It has been 11 days since the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 5, All Saints Day. Already the world is moving on. I have been waiting to write this, because I do not want to move on so quickly. I need time to process this loss. Then, on Tuesday of this week, a man killed his wife and four others and attempted to enter an elementary school. Fortunately, the school had a procedure in place which prevented the worst. We are hardly a month past Las Vegas, the deadliest massacre in modern times in our country. In the meantime, there have been scores of public revelations about sexual harassment and assault. There have been terrorist attacks in Somalia, New York, and many other places. There is the potential of military conflict with North Korea. The protests during the national anthem continue to remind us that we still have a lot to talk about when it comes to racism and white supremacy. What is happening, where is God, and how do we respond?
As a priest, I have this unrealistic expectation that at times like this I should have all the right words. I feel pressure to help people understand what has happened in light of our faith. A previous draft of this post tried to do just that in a three point essay, and I have kept some of what I wrote. At the time, I was just focused on the shooting in Texas. I realized, though, along the way (which is why writing can be a helpful process sometimes) that there is so much going on, and what I really need to say is that I am just as overwhelmed by the many sudden shifts in our world as many of you are. There is too much happening too quickly. I do have a sense of hope, though, not because I have the answers or a coherent framework, but because we have a community and a trust (admittedly fragile at times) that God is with us in the midst of all that is happening. So as I hold the hope and struggle with being overwhelmed, I have a few thoughts to share.
Although we seem to be living in unusually chaotic times, we know that there have been periods in history that were also very violent. News travels faster than ever before, so we hear about things more. That may increase the likelihood of persons will evil intent finding boldness and encouragement in the violent actions of others. I do believe that there are “forces of wickedness which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” and we renounce them at our baptism. They have been around since the beginning, so while I am feeling a sense of whiplash at recent events, I have to remember that evil is not new.
I would not call it evil or wicked, but we are still in denial about mental illness. We know that mental illness has played a role in many of these violent attacks. Let me say again that our church is a place about healing. If you or someone you know suffers from mental illness, that is as much a pastoral care concern as the person dying from cancer. But so often, people will not share their suffering and retreat into isolation.
How about isolation? People are engaging less with each other in real life. The ability to hold the world in the palm of our hands may be leading us to ignore the world and the people immediately around us. Isolation is the opposite of community. An attacker, an abuser, anyone who harms another person has isolated themselves in their own narrow perspective. I say that even as I, myself, take periodic breaks to check social media.
How about lack of trust? Steven Covey wrote a book in 2006 called “The Speed of Trust.” Change happens at the speed of trust. If we are slow to trust each other, trust ourselves, trust our institutions, change will be slow. The crises we face are in many ways crises of trust. Again, holding the world in the palm of our hand has made trust more difficult, because we are constantly flooded with news that challenges our trust. Remember that a synonym for “trust” is “faith.” Our faith in God is tied to our faith in each other. At some level, we stop trusting each other because we do not believe that the “other” is a beloved child of God.
So where is God in all this? I do believe that even in the midst of the chaos, God shows up in ways that we will probably never know. I cannot get behind any theology which says these tragedies are in any way part of “God’s plan.” God has a plan for us, and it is that we love each other. I do believe that God’s power of love is strong enough to work through any tragedy. That’s the lesson of the cross and resurrection of Christ. We are not wrong to wonder why God does not do more to stop the madness, especially in a service of worship or when there are innocent children involved. Why God allows bad things to happen is one of the great mysteries. What I try to remember is that God never promised to keep bad things from happening. God promised to be with us, even in the worst, and promised that the worst would never be the end of the story. God also brings us together so that we can support each other.
I hear people saying that they feel guilty that these tragedies have not upset them as much as ones in the past. Some of us are suffering from compassion fatigue, with all we have seen in recent months. There is also such a thing as pathological altruism, caring obsessively to the point that is makes us sick. Neither guilt nor sickness are the way forward. So what do we do? We keep “showing up.”
