God loves us all. We might should do the same.

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