Urgent Waiting and Deafening Silence: A Reflection on Evil and Prayer in the Wake of America's 4th Largest Mass Shooting
In Nathaniel Philbrick’s fascinating history of The Mayflower, telling the story of the community that founded so much of what would become New England, he recounts a haunting scene from December 25, 1620. The Mayflower had made landfall about 6 weeks earlier, but it had taken until now to decide to begin establishing their home at Plymouth. These Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas, they saw such religious celebrations as “profane,” not celebrating God’s gifts, but rather as a “distortion of the true word of Christ.” So December 25, 1620 was celebrated in their community for only one reason: it was the day the Pilgrims erected a frame for their first house in the New World. But this celebration was not an entirely joyous one. They would soon have shelter from the bitter cold outside, that was good…but they were positioned between the monstrous sea and an entire continent of unknown challenges and terrors. Here’s how Philbrick beautifully tells it:
“What would have astounded a modern sensibility transported back to that Christmas Day in 1620 was the absolute quiet of the scene. Save for the gurgling of [the brook], the lap of waves against the shore, and the wind in the bare winter branches, everything was silent as they listened and waited. The Pilgrim’s intensely felt spiritual lives did not prevent them from believing in witches and warlocks and living with the constant fear that Satan and his minions were out there, conspiring against them. It was a fear that must have been difficult to contain as they stared into the deepest gloom of the American night (p. 81).”
This scene helps us to identify a particular tension that all people of faith maintain within them: we believe in God’s steadfast love…AND…we know there is evil—danger, tragedy, injustice, suffering—in the world. How do we resolve this tension? Through prayer. Prayer can serve many purposes in the life of a Person of Faith: It can serve as a way of connecting and communicating with the Divine. It can be a way of centering ourselves to live through our days with intention and purpose. It can be a way of recharging our own emotional and spiritual batteries during times of trial. We believe that prayer does, at times, have the mysterious ability to empower God to heal and work wonders in our physical world, and we are implored to find a way of “praying without ceasing,” in all we do awake or asleep. Prayer is also our practice for managing the tension between our greatest hopes and our deepest fears. Prayer can be a time of urgent waiting….a time of deafening silence.
The Pilgrims—the traditional exemplars of what it means to be an American Christian, pushing through an unrelenting winter in an unexplored world, specifically because they believed God wanted them to do it—did not believe blindly in their success. They were forced by their circumstances—which included landing in the wrong place, lacking basic resources like food and water, violent run-ins with Native Peoples, the death of half of their community in the first months of their journey, and one of the coldest winters in North American history—to confront the distinct possibility that they would not be successful in establishing God’s Community…that evil would befall them.
Flash forward nearly 400 years, and we find ourselves in a similar…yet wholly different tension. We believe that God is steadfast and loving, that God has blessed the United States of America, particularly, with abundant gifts and graces, a beacon of freedom and hope to the entire world…AND…according to an organization called Every Town for Gun Safety, on average 93 Americans are killed with guns…every day. That’s at least 33,945 people a year…and the number is rising. The first mass shooting I was ever made aware of, the shooting at Columbine High School in the spring of 1998, is no longer in the Top 10 Deadliest Mass Shootings in Modern American History. 2 of the largest have happened in just the last 6 weeks.
We believe prayer can serve many functions in our lives. Especially when we don't know what to be afraid of...when we have no idea what evils may be lurking in the dark...prayer can be a wonderful way of addressing our fears, our anxieties, our sadness.
What prayer is not, however, is a legitimate solution to clear, present, and persistent evil in the world. Prayer is an appropriate way of supporting a victim of gunfire…it is NOT a method for preventing further gun violence in the future. To use our example of the Pilgrims…prayer was a profound and necessary response to the unknown dangers that lurked outside their door on that Christmas Day. Prayer could remind them who they were, who they believed God to be, it could strengthen their spiritual resolve and give them appropriate ways to name their anxiety and terror in the comfort of community. But the Pilgrims knew that no amount of prayer would result in God coming to build their house for them, or to find food and water for them, or protect them from violent confrontations, or save them from frostbite. For all their faults—and, from my perspective, they had many—the Pilgrims were at least realistic believers. They knew the difference between what they hoped God could and would do…and what they had to do for themselves. They knew that even their most devout, heart-felt prayers were primarily serving the purpose of managing the tension between their greatest hopes and their deepest fears. Deafening silence that might move God to act…but, more importantly, spurred them to take advantage of every gift, every moment, God had already given them.
That is the tradition in which we stand: God grants us the ability to envision a brighter and better world…AND we have to do our part to construct that world. No amount of prayer will enable God to do it for us. That’s not how it works. Moments of silence and endless prayers are not respectful of those who have been gunned down while trying to live their lives…they are, more than likely, contributions to the circumstances that led to those deaths in the first place.
As we can learn from the Ancestors of our Faith: We can hope for God to do God’s part…but we are Covenant Partners with God. God can only do what God can do, when or IF God’s People are doing all we can do too.
It’s entirely possible that you, your children, or someone else close to you is living with immense fear. Fear of what might happen if you go to the supermarket…or the movies…or a concert…or church…when there just happens to be someone with a gun—statistically speaking, it will be a white American male—who has decided to wreak unspeakable evil upon you.
I know I live with that fear every day.
I don’t believe that God desires a life of such terror for any of us…but especially not for our children.
So today, I am rededicating myself to prayer…to the conviction that God is, ultimately, the only one in charge of the universe.
And while I’m entrusting God with the duties of maintaing the universe…letting go of all the unknown and uncertain evil that I trust God confronts for me every single day….stuff that will never even be on my radar screen…I also feel called to do real, big, difficult work to confront the dangers and evil that is all too easy to identify. The least I can do is begin working, in whatever ways I can, to confront and dismantle evil at work in the world, in our community, in my life.
And I will pray that God leads me to partners with whom I can do this work.
I leave you for today with a prayer that continues to be a great source of comfort…and a much needed instigator for action in my own life:
Holy God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.