A response to the Sutherland Springs shooting.
“God, listen to my cry;
pay attention to my prayer!
When my heart is weak,
I cry out to you from the very ends of the earth.
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I am
because you have been my refuge,
a tower of strength in the face of the enemy.
Please let me live in your tent forever!
Please let me take refuge
in the shelter of your wings!” –Psalm 61:1-4
Such has been my prayers of late in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This time, tragedy struck in my childhood home state of Texas…in a small town church…during worship. Friends and family were gathered in the name of Jesus Christ; in the name of God, their refuge and their strength; God of peace, and love, and hope. And they were gunned down dozens at a time. With no remorse. With no mercy.
Friends, I confess that until now I have been unable to respond to this atrocious, murderous act because I have been lost…stuck… in absolute shock…devastated by such evil in our midst. I have had no words to offer, either pastoral or otherwise. I have not had the energy or the will. There have been long moments in prayer where I have said nothing, where I have let my random, nonsensical thoughts and emotions do the talking for me.
Like the Psalmist, my whole being has cried out to God absent any words, “Listen to my prayer, God!! Listen!! I am weak, I am broken, I am lost. What should I do? What should your church do? What can we do in the face of such evil? Lord, be my refuge and my strength. God of peace, and love, and hope.”
I have watched as other pastors have been quick to comfort those who mourn and those who suffer. Some have inferred that this event was some part of God’s divine plan so that God could use it for good. And to that, I say, “then your God has some explaining to do for what is inherently blatant acts of evil and destruction.” If you think this act was God’s plan, then you confess that God is the instigator of such evil or at best knowingly complicit in allowing it to happen. From what I have come to know and believe in Christ, I could never accept that. This act was not of God, but was irrefutably of evil. A theology of God’s divine ‘plan’ holds strength only insofar as it refers to God’s ultimate plan for creation and humanity NOT necessarily for an individual’s ‘destiny.’
But I digress. I don’t want to offer token Scripture verses, empty or hollow promises, or try to spiritualize this tragedy to mask the horror. Evil. Is. Real. I’m not talking about some mystical, mythological devil or some figment of our literary and cinematic imagination. But acts of evil with no rhyme or reason happen, and they have throughout the long history of humanity. They will continue to happen. We are a broken and sinful people.
So what do we do? As Church (individually and together)? Oh I have no doubt the gun lobbyists will call for more guns and more armed citizens, the gun opponents will call for stronger gun regulation, the two will talk past one another, and nothing will happen but bitter, partisan polarization. Some will scapegoat the mentally ill, the political deviant, the religious extremist all looking at who to blame and how to stop it as long as it doesn’t point the finger back at themselves, or threaten the systems we are part of that keep us comfortable, or require much in the way of personal sacrifice. I have no doubt in my mind that there are legislative steps we CAN and SHOULD take to help prevent these kinds of events from happening as frequently as they do. These conversations MUST take place.
But…let’s you and me talk about us, the ordinary everyday people. What can we, the Church, do in the face of such evil aside from political lobbying? I suggest two things that we can do:
First, I am of the camp that believes there is great power in prayer. But the power of prayer is different than what most assume as miraculous, supernatural wish-granting by God. In prayer we encounter and converse with God from which all good comes; from which our very being is given life. We enter into communion with God. When I talk about prayer, I’m not just talking about voiced words of sympathy and comfort absent of relationship with God. You see prayer should shape our lives in Christ, not be magical incantations that we use for healing, wish granting, offering sympathy, or getting our way. Prayer flows from our relationship with God. Prayer inevitably leads to action as our lives are transformed into the image of Christ. Prayer connects people with God and with one another. Draws people together. Opens hearts and minds to listening to one another. Prayer is not a passive, meaningless spiritual discipline that lacks praxis, rather God shapes our action, our vision, our mission as the Church in prayer. That is power of prayer that so often goes unrecognized. Prayer is not an individual act, it is a relational act with God and with others.
Faithful prayer shapes lives and leads to action. So the question this begs is how should we pray? The disciples asked Jesus this question once. And a part of his answer was this: “Our Father, who art in heaven…Your kingdom come. Your will be done…” In all that we ever pray, it is God’s will that we are after. Not ours. God’s ultimate plan for creation, God’s kingdom, is what we long for. Not ours. And God’s kingdom is a vision of COMMUNITY that embodies GRACE.
And so authentic prayer inherently draws disciples together into community; draws us to worship together, to engage God’s Word and participate in God’s table, to live into God’s kingdom here on earth. Authentic prayer builds community centered around God’s grace.
And this leads to the second thing that we can do. The Church has to be the Church of Jesus Christ, not the church of a political party or of a political ideology, or of capitalism, or of nationalism, or of consumerism, or of empty, sympathetic gestures devoid of grace-filled action, or of social obligation, or any other self-centric ideology that we happen to prize. The time of insular ministry solely within church walls needs to end. The church doesn’t need to arm its members, it needs to share the gospel farther and wider with the world. Grace needs to become our modus operandi. The time of discrimination against people because of race, gender, sexual orientation, and any other means needs to be finished. The time of clubbing people over the head with Scripture needs to die.
The time to gather in community together in the name of Jesus Christ regularly and often needs to become the norm, even if in new and unique forms, not because of some sense of duty or obligation but because where people gather together in Christ’s name, God is there to mold us and shape us together. In our gathering together, our lives are shaped by God in community as God works through the community itself. Building and strengthening community, seeing and valuing the image of God in everyone needs to become the norm not the exception to the rule.
The Church needs to model faithful community defined by grace, the very place that authentic prayer leads. More than ever, the Church needs to lead the way with the gospel, with ‘good news’ in the midst of tragedy. Evil should be responded to with an overwhelming outpouring of grace and love that only comes from Christ. Not with violence. Not with meaningless, overly spiritualized platitudes. Not with empty words and hollow sympathy. God’s love is needed outside of our churches and in our communities. I’m not talking about forcing Jesus down the throat of anyone and everyone, but a purposeful self-giving for the sake of others (particularly those we don’t even know) that models the self-giving of Christ is what we need more of. It’s a model our kids should see and mimic; that those in leadership positions should adopt and uphold; that should shape our communities and neighborhoods. It’s God’s story of grace and love that needs to play out more and more and more overshadowing all other narratives of self-centeredness, or evil and destruction. God’s story needs to shape our story together as communities.
The Church needs to be the Church of Jesus Christ!
Will that solve the issue of evil in the world? The answer, sadly, is ‘No.’ Evil will always exist. But shining light in the midst of darkness ALWAYS brings hope to the world; hope that can transform our lives in the midst of tragedy. Hope in community that can even transform the life of one tempted to commit an evil act.
What will congregations do? Buckle down, buy weapons, live in fear, and continue to become more individualistic and less connected at the expense of the community? Or will churches arm themselves with the grace of Jesus Christ, live into God’s kingdom together like there’s a joyous tomorrow, and face down evil with all of God’s heavenly might. Authentic prayer shapes our life together, draws us into community, and reminds us over and over again that we are the Church, the Body of Christ in the world called to embody love in our thoughts and actions, led by the Holy Spirit.
Let’s be the Church of Jesus Christ.
With Grace & Peace,