One of you recently commented to me how touched you were by a funeral service that was held here at St. George’s. Some of the most powerful moments I have experienced in worship have been in funerals. In a time of loss, the Holy Spirit shows up in ways that help us feel that we are not alone and that death is not the end of our story. I have told people that our Sunday worship each week, which might feel optional, is an important practice for the urgent occasions when we need the church to be the church for us. Of course, we do not always consider that Sunday worship may be a time when someone else in the congregation really needs the church to be the church. When we look at it that way, attendance on “ordinary” Sundays seems more crucial. We show up for each other and trust that God shows up for us, even though God may not intervene to stop bad things from happening.
One of the reasons why we offer prayer every weekday at St. George’s is to provide a standing opportunity to show up in prayer. Whenever a stranger has wandered in to pray with us and walked out feeling a sense of grace (this happens often), I am reminded how this can make an impact. It may seem insignificant, but showing up to pray on the ordinary days will make it easier to come together in the crunch times when we really need the church to be the church. Keep praying.
Prayer will also lead us to action. Although I believe in relying on God’s grace, I also agree that faith without works is faith that is lacking. God’s grace saves us, and God’s grace works in us so that we can help each other. In the aftermath of the shootings, the dominant conversation (argument) is about “gun control.” As the church, I believe we can have a bigger conversation about guns and violence, not just whether there need to be tighter restrictions. We can talk about our culture which glorifies violence. We can talk about the domestic abuse which is often somewhere in the background of stories of “lone” attackers. These people are “lone,” because somewhere along the way, they lost their community or their community lost them. We are back to talking about isolation and about trust. As Christians we follow a prince of peace who calls us into community so that we can love each other. Instead of just talking about restricting access to some guns, maybe we can also talk with each other and leaders (instead of in virtual echo chambers) about how we live in community. How does the presence of guns affect our ability to trust?
The Episcopal Bishops Against Gun Violence issued a statement last week which challenges us to pray and to act: http://bishopsagainstgunviolence.org/bishops-united-against-gun-violence-calls-church-to-pray-elected-leaders-to-act. Whether or not we agree with them, I invite us to hear the voices of our church’s bishops (and faith leaders from many traditions) calling us to pray as well as act for the protection of all our fellow citizens. They are our bishops, and their authority is part of what makes us Episcopalians.
If we are serious about our baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being, we will respect the dignity of both the people who want guns for protection as well as the potential victims of guns in the wrong hands. It sounds impossible, I know. What would it look like? We will not know until we start talking about it and seeing where God leads us. My personal view is that the 2nd Amendment does not entitle us to have weapons which can kill dozens of people in a few seconds. But I am willing to listen to my neighbor who says otherwise. While our bishops call us to hold our elected leaders to account, we have to engage our fellow citizens in a genuine way. Maybe we need to start showing up at the gun shows at the Expo Center and invite people to pray with us about this. Talk about getting outside our comfort zone.
It is horrifying to even think that a horrific attack could happen at St. George’s, but we know that it could. The vestry, staff, and ministry leaders (especially ushers) are working to develop a formal plan of how we would respond in the event that someone with malicious intent showed up at our church. I do not want us to go overboard with security measures. Our sense of warm hospitality and welcome will always be a priority. At the same time, there are ways we can be more watchful and prepared. God help us.
I still don’t have the answers I wish I had, so I’ll close with prayer. This prayer for the “future of the human race” is found in our Book of Common Prayer on p. 828. As we talk about attacks and abuse, isolation and community, and the chaotic times in which we live, maybe what we need to talk about are God’s “purposes for the human race,” and “reverence before the mystery of life.”
“O God, you have blessed us and given us dominion over all the earth: Increase our reverence before the mystery of life; and give us new insight into your purposes for the human race, and new wisdom and determination in making provision for its future in accordance with your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
-The Rev. Joe Hensley
Rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church, Fredericksburg, VA