I was at a conference with over 500 clergy and people of faith in Daytona Beach when I heard about the shootings in Orlando. It was 7:45 a.m. and we were preparing for our closing worship service, where we would hear a powerful sermon by Rev. William Flippin, Jr. on the need for Christians to speak up, even as the anniversary of Miranda loomed large, reminding us of our right to remain silent. A colleague asked me if I could write a prayer that would speak to the situation.
“What situation?” I asked.
“Oh. You don’t know yet,” he said. “There’s been a mass shooting…”
I cried before I knew anything else. Just sat down, with two brothers nearby, and cried. And cussed. And held the pen like a knife as I scribbled a lament.
It was different than other crises in which I’ve been asked to bring an encouraging word. To preach at the funeral of a child. To sit with a family as they absorb bad news. To facilitate a conversation with a group of teenagers who are about to graduate with 3 fewer classmates because of the accident.
This shooting was different in the impact and in the depth within my soul into which I had to reach –to hold onto any sense of calm. I folded my hands when I put down the pen, so that I wouldn’t scratch my arms raw to distract me from the pain within.
This morning, 24 hours later, I woke up to 5 messages from people asking if I would write something. Speak to the situation, they plead. Tell us what you think, what you see, what you feel, they text.
Help us connect to something greater than the horror before us on every channel, they imply.
I understood their need. I have it myself. Last night I read words from Bishop Robert G. Schaefer multiple times because while I was reading his words, it felt like I was standing on solid ground while all around me an earthquake was tearing people apart.
“…Let’s be honest: Church, its time to be clear about honoring and standing up for the basic human rights of the LGBTQ community and reasonable gun control in this country. Come on, who needs to have an automatic weapon? My youngest daughter has connections with one of those who died and another who was wounded. Let the church be clear: Every human being shares in the image of God and therefore shares the same dignity without regard to racial or ethnic distinction, family status, age, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, or differing abilities. Period. This senseless violence must end. Join me in praying for the victims of this atrocity, their families, the family of the shooter, and that justice may at last roll down like waters.”
— Bishop Robert G. Schaefer, Florida-Bahamas Synod, ELCA
I pause to pray. I hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Cry out! What shall I cry?” Isaiah goes on to say that all people are like grass that withers and fades, and I think: that does not need to be restated in this moment.
So I read on, reminding myself that the Word of the Lord is a different thing. The Word of the Lord stands forever. I want to be emboldened by it, but I am numb.
I struggle. I do not know what to write. I choke on more tears. I notice an ache in my jaw from a night of grinding my teeth. I hear again those who have called out to me to write something. I think of how my bishop’s words encouraged me.
I get out my worn bible and open to Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people.”
I think about the people I fondly call ‘mine.’ They are scattered between numerous states and several countries. Many are the ages of those who were killed; almost all of them are engaged in the work of promoting love, negotiating peace, drinking coffee in the wee hours in an effort to stay awake and do the hard work of mercy and justice. I am proud to call them my family, my friends, my sisters and brothers fighting the good fight. I picture myself beside them now.
I want to do my part. Yet the truth is that in this moment, I am a writer without words of my own. Admit it. Write that, I think. And so I do…and it reminds me of this:
I am also a pastor who is both encouraged by and bound to the Word of God that is both letters on a page and yet so much more than letters on a page. I am bound to the Word of God we know as Jesus Christ.
I return to Isaiah, reading farther, finding the words which a dying woman once recited with me even though her doctors reminded me she could not speak. They are the words I clung to on September 12, 2001 as I prepared to address the hungry crowds asking why. They are the same words that I read to my son, as the anesthesiologist started the drip for surgery to save his leg. And they are the same words he found 7 years later on the Peace Wall in Belfast. These words, I admit, I do not fully understand, and yet in them is power I have learned to trust:
“Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.” (NRSV)
I breathe more deeply. And begin to do what I am able to do for those who need me to do it. I walk back into the world, trusting in words not my own. Knowing that while I am the messenger, I am also the one for whom the message was written.
And then I remember the first words I noticed, scrawled on the wall of Ground Zero, just six months after the world trade centers fell:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-burdened…
and I will give you rest.”
— Matthew 28:11