I had another topic planned for this pastoral letter, but the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton (and so many before these) are weighing heavy on my heart.
At the same time, I find myself tired of reading the endless responses to these horrific acts of violence, which are so mind-numbingly frequent (we have had more mass shootings so far in 2019 than we’ve had days). I wonder if we really need more words?
But simply saying nothing about it doesn’t feel faithful, either. So as your priest, I feel compelled to share a few thoughts about how we can respond faithfully as a church. I pray they will be helpful to you as you process these recent events.
This past weekend’s violence is a manifestation of sins that have always been present in our culture, but fanned into bright flame in the last few years. It seems that everyone feels disrespected and misunderstood, and in our fear of losing what we have, it’s easy to lash out at a ready-made enemy and feel that it’s justified and righteous to do so. In other words, it’s extremely tempting at a time like this to find a scapegoat. Someone to blame for all these horrors.
The problem with this approach is that it keeps the problem “out there.” In that case, the best we can do is offer “thoughts and prayers,” post to our social media accounts, or fight for political change. Of course, none of those things are wrong to do. They are some of the channels we have available to make a difference in times like these.
But if that’s all we do, we keep the problem “out there,” which means we keep any way forward “out there” (i.e. just get rid of the “bad guys,” whoever we deem them to be). In actuality, I believe the problem is “in here,” and because of that, so is the way forward.
Here’s what I mean: This is God’s world, and he is present and active in it. He is setting everything right through his Son Jesus Christ, and we are his church, filled and empowered by his Holy Spirit to be about our Father’s business. Our Bishop Todd Hunter often quotes Dallas Willard to us priests: “Humanity remains God’s project, not ours, and his initiatives are always at work among us.”
This week a friend sent me a quote from Wendell Berry, who said that the big problems we have now won’t be solved with “big solutions,” but rather “by hundreds of people accepting local responsibilities for small problems.” It’s hard to argue with Wendell Berry.
So we have a part to play. There are actions we can take as faithful witnesses to the beautiful Good News that has been unleashed on the world. There is much that could be said about this, but I want to encourage our church to respond in 2 specific (local, small) ways:
The first move for the Christian is almost always to repent. I’ve been reading through Nehemiah and Ezra for the past few weeks, and I’ve been struck by their quickness to identify with and repent on behalf of the sins of Israel (even sins they themselves weren’t personally committing!). We must do the same.
So in the case of the mass shooting in El Paso, we must name the evils of white supremacy and racism, the violent speech that encourages and incites it, and all the ways it has been systemically built in to the way our world operates. But we don’t name it as evil “out there,” but evil “in here.”
Why? Because whatever is being manifested out there is really just a reflection of who we are as a nation, and as the church. Like Ezra, we identify with our people. We say that “our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” We cannot completely untangle ourselves from these sinful, oppressive systems, and thus we are complicit in the white supremacy that has destroyed black and brown bodies for hundreds of years. We are complicit in stoking the antagonisms and scapegoating that shapes young men into mass murderers. We are complicit in the economic systems that crush and exploit young people and contribute to their hopelessness and despair.
The way we begin to cooperate with God in the renewal of all things is to repent. Repentance drains us of our defensiveness and self-sufficiency, and makes space for a new kind of life that only comes from God.
Every week in our Sunday liturgy, we pray for the church and for the world, and on our knees we confess our sins. I’ve found these to be very helpful times to actively do this kind of repentance. Repentance must be more than just vaguely feeling bad about things. It’s an explicit act of speech and body where we admit together that we are culpable and powerless to make things right in our own strength.
I invite you to repent with me and the church this coming Sunday.
Secondly, as followers of Christ, one way we can act is to simply reach out to connect with others.
It’s natural in times of fear and anxiety to protect ourselves, separating ourselves from those who seem strange or different to us. It’s also natural to try and convince people to change their minds about things that are important to us.
But Jesus shows us a different way. Jesus hardly ever tried to convince people of the error of their ways, and he certainly didn’t separate himself from those who were “unclean.”
Instead, he connected with the weak, the vulnerable, the outsiders, the misfits. In other words, he moved toward the people most likely to be scapegoated in his culture.
This is the flip side of our repentance, and how we’ll know if it’s genuine: we will move toward those who we are most tempted to make our enemy.
We can do this because Jesus remains the hope of the world. When darkness and evil was unleashed on Jesus on the cross, instead of reflecting it back on those who inflicted it, he absorbed it completely, triumphing over it in his resurrection. Now he is exalted to the throne of heaven, to fill all things and reign as the world true King. So all earthly authorities are ultimately subject to him. Jesus really is Lord.
So as the church, this gives us confidence to keep doing the quiet, slow work of the kingdom. We are a sign of God’s presence in the world, witnesses of a world that has been transformed by love, a world whose future is the marriage of heaven and earth, where eventually God will be all in all and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.
So, as the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
Don’t be afraid, church! Don’t be afraid to reach out and connect with those who are hurt and angry. Don’t be afraid to grieve with them and feel their pain. Don’t be afraid to confess and repent often. Don’t be afraid to love when you’d rather sneer, to welcome when you’d rather condemn.
Don’t be afraid of what others may say. Don’t be afraid of awkward conversations. Don’t be afraid of being marginalized and misunderstood by the powerful if you stand in solidarity with the weak and vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to speak the truth in love, saying no to violence and hate while letting your heart be broken by it.
Don’t be afraid to wade into the sea of heartache that is our broken world and open your heart, for God is always present and at work, his grace goes ahead of you, and the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.
And also, please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to me or Fr. Matt if you have any questions or concerns or ideas about how we are walking through these things as a church. We want to respond faithfully, and I’m confident that God speaks to his church through his church. I’m deeply thankful for all of you, and all that God is doing in our midst.
Grace and peace,