Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Death Penalty: Resources for Study

Nebraskans will be voting this fall on whether to retain our current law that abolishes the death penalty in our state. The Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes both Kansas and Nebraska, passed a resolution at our June meeting asking all congregations to study the death penalty.

What follows are some resources that I think would be suitable and helpful for congregations anywhere in the US - not just Nebraska and Kansas.

Christian Reflections on the Death Penalty: Discussion Guide. Published by Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, this four-page discussion guide is found under the “resources” tab on the their website,, or by clicking here:
The discussion guide includes scriptures from both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and provides questions for reflection related to the scriptures, which are grouped into thematic areas, such as “An Eye for an Eye,” “Redemption, Compassion, Mercy,” and “Jesus’ Teaching.” Statements from faith groups on the topic of the Death Penalty and a current fact sheet about the death penalty are also included.
I think this guide could be used as a single-session class, or split into 2-3 sessions if your group is one that enjoys a longer conversation. Because it is available online, it could also be shared via social media on a congregation’s website or facebook page for those who are unable to attend a small group conversation.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson, 2015 Spiegel and Grau (division of Random House). New York Times bestseller, available in paperback, and listed as a “bonus book” in the 2016 United Methodist Women’s reading program list.
    Would you believe I read a book about the death penalty while I was on vacation at the beach? The topic was sobering, but this non-fiction, first-person narrative was so compelling I had a hard time putting it down. While the book is broken into 16 chapters and Stevenson shares about many different cases and many different laws that relate to the death penalty, he weaves the stories together in such a way that I think this book would be best discussed as a whole or perhaps in two sections, allowing for a check-in at the halfway point and then a full discussion after everyone in the group has completed the book.
    I think this is the kind of book that could be shared: as a book review in a Sunday School class, church newsletter or UMW group; in a one- or two-time discussion for people who have already read it or listed to the e-reader version; or as a promoted book for the UMW reading program.
There is another option: the accompanying (Common Core-approved) world’s most thorough book discussion guide, which is found on the author’s website. I regret not finding this until after I had read the book, as I might have benefitted from checking in after each chapter to see the discussion guide overview and related questions.

Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us, by Shane Claiborne, 2016 HarperCollins.    
    I met Shane for the first time when he visited the church I pastor, South Gate UMC, in Lincoln Nebraska on the second day of his book tour for this book. I wondered out loud, “why would he be coming to Nebraska to launch a book tour?” and finally realized that it was on purpose - he’s committed enough to ending the death penalty and current enough on national politics to know that the Nebraska fall ballot initiative is significant for the lives of many. 
     Claiborne's book has 14 chapters, which can be read in order, out of order, or individually. This means it is well-suited for a weekly study group that may have members that are unable to attend every week; a class that plans to focus on just one chapter for one meeting; or for a group that either hears a book review or reads the whole thing and gathers to discuss the book in its entirety. I find this flexibility attractive for local churches, as discussion leaders may be able to focus on a particular chapter that they think would be of the greatest interest to their congregation as a way of introducing the topic (or the book) to a group. 
     The website that goes with the book is found here: and includes a video interview of Shane, a resource page, and other information. A study guide is also available from Harper Collins. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

PokemonGo: Embrace

     Ahhh... PokemonGo. My adventure started Tuesday, July 12th. I was trying to figure out whether South Gate UMC, the church where I am pastor, was a PokeStop, and I quickly realized the only way to find out was to download the game onto my phone and find out for myself. I was in a car, driving a carpool from Lincoln to Wichita, when this realization hit me. 
By Tuesday evening, I was walking on the Wichita riverfront from my hotel to the next hotel over, trying to figure out how to navigate the new-to-me world of Pokemon. Fortunately, a number of other people were out playing and were very willing to help me. "Are you playing PokemonGo?" two young adults called to me. I replied that I was trying to and that I thought I needed help. By the time I reached my destination, three groups of people had taught me the basics of the game. 
      By Sunday, July 17th, I was back at South Gate UMC, and was able to verify for myself that the church is PokeStop, a location where people playing the game can stop to reload on virtual items that are needed for play. Here's what our Stop looks like when players visit.
By Sunday, July 24th, I was leading a Sunday School class for youth, adults, and a 3-year old on the topic of PokemonGo. Why? I had observed people coming to our front yard to play the game, and I will admit I had developed a concern that we might turn into a church version of the cartoon character in the Scooby Doo cartoons who shakes his fist at the heroes and hollers, "you kids get off my lawn with your silly games!" 

Rev Steph's Overview of PokemonGo for the Admittedly Barely Interested:
 1) It's a game. It might be a fad, who knows? For now, it's a game that people are playing, many churches are utilized in the game, and for this reason if you are a pastor or member of a church I think it is a good idea to have at least a minimal knowledge of how the game works. 
a) The game uses mapping, and doesn't really work unless the player is walking around. The basic goal of the player is to capture wild Pokemon (short for Pocket Monsters) by flicking a magic ball at them (this is a swiping motion on a phone screen). 
2) The game uses locations in two ways. 
a) Some locations are PokeStops, where players collect virtual items that they use to play the game. Many, many, churches are PokeStops. So are many sculptures, murals, and historic markers. 
b) Some locations are Gyms, where players "battle" to win control of the location. Some, but not all, churches are Gyms. In the neighborhoods I live, two ice cream shops, two churches, an insurance company and a park are Gyms. 
3) These locations were determined by the game designers, and are left over from another, earlier, game that also used mapping and locations. If you really, really do not want your location to be a PokeStop or Gym, you can use a link on the PokemonGo website to request that it be taken down. In most cases, I think having extra foot traffic at a church is going to be beneficial at best, benign at worst. In our case, the photo of the church that Nintendo displays each time a player visits to gather Pokeballs at our church showcases our worship times. I say, HOORAY! 
4) If you are curious whether your church is a PokeStop or Gym, an easy way to find out is to download the app, register to play and see for yourself. It's free, and if you have trouble figuring out how to play, I promise someone will appear who will be willing to help you. Just last night, a nice young man from Osmond Nebraska helped me figure out how to help capture the gym at Zesto on 11th Street. We also discussed how much he enjoys the UMC he attends in Yankton, SD and he promised to come visit South Gate the next time he is in town on a Sunday morning.
5) You might meet some neighbors while you are out playing. Prior to my Zesto excursion, I headed the opposite direction on 11th street to the neighborhood mural that is the other local Gym. There I met the proprietors of the new helado shop, Letty's. We discussed the importance of quality ice cream popsicles, and after I placed my Flareon at the gym (isn't it cute?) I made my way home while enjoying a banana/nutella ice cream popsicle (only $2, you really should come visit).
6) What's the answer to how to interact with someone who stops by the church to play PokemonGo? 
Do say any of these things:
come back any time!
what level have you reached?
have you picked a team yet? 
I sure am enjoying how many people have been stopping by lately
Are you playing PokemonGo? 

Do not say:
I heard you could get killed playing that game
I hate games
No one ever works any more

I realize PokemonGo is not for everyone. That's fine. I do think that a present reality is that it is a game for some. Because those some are visiting our churches to play, and because some of the active players are members of our congregations and are enjoying playing before and after worship services, I think it is better for those in the church to know the basics of how the game works and be prepared to welcome those who are playing than to not be prepared to welcome them. In the meantime, I'll look forward to seeing you - at the South Gate PokeStop, and at the neighborhood Gym.