Early Sunday morning, after my morning prayers, I always look at the intercessions of the church for the divine service for that day to add any last minute petitions. As I was doing so yesterday, I saw a news notification for yet another mass shooting, this time in Dayton, Ohio. The day before had been El Paso, Texas. The week before was Gilroy, California.
I’m sad. I’m weary. I’m angry. I’m sickened. How long, O Lord? How long?
The first mass shooting during my tenure as a pastor was Columbine High School, April 20, 1999. Fifteen souls, twenty-four injured. The previous large-scale mass shooting was before my ordination, at a Luby’s diner in Kileen, Texas – twenty-four souls, twenty-seven injured in 1991. There were other incidents in-between those two. Every life is sacred, precious to the Lord, and I don’t wish to discount any of them. Since Columbine, there have been sixteen large-scale mass shootings, including Las Vegas, Nevada, October 1, 2017 that resulted in fifty-nine deaths.
How long, O Lord? How long?
We call these events”tragedies,” and they are tragedies, but that only scratches the surface. The wound goes much deeper. These are tragedies of our community, our humanity, our soul. They are an outrage against our humanity, manifestations of great, dark evil, a glimpse into the hellish Abyss of godless nothingness. The wound runs deep.
I’m neither a sociologist or a psychologist. I have nothing to add about the social or psychological causes of mass violence. We want to know why, to understand at some level why someone would pick up a gun and randomly kill people in a school, a mall, a concert, a synogogue or church. Various factors are raised: gun laws and the easy access to powerful weapons, mental illness, isolation, the breakdown of family, the absence of fathers, the callous disregard for human life, the marginalizing of religion in American life, the hate-filled and divisive rhetoric of our public discourse, our bigotry, hatred, and prejudice, the anonymity of social media that inflames our insecurities and insanities.
All of these are certainly part of the puzzle. There is the deep darkness, the despair and death, that threatens to draw our being into a black hole of darkness and death. Some wander too close to the abyss and the dark forces of evil – the powers, the principalities, the spiritual forces of darkness – suck them into the depths of despair ending in homicide and suicide. This isn’t to shift the blame, but to say that blame is never the solution. We all contend with this darkness within, this condition we call “Sin,” the origin of our hatred, our pride, our arrogance, our lust, our murders, adulteries, greed, anger. We all contend with it, and if we say we don’t, we are kidding ourselves and the truth is not in us.
There is One who came as Light in the darkness, as Life in death – the carpenter, the rabbi, the Lamb, the Shepherd, the Savior. Jesus came to bring shalom – peace – to our warring madness. He came to walk the dark valley of Death, to shepherd our humanity through death to life, to seek and save us in our lostness. He came to be our Sin, and to absorb our sins. He came as humanity to absorb our inhumanity. In return, we beat Him, spit on Him, killed Him. Humanity, we all together, did that. And He took it all, every last blow of the hammer to the nail. He took into His perfect Life, He forgave it and buried it all deep in His grave in order to lift us up out of this present darkness and death to a new way, a new life, a new hope. He raised up our humanity from the depths of Death and He glorified it in the heights of heaven where He reigns over all things and fills all in all.
Where is God? we ask. Where is He when the bullets fly and children cower in fear and people are gunned down where they thought they were safe. Where is He? Why doesn’t He do something? He is there, right here, with us, in our midst, filling all in all with His reconciling, redeeming, raising-up-from-the-dead presence. He doesn’t deflect bullets. He doesn’t supply an invisible shield around the innocent. He doesn’t strike the shooter dead. He covers it all with grace and reconciles all things in His death. Those bullets that pierced so many didn’t stop with their victims. They found their final resting place in the wounds of Jesus and were buried in His hands and feet and side.
The wound is deep, but the wounds of Christ are deeper. Deeper than the darkness and the death. Deeper than our warring madness. Deeper than our Sin. “By His wounds, we are healed.”
Dearly beloved, you may hear people say at times like this, “Cease with your praying! Your prayers don’t amount to anything. We need action.” Please don’t ever stop praying. Pray without ceasing, now more than ever. Pray before you do anything and as you’re doing something. The prayer of a righteous person is precious to God and heard by Him. It is your priestly duty to pray.
Remember that our struggle is not against flesh and blood – our fellow humanity – but against the rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. Our battle is a spiritual one. Yes, there are politics and laws to consider. Yes, there are sociology and psychology to explain. But the deep battle is spiritual, and the only weapon you have, and need, is the Word of God wielded in prayer (Ephesians 6:10-18). Pray in words and in silence.
May the peace of God that surpasses our understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